You announced the dissolution of Wellmann’s Brands this summer. What happened there? Well, life changes, pretty much. Some of my partners moved, some had started families. It was time for everybody to move on, and I didn’t want to, so I ended up purchasing Japp’s and Myrtle’s [Punch House].
Will being the sole proprietor change how you drive your vision into your brands? Big time, and that’s my plan. The vision has always been there, and it’s always been partly mine, but I always had input from my other partners. That’s how a partnership works. But now I get to put myself into it, and that I’m very excited about, especially here at Japp’s. Japp’s has always been my baby, and you know, for the last seven, eight years, I’ve always had this incredible vision of it being a place for the people of Cincinnati and their friends and family. So now I get to wholly put that into play.
What can customers look forward to in Japp’s future? Well, first, the knowledge will always be the same here. But we’re going to make it a little more comfortable, putting more comfortable seating in. Just little tweaks and changes to make it a little more user friendly for groups and dates.
So more of an atmosphere change. Right, the drinks are not changing. We’re still going to do the cocktails from the 1700s to the 1950s. We’re still going to give the stories behind the drinks. Stories are a huge part of Japp’s, and the drinks are, too. Being inspired by these old drinks to make new drinks will never change—that’s my passion, that’s everything. I’m so happy to have a platform at Japp’s to do that. It’ll be more cosmetic things. I see a bar as a place for people to come and gather and socialize, like a second living room almost. So it’ll just be an upgrade to the living room.
How do the old and new styles of mixology compare? They’re different and the same. Now we have access to any and every kind of ingredient your brain could ever imagine. Old mixology, they were at the mercy of what was on the steamboat, especially here in Cincinnati. We were a great port town that brought in a lot of materials—especially ingredients for making incredible cocktails. We also had a lot of resources right in our city, a lot of alcohols, but now we have access to anything [online]. I think with that, we can go even further than they could back in the old days.
Were there any famous cocktails that originated in Cincinnati in those times? Of course! There’s actually a really cool book called The Mixicologist, written by [Cincinnati mixologist] Christopher F. Lawlor in the 1890s. There’s one drink in there that I’m obsessed with, and it’s the simplest, stupidest drink ever, but I love the name. It’s called the Splificator. You hear it and you think, Splificator, who made that up? What was he smoking? But the Splificator was basically the first highball. [It] was just a dram of whiskey that you, the customer, would pour yourself, and then the bartender would top it off with Apollinaris water—basically German mineral water—then stirred with maybe a few ice cubes, and then enjoyed. It’s very simple, but that he put it in this cocktail book was huge.
What was the Cincinnati bar scene like in those days? We had a lot of opportunity for drinking in this city back in the old days before Prohibition. In the 1880s, we had more than 1,800 drinking establishments in downtown Cincinnati. Can you imagine? On Vine Street’s gateway quarter, between 12th and 13th [Streets], there were 24 bars on that street. When you think about the old days, all of Over-the-Rhine was for drinking and entertainment, but Vine Street was [especially] the place for drinking. Main Street was more of a shopping district. I love to see what’s happening now, because we still have a lot of dining, we have shopping and everything over on Vine Street. But I love what’s happening here on Main Street. We have a lot of bars coming in. We have a lot of restaurants coming in, like LouVino next door, and we’re really excited for Pins. I love Rosedale around the corner. Everything that’s happening in Pendleton is fantastic, too. But what’s happening on Main Street—I was here eight years ago when nothing was happening. We had [Famous] Neons [Unplugged], and we had Japp’s, and that was it. Now to see all these incredible places, all the things that are happening here on Main Street. It’s just turning this into a space where everyone in Cincinnati can come and enjoy it.
As a business owner, do you see the development as something that will attract more customers to your business? Yes! I don’t see it as competition. You can’t have a successful business and think you’re competing against everybody. A rising tide lifts all boats. It’s so true. I always think about, whenever anybody comes to me and says, What do you think about the competition? I have all these customers, and I send them to Longfellow and Rosedale, and other places. I want them to experience the entire neighborhood, not just my bar.
There’s enough business for everyone. There is. I mean, who goes to the same place every single time? I think it’s important to realize there’s something for everybody, and everybody wants to explore. Give them the best experience, and they’ll come back.
When Neons closed in December 2016 after its lease expired, Wellmann’s Brands said there was a possibility it would return at another location. Yeah, that’s when we had Wellmann’s Brands.
So there’s nothing in the works for a future reincarnation of Neons? I will tell you this: I do like opening bars. I never know what the future holds. I always take it day by day, but I will also tell you that I really love Northern Kentucky, and I love bourbon. And I loved Neons, too. So I don’t know, maybe something will happen, maybe something won’t. I have no idea.
OK, we’ll read between the lines. But I really do have a passion for creating spaces for people to want to come to. So like I said, you just never know. It could happen, it couldn’t happen. I like those things, though.
You’re always out and about working bars at events. How important is it for you to balance being out in the community and being behind your own bars? Both are really important. I love being out in the community. I’ve done it for years, and I think that was a big part of my success. I do so many things for charity events. I also do things I get paid for, but the majority is for charity. I think it’s really important to be involved in the community. And since the profession I’m in calls for me to make drinks, I’m really good at lubing people up to donate money.
That’s a great way to look at it. I really enjoy doing that, and I get to meet so many people, but being back in the bar is really, really important to me. I think you’re going to start seeing that a lot more, [me] being here [at Japp’s], especially. Myrtle’s, too; I love being there, as well. But, like I said, Japp’s is my baby. Myrtle’s is, too—it’s more like my neighborhood bar, and it’s so easy, it’s punch. My passion has always been cocktails and the history behind it, so having a space where I can tell people about that is where I want to be. So I think you’re going to see me a lot more. I have plans to do [public] cocktail events here at Japp’s, like [mixology] classes and bourbon tastings. I’m hoping to plan those for the next year.
What spirits are currently on rotation on your personal bar cart? I always sip on bourbon. Right now I’m sippin’ on Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon, but my go-to is Henry McKenna. I just got this great single-barrel, and I love it. And I have a bottle of Maker’s Mark Cask Strength that I’ve been sippin’ on. So those two, but I love gin—and rum; I’ve been drinking rum lately. I like it all, but bourbon is always going to be one of my go-to favorites.
With the holidays around the corner, what party cocktail do you recommend? Punch! Punch consists of a template of five, and when you have this you can do almost anything. Punch is a Persian [loanword] for “five,” meaning one of each: sweet, sour, spice, water, and spirit. When you have that template, you can make almost any kind of punch. For the holidays, I love the baking spices and bourbon. For my family, I usually do this whiskey-ginger punch that’s so easy. It’s just bourbon, ginger syrup—it’s easy to make, just [reduced] ginger water and sugar—and then lime juice, ginger beer, and nutmeg on top. It’s so good, even people who don’t drink bourbon like it. The other one I like to do is with gin, pomegranate, lemon, wine, and cinnamon.