Food Prowl is a yearlong look at what the city's restaurants have to offer. Each month, food writer Sarah Baker Hansen, and a few guest tasters, will name a new victor in the epic battle of food.
Dan Crowell is a bona fide cocktail expert who works with nearly every bar in the city as a sales manager with Sterling Distribution.
Jill Cockson is a bartender at Lincoln's Wilderness Ridge Country Club who was fresh back from Las Vegas, where she competed in Bombay Sapphire's Most Inspired Bartender Competition. (She didn't place, but said it was a lot of fun.)
Ashley Walters Ingvoldstad, who emailed me out of the blue about this prowl months ago, has been drinking old fashioneds for 14 years. She also happens to have a Master of Mixology degree from Harvard University. She's got an undergraduate degree in biology from Harvard, too, if the mixology thing isn't enough. Of course, for this prowl, it was.
And then there's my husband, Matthew Hansen, who asked in January to be a judge. To put it simply, he loves an Old-Fashioned, and we're married.
Ashley was torn, she said, between the Grey Plume, a classic "all the way around," and the Boiler Room. She cast her final vote for the Boiler Room, though, because it hit a chord for her.
"It's just the more old-fashioned Old-Fashioned," she said.
Jill had different considerations. She's a bartender, and she was always thinking about the time it took bartenders to make the drinks. For her, the drink at the Grey Plume took too long. That pushed it behind the Boiler Room's drink, which she said encompassed all the most important elements and was delivered to us in a reasonable amount of time. Caniglia's was her second choice.
I voted for the Boiler Room, too. The depth of their cocktail snared me. I also am a stickler for the show of it all, and the bartenders at the Boiler Room have style I appreciate.
Matthew chose the Grey Plume.
"To me, that was a perfect drink," he said. "I can't imagine a better Old-Fashioned than that one."
Dan, too, wavered between the Plume and the Boiler Room, but in the end, he voted on the place he felt had the best execution: The Boiler Room.
"The Grey Plume lets the drink do the talking. There's an element of silent reverence there," he said. "The Boiler Room is deconstructing this drink, going in and then going back out again. And it's flawless."
Our panel talked a lot during the Old-Fashioned Food Prowl about the importance — or non-importance — of knowing your bartender. We also talked about how the craft cocktail's resurgence has made the showiness of drink-making something worth considering.
Matthew Hansen said he's seen the change happen in Omaha over the past three years. It used to be that diners could almost predict the drink and beer lists at most bars and restaurants. Now it's completely different. The Omaha market is rife with imported beers, and bartenders from one side of the city to the other are mixing heritage craft drinks and coming up with their own recipes.
The craft cocktail resurgence is partially because of a book, “Imbibe!” which came out in 2010 and is written by Esquire's David Wondrich, who won a James Beard Award for his work.
That book is based on what Dan Crowell called the original cocktail manual, “How to Mix Drinks or the Bon Vivant's Companion,” written by Jerry Thomas in 1862.
When younger bartenders started reading about these drinks, they wanted to make them.
“Bartenders are different than chefs,” Crowell said. “We don't deal with chefs. With bartenders, we can see it all.”
Some bartenders we encountered on the prowl were all about talking: telling us the ingredients, the technique, the reasons, the history.
Others preferred to do their job in silence and let us enjoy the fruits of their labor.
For me, a chatty bartender is a big deal. I like talking. I ask questions for a living, and I'm curious, so I appreciate a bartender who likes to chat.
But that's not for everyone.
“Some of the quieter bartenders are the ones who are going to make you something sublime,” Dan said.
Winner: The Boiler Room
1110 Jones St.
The Old-Fashioned is the measure of a good cocktail. It's also the measure of a bartender.
It's a delicate balance between booze and sweet, between fruity and bitter. It takes a bit of art to make a perfect version.
