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In late 1996, just when a treacly pink juice box known as the Cosmopolitan was beginning to be thought of as the apex of sophistication for Manhattan drinkers—and long before Chicago bartenders were brewing their own bitters and squeezing their own juices—a bar opened in a onetime barbershop and speakeasy on the sleepy edge of Cleveland's residential Tremont neighborhood, and set an impossibly high standard for classic cocktails.
I've certainly not drunk in all of the hallowed temples of neoclassical and interpretive mixology that have opened across the country since then, but I've been to enough to know that The Velvet Tango Room has upheld its commitment to bibulous purity like no other.
To sit at the bar and drink in the fluid grace of the bartenders, who weigh the ingredients for each drink, snapping off eggshell tops, stirring, shaking, and pouring with casual mesmerizing confidence is almost as intoxicating as the cocktails themselves, mixed with house-made bitters, sodas, and a famous red wine reduction in place of sweet vermouth. You can't get a Cosmo there. Owner Paulius Nasvytis once told me he keeps a single bottle of vodka behind the bar for a regular customer—a cop he doesn't want to piss off.
By itself the bar makes Cleveland worth a special trip, but if that's never been in the cards for you, there's a chance to get a little bit of the VTR experience next week. Last month Bar Deville's Brad Bolt and Eric Hay made a two-night stand in Cleveland, and on Monday and Tuesday, Nasvytis and bartenders Carol Grabowski and Julie Friedman will return the favor, mixing VTR classics at DeVille from 7 until 10 PM.
Nasvytis was good enough to send along his menu. If you're serious about cocktails you don't want to miss this.
Dry Daiquiri - A dry and tart Daiquiri, bracing and refreshing. Oronoco, an aged Brazilian rum, gives this cocktail a softer finish with its subtle vanilla notes.
Oronoco Flyer - Introducing the “Flyer”. A family of cocktails developed at the VTR that feature freshly muddled fruits and highlighted with, in this case, Oronoco and St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur.
Rangpur Gimlet - One of the VTR’s more popular cocktails, Tanquerey “Rangpur” gin offers a delicate twist to this old-school classic. Delicate and floral, the exotic flavor of rangpur limes is showcased.
Spicy Chica - A VTR original, our tribute to the post-WW II “tiki bar cocktails” made popular in the 50s and 60s. A spicy combination of Gosling’s rum, Amaretto Di’Sarrono and ginger. A kiss and a bite!
The Ninth Ward - A decidedly tropical twist on a venerable classic. From the “2008 Tales of the Cocktail” event in New Orleans comes Bulleit bourbon delivered in a Creole style.
Whiskey Sour - The classic version. The rich velvety flavor of Maker’s Mark bourbon is showcased with this stalwart cocktail.
Dry Whiskey Sour - Bulleit bourbon, smooth and dry in style, makes for a sophisticated and crisp Whiskey Sour.
Bourbon Daisy - One of the few good things to result from the Prohibition period. Originally, the recipe masked harsh, quickly made whiskey. Rebuilding it using Maker’s Mark bourbon has reintroduced the Daisy to the pantheon of classic cocktails. Smooth . . . and still a bit dangerous.
VTR Manhattan - Our most popular cocktail. A heady combination of Maker’s Mark, our own “vermouth," bitters, and Italian cherries will redefine your characterization of what a Manhattan is.
The Old Fashioned - This esteemed cocktail is made one way at the VTR., and only one way. Maker’s Mark, sugar muddled fruits, bitters, and just a splash of seltzer. As good as it gets.