Best Of 2020

Veteran Cincinnati Hip Hop artist Santino Corleon (now going by just Santino) kicked off what is looking to be a helluva 2020 by signing a record deal and getting some prime national TV exposure. If you saw the commercials for Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time — the game show’s prime-time tournament on ABC featuring its greatest champions — you got a little taste of Corleon’s talents. Santino’s song “GOAT” — a possible future “Jock Jam” classic — was featured in the promos for the show. The single was the first music released as part of Corleon’s new record deal, as he became one of the first signings to 83 Sound, the label founded by producer Cook Classics (whose work includes hits like Panic! At the Disco’s “High Hopes” and Ava Max’s “Sweet But Psycho”) and Platinum-selling Pop artist and songwriter Outasight. Santino, facebook.com/santinocorleon.

Twenties, the descriptively named 1920s-themed cocktail bar that took over the former Myrtle’s Punch House spot in East Walnut Hills, is a jazzy sort of destination that plays on century-old cocktail culture with a drink menu featuring classic libations and updated takes — think an Old Fashioned made with mezcal or rum instead of your standard bourbon (but they have the bourbon version, too) — as well as local craft drafts, wine and spirits from Cincinnati distilleries. The generously sized bar features ample seating throughout the space as well as in the cozy catacomb-style cellar, which is more like a speakeasy with cool ambient lighting and less about skeletons. TVs play black-and-white films for some anachronistic flair, and they recently opened a billiards parlor inside. For a real deal, the bar offers $7 select drinks on Thursdays. If you’re looking for a spot to try out your new futuristic flapper look, this might be the place. Twenties, 2733 Woodburn Ave., East Walnut Hills, facebook.com/twentiescincy.

If Rock legends KISS are going to roll around the country to graciously give fans one more chance to see them/give them money on their “farewell” (insert eye-roll emoji) tour, the band could have at least hired a merch director who knows how to spell the names of the cities they are visiting. When the group came to rock Riverbend one last time over the summer, they were selling the local version of their city-specific tour T-shirts, which were created to make fans feel like KISS cares so much about our town, they went and made an exclusive Cincinnati shirt. Or, rather, “Cincinnatti” shirt. The misspelled tees — photos of which quickly went viral on social media — were priced at $50 and are probably collector’s items of some sort, so hold onto yours if you bought one. Heck, maybe that was the game plan all along — if nothing else, KISS are pretty savvy when it comes to making money off of merchandizing. Maybe Jean Simons held back a few boxes for himself to sell on eBay as he gets further into his twilight years?

For its fourth anniversary, Covington’s Braxton Brewing Company expanded in 2019, adding a giant rooftop deck to its flagship taproom and opening the Braxton Barrel House in a former Remke Market on Dixie Highway in Fort Mitchell. The brewer converted the grocer into a 20-tap drinking destination with a patio on the old loading dock and 20,000 square feet of storage for housing bourbon barrels and other assorted barrels to age their beers. The Barrel House also offers a private barrel-aging program, where anyone with the funds can “experience the barrel aging process from the initial brewing all the way to the packaging,” says Braxton. Guests work with brewers to create a custom beer and then age it in either their own whiskey or bourbon barrels (if they have one on hand; some people might) or one of the brewery’s. Braxton says the barrels can range between $1,500 to $5,000, take one month to one year to age and produce 200 bottles of barrel-aged beer, which Braxton will help you name and package. “To our knowledge, this is the nation’s first dedicated private barrel program, and we’re so proud to open the doors to our newest location,” said Braxton co-founder and CEO Jack Rouse in a release. Braxton Barrel House, 2501 Dixie Highway, Fort Mitchell, braxtonbrewing.com.

Best Biweekly Wine Tastings

Technically, any time you go to a wine bar that offers wine flights, any night is a wine tasting night. And even if said wine bar doesn’t offer a specific, listed wine flight, you can still drink glasses — or even half-pours if they have them! — of several different wines (as long as someone else is driving) and call it a tasting. Don’t let anyone tell you what a “tasting” is. That being said, Oakley Wines has a great wine tasting program. This cozy spot off of Madison Avenue’s main drag features a first-floor wine bar and bottle shop with big windows and flickering candles. Downstairs is The Cellar, a low-lit speakeasy space with room for live music. The vino venture is now under the ownership of Stephanie and Dave Webster, who also own The Rhined cheese shop in Over-the-Rhine, and the duo decided to keep the wine bar’s famous Friday night tastings: five wines for $12 from 5 to 8 p.m. (This event is what made Oakley Wines so popular that they had to open The Cellar in the first place.) But they also have tastings again on Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. Same deal. And, because of its association with The Rhined, the snack menu at Oakley Wines is putting bites front-and-center. There’s charcuterie, marinated olives, mussels, mushroom toast and other stuff that’s easy to put in your mouth to complement a glass of wine, plus plenty of restaurant and chef-centric pop-ups. The current is relocating, so keep an eye out for updates on that front. Oakley Wines, 4011 Allston St., Oakley, oakleywines.com.