The Old-Fashioned came to be in the late 1880s and was made with a particular brand of bourbon called "Old 1776." The ingredients for the classic version are bourbon or rye whiskey, a small amount of water, a dash of bitters and a sugar cube or sugar syrup. It's served in a squat old-fashioned glass and garnished with an orange slice and a maraschino cherry.
And, as we learned during the past month, it's likely one of the most pleasurable cocktails that man — or woman — can enjoy. Picking a winner turned into a tight race, so much so that four of us changed our vote on the last night, at the Boiler Room.
When we arrived at the Boiler Room's sunken bar, we expected to see head bartender Clark Ross but instead found his understudy, Jeff Koster.
There's one main difference in the Boiler Room's recipe for an Old-Fashioned, and that's the sweetener.
At Caniglia's, our drink was sweetened with a sugar cube. At the Grey Plume, I.O. Speak and the French Bulldog, with simple syrup. At the Boiler Room, an Old-Fashioned is sweetened with demerara sugar syrup, made from a natural brown sugar that's like sugar in the raw, with bigger brown granules instead of small white ones.
The resulting cocktail tasted rich and incredibly smooth.
"The idea is that he's taking the essence of the bourbon and pulling elements and flavors from it, and playing on those instead of covering them," Dan said. "It's not kidding around, but it's also really pleasing and spicy and broad."
It was. The bourbon was there, but it wasn't as harsh. The demerara played with its flavor and added a depth we hadn't had elsewhere.
It was the first drink that came close to the one we all loved at Grey Plume — and made by the Boiler Room's backup bartender at that.
The Other Contenders:
Caniglia's Venice Inn
6920 Pacific St.
There's something romantic about drinking an Old-Fashioned at a place like Caniglia's Venice Inn.
Maybe it's the twinkle lights; or the black-and-white posters of young Italian guys who surely are old now; or the bartender, who is at least your father's age, wearing a white dress shirt and a grey mustache and knowing the ingredients to this classic cocktail by heart.
Maybe it's just the bourbon.
Whatever it is, though, an old-school Omaha steak house had to be part of an Old-Fashioned Food Prowl.
There are two kinds of old fashioneds. The pre-Prohibition style Old-Fashioned, a boozier, drier drink with less focus on fruit and more on the taste of whiskey, and the post-Prohibition style, what Dan calls the "fruit salad."
We found both on our prowl, but Caniglia's serves the latter.
The drink there came in a snifter glass, garnished with a sword-stabbed cherry and orange.
It was pinkish in hue and pleasant in flavor, fizzy from a shot of soda and another of 7-Up. The bourbon melted gently into the fruitiness; the bartender muddled the orange and cherry with a sugar cube in the bottom of the glass and remnants of the fruit floated at the bottom.
I asked Dan why there were two styles of old fashioneds. During Prohibition, he said, the quality of alcohol went down. Bartenders tried to cover the taste of the booze with fruit and sugar and soda.
After Prohibition, many of the best bartenders, the ones who created drinks like the Old-Fashioned, had moved to Europe. So the "fruit salad" became the standard in America.
"Prohibition destroyed drinking in America for 50 years," he said. "A new generation is just now rediscovering it."
Even if this drink wasn't the best one technically, it was still darn good. If you think you don't like brown liquor, start here.
Jill, who works at a bar similar in style to Caniglia's — a traditional menu, lots of older patrons — said it was the quintessential steak house Old-Fashioned.
"If I served this drink, I would get very few complaints about it," she said.
The Grey Plume
220 S. 31st Ave.
What we were really after in this prowl was the flavor of good rye or bourbon that's made for sipping. A layered drink that played with more than just fruit. A pre-Prohibition Old-Fashioned.
Thankfully, in the past three years, a number of Omaha bars and restaurants have started serving pre-Prohibition cocktails, mixing just what we were looking for.
We found our first one at a quiet table at the Grey Plume, in Midtown Crossing.
