Society Staff Q&A about the Cleveland Cocktail

Society Lounge staff member Nicolette Capuano gets the inside information from bartender Ben Pettey about his creation Cleveland Cocktail.

What inspired you to make the Cleveland Cocktail and what about it makes it a good representation on Cleveland?

Honestly, one day while looking up cocktail recipes with Chef Spinner I noticed a lot of cocktails named after their places of origin. The cocktails that stood out the most were those from the five boroughs of New York City; Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island cocktails. I wondered why a Cleveland cocktail didn’t exist.

Is Cleveland your hometown?

One of many; I was born here and moved to Madison, Wisconsin at a young age, but spent most of my childhood in the Detroit area. I moved back to Cleveland for school in my early twenties, and then to New York City, and finally found myself back in Cleveland.

Aside from the name, what sets this cocktail apart?

In my opinion, all new cocktails are a take on a classic cocktail. This particular drink organically became a twist on an old fashion. It’s a little bit spicier, a little dirtier looking (think Cuyahoga River) and tastes a bit more festive. Inspired by Cleveland’s own prohibition era history, this cocktail is unique because it is crafted with Canadian whiskey.

If dining, when is the most appropriate time to order one of these bad boys?

Before dinner, during dinner, after dinner… who cares? When is it appropriate to order a Manhattan vs Mojito? If it were a question about pairing, I would say it would be most compatible alongside meat driven dishes consisting of pork, duck, or even Foie Gras.

Do you make your own bitters? Or which do you use?

I do, and for this cocktail we use a house made blend consisting of different styles of orange bitters. It doesn’t really matter which bitters you use, although it is important to note that when using more aromatic style bitters you need to increase the amount of sugar because some bitters are sweeter than others Outside of you house made bitters, we use Reagan’s Orange, Fee Brothers Orange and Angostura Bitters to create our house blend.

Are bitters an acquired taste?

If you were to simply drink straight bitters, the answer would be yes. However, the idea of bitters is to balance out a cocktail so you wouldn’t notice it. Bitters add flavor and some are delicious by themselves. For instance, Angostura Bitters tastes like drinking a shot of Christmas. After work we occasionally do shots of it in place of spirits such as Fernet Branca or whiskey.  At 44% alcohol content, it is intense and packs a lot of spices.

I’ve heard that bitters have medicinal properties. Is this true?

That’s a good question. Bitters are made with lots of herbs, spices, tree barks all of which have beneficial properties that could attribute to a “medicine,” however, my guess is when mixing with alcohol to create it a bitter, most of that would most likely no longer exist, but I could be wrong. Alcohol has long been used to preserve foods and nutrients so it’s quite possible that there are some benefits that come from a bottle of bitters. I will look more into that and find out.

If someone is trying to make bitters for the first time, what’s your recommendation for a good one to begin with?

The first thing I would say is not to recreate a good thing. If there is a brand that figured out the recipe and has been producing it, I’d say just use that. If you want to make a bitter from something new and different, such as a green tea bitters, then by all means try it out. It is important to think about the flavor and decide on the proper spirit to infuse it with. For something like a green tea, I would use a clear base like Everclear, rather than a high prof whiskey or rum because color and flavor are affected by the spirit as well

How long have you worked as a Mixologist/Bartender?

First thing, let’s get this term Mixologist out of the way. Bartenders are bartenders and these drinks have been made for a hundred years by bartenders. Mixology is a fun marketing scheme that I guess separates a dive bar bartender from a craft cocktail bartender, but it’s still bartending at the end of the day. To answer how long I’ve been doing this- I’ve worked in the industry for going on twelve years now.

How did you get into bartending?

I had worked in restaurants or a long time to help with money while going to school, or to pay for my art work. Bartending also became a way to have a career or craft in something that would allow me to find a job anywhere I went. To be honest, I got tired of working as a server or sommelier, and was much more passionate working with food and in the kitchen. Unfortunately, it can be hard to make money working in the kitchen, so bartending is a happy medium between the two.

What are the hottest trends in the mixology world right now? And what do you think the next popular thing will be?

That’s hard to say; trends come and go and there are so many different concepts out there right now. I’d say the incorporation of food and spirits is and will always be the big one, but at Society Lounge our goal is making a consistent cocktail program focusing on the classics while experimenting on new ideas when the time is right.

I hope the next popular trend is to rid our industry of the pretention that comes from so many bartenders. I hate the attitude people manifest when they know how to play around with food or cocktails. We work in hospitality, so let’s be hospitable.

Which trends are on their way out?

Another speakeasy, stop making these! If this concept fits with the place, then by all means run with it! But, I am so tired of seeing these coffee shops or various day time establishments close for the day and have their “secret” bar open to the public during the evening hours. Seeing a line of thirty people at 11pm waiting to get into a bar with a password they don’t know defeats the purpose. It seems a little pretentious to me.

What is the biggest mistake you see being made when it comes to making a cocktail?

The first is being cocky and an a$$hole. The second is when a bartender is making a cocktail with multiple components just measure it out. There is a reason for a jigger, and it not only ensures the cocktail is balanced, but also saves your bar from losing money on over pours. I know for a fact I can free pour, but it adds a lot more room for error to getting it right on the nose. In our bar the difference of a half-ounce to three fourths of an ounce can make a world of difference.

What is your go-to cocktail?

My go to would be a shot of tequila and a Miller High Life. If I had to drink a cocktail I’d probably choose an Aviation, but many could serve it unbalanced, which can be a problem, and when I’m off work I don’t need to have anything special.

What can you tell me about your background with film.

My background in film, graphic design, photography, and art has played a huge part for most of my life. Bartending came to me out of necessity, but I grew to love it. When I moved back from NYC I was working with one of the biggest modern artists there. I was working on a humanitarian piece as their primary editor and videographer. I moved back because art is the major driving force in my life, and I wanted to finish my own works in a less expansive environment.

Do you feel your passion in film parlay into your bartending work?

The two go together like any other form of art, but I guess the biggest thing would be attention to detail.

What inspires you most?

Life, realizing that the more you know the more it is that you don’t know. With that in mind it makes it so every day I strive for something new and different.