Along with, well, seemingly just about anything you can imagine, Fairfield’s legendary mega-grocery complex Jungle Jim’s offers a wide retail selection of bourbon, while the connected Oscar Event Center has hosted Bourbon Dinners for the past few years that have sold out. Bourbon fans got even more reasons to make Jungle Jim’s a regular destination with the opening of a new bourbon bar, The Oscar Station. Founder “Jungle” Jim Bonaminio — who, in a promo video, appears to have traded in his trademark safari gear for a steampunk Willy Wonka look — has given the new bar some of that clever/kitschy cool that makes Jungle Jim’s such a popular attraction. Patrons use the monorail train Bonaminio purchased from Kings Island years ago to get to the Oscar Station, which offers more than 40 varieties of bourbon (including faves like Pappy Van Winkle and Elmer T. Lee) and also has a covered outdoor, heated cigar lounge area (don’t worry, there’s no smoking inside the bar). The classy rustic/industrial décor of the Oscar Station is enhanced by more of Bonaminio’s repurposing ingenuity — tables are made from old bowling lane wood and the bar sits beneath a revolving rack that showcases the varying bourbon options; the rack was purchased from an old dry cleaners. Jungle Jim’s, 8871 N. Gilmore Road, Fairfield, junglejims.com.

Best Brewery Winning Streak

Ohio breweries have been faring incredibly well at the annual Great American Beer Festival of late. In 2019, according to ohiocraftbeer.org, the esteemed competition featuring beers from all over the country awarded Ohio breweries 15 medals overall, a record for the state. Cincinnati brewers contributed nicely to that count, with Listermann, Rhinegeist and Taft’s all taking home medals. But Brink Brewing Co. had the best year out of all of the Ohio competitors. For the second year in a row, the College Hill-based brewers took home top Very Small Brewery of the Year honors, given annually to breweries that produce less than 1,000 barrels a year. Brink also won the award in 2018, making it the first brewery to ever take home that prize in back-to-back years. As if that wasn’t enough, Brink also took home two gold medals — for its Hold the Reins English-style mild ale and Moozie Sweet Stout. Brink Brewing Co., 5905 Hamilton Ave., College Hill, brinkbrewing.com.

Best Camping Experience Without Camping

Last summer, MainStrasse’s Commonwealth Bistro opened a seasonal rooftop bar as an ode to camping in Kentucky parks. Despite the sweltering heat — and lack of misting stations — Yonder was the place to be every Thursday through Saturday (and sometimes Sundays). The semi-enclosed patio included a living wall, plants and a rustic aesthetic that made it a cool place to chill in hanging hammock chairs while drinking kombucha slushies, local beer and refreshing cocktails. The food menu — separate from the downstairs menu — offered spreads, chicken wings and watermelon. Yonder is one of many places pushing mocktails as a non-alcoholic alternative, so in October they and Wise Wellness Guild, The Mocktail Project and Roasted Not Toasted hosted a Mocktober Social Hour to raise awareness that you can still have fun without getting drunk. (They also have an elaborate regular craft mocktail menu.) Yonder, 621 Main St., Covington, commonwealthbistro.com/yonder.

While 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the legendary Woodstock music festival, many Cincinnatians were celebrating a different Rock music icon. The Ludlow Garage in Clifton opened in September of 1969 and in just two years it was responsible for bringing to Cincinnati an amazing array of popular and influential artists of the time, including Santana, Iggy and the Stooges, The Kinks, Captain Beefheart, Alice Cooper, Grand Funk Railroad, MC5 and The Allman Brothers. To celebrate, a handful of artists from the era that had performed at the club — including headliner Rick Derringer — and several like-minded local acts played at a free all-day concert in Eden Park over the summer. Meanwhile, the current iteration of The Ludlow Garage celebrated the anniversary by hosting Dweezil Zappa’s tour on which the guitarist was playing his father Frank’s legendary album Hot Rats, which was released about a month after the original Ludlow Garage opened. The new Garage’s sold-out anniversary show was timed to the club’s reopening following an extensive renovation project. The Ludlow Garage, 342 Ludlow Ave., Clifton, ludlowgaragecincinnati.com.

Best Choose Your Own Adventure Bar

Located in a former 105-year-old rest area (basically a public restroom), Comfort Station has transformed a dilapidated space into an airy nightlife destination full of hip cocktails and outdoor lounge areas (including a very cool seating nook with cushions). And guests have the choice to enter the bar through the original women’s restroom door, now painted a bright blue, to access the main-floor space, replete with original skylights, plush blue-velvet seating and living plant walls, or through the men’s door to access the subterranean microbar Among the Lost, which offers a darker, sexier and more intimate drinking experience. The eight-seater basement bar “is reminiscent of omakase-style presentation where a highly skilled, incredibly knowledgeable mixologist showcases their own specialities and artistic merits by creating a tailored cocktail progression serving only the very best ingredients and selections from a curated list of spirits,” said a press release when the bar opened. While Among the Lost is only open Thursday through Saturday night (and is available for private parties), the women’s room access is open daily, serving clever and seasonal cocktails and hosting fun events like bar bingo and movie nights. Comfort Station, 793 E. McMillan St., Walnut Hills, comfortstationcincinnati.com.