Amid the zen-like atmosphere of the restaurant, bartender Phil Cacciatore carefully crafted our drinks.
His style — quiet, methodical, almost scientific — led to a near perfect specimen of a pre-Prohibition Old-Fashioned. He chilled the glasses. Measured ingredients with an eye-dropper. Stirred the large, square ice cubes around the glasses with a long-handled silver spoon.
We ordered two with rye and one with bourbon, to compare. These drinks could not have been more different than what we'd tried so far.
"An Old-Fashioned should be the booze show," Dan said. "That should be the first thing you taste. It's not ready to hug it out. It's ready to rumble."
The bourbon Old-Fashioned was smokier and sweeter, while the rye drink was dryer. Both were bold with the flavor of whiskey, but didn't burn on the way down. The bitters added a subtle layer of flavor underneath the spirits.
The ice cubes were big, square and transparent, made for craft cocktails like these. The cubes, made with a special ice machine, melt much slower to keep the drink from getting watered down, ensuring that the cocktails tasted nearly the same from first sip to last.
Ashley said she'd be happy with either of the two drinks. So would Matthew, though his real favorite, he said, was the rye version.
In fact, as we talked, the two glasses full of rye disappeared between the five of us, while the bourbon version remained half full. The Plume's rye Old-Fashioned became the drink to beat.
1010 Howard St.
We found another commendable Old-Fashioned in the dark basement of the Indian Oven, at I.O. Speak, the brainchild of the restaurant's manager, Binoy Fernandez. When it's open, three candles in the west window of the restaurant are glowing and you can find your way downstairs to a basement hole that feels like a speakeasy must have felt during Prohibition: secret, underground and very, very dark.
The drinks were strong, sweet and smooth, bold with the flavor of bitters.
The two old fashioneds we ordered at I.O. didn't have ice, but the half-full glass contained the right amount to stay cool and still be sipped slowly. After all, nobody wants to chug an Old-Fashioned.
For comparison's sake, we ordered a second drink with ice, though the bartender threw in the big square cube at the last minute and trapped the orange peel garnish underneath. The flavor was decidedly different. The ice took away a bit of the drink's pleasant bite and almost seemed to change its chemistry. It wasn't watered down, but it surely wasn't as intense.
I.O.'s iceless version became another contender.
The French Bulldog
5003 Underwood Ave.
We met again, at the French Bulldog, which had been open a mere week and was buzzing with business. We came in search of bartender Chris Engles, who came to Dundee after manning other craft bars around town.
Again, we ordered one drink with rye, one with bourbon. Engles wouldn't tell us which was which, though after sipping we nailed the bourbon version, which was more intense and complex than the lighter rye drink.
Ice was a handicap — without big, slow-melting cubes, the cocktail became watered much quicker. Regardless, it was the best pre-Prohibition Old-Fashioned we had without the block-style ice cubes.
5142 N. 90th St.
We found another Old-Fashioned "fruit salad" at the Library Pub, a dark dive bar that specializes in whiskey.
We settled around a table in black leather chairs that could have been stolen from an executive's office and sipped our old fashioneds, finding that the fruit almost entirely masked the flavor of the booze. Jill said the drinks reminded her more of a whiskey sour than an Old-Fashioned.
5004 Dodge St.
At Pageturner's Lounge, another new bar on the scene with a very succinct drink list, we ordered two old fashioneds, a bourbon and a rye. They had muddled cherries and orange in the bottom, yet still tasted harsh.
The ice was another impediment, super cold and super melty.
Though they may have been the booziest old fashioneds we tried on the prowl, they were also some of the blandest.
Side Door Lounge
3530 Leavenworth St.
Our prowl took us to the Side Door Lounge, on Leavenworth Street, where we found an Old-Fashioned with some problems.
Namely, no ice.
The drinks we had were full nearly to the brim and, as we held them, they quickly got warm. Once an Old-Fashioned is warm, it's really difficult to drink.