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
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

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
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

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
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

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
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

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.

A compilation album put together by former local musician/club booker/DJ Peter Aaron offered a fascinating glimpse into the earliest days of Punk and “Alternative” music in Greater Cincinnati. It’s also an excellent document of how Midwestern outsiders absorbed and translated the new, odd and exciting music of the mid-’70s/early-’80s into their own language. We Were Living in Cincinnati was released via Chicago-based HoZac Records in conjunction with the locally based Shake It Records label and included early recordings from The Dents, Bitter Blood, The Customs, Dennis The Menace, Ed Davis Band, 11,000 Switches, Erector Set, BPA and several more bands, all “rescued and remastered” from cassette and (exceptionally rare) 45 releases. HoZac Records, hozacrecords.com.

The recording studios run by E. T. Herzog on Race Street in downtown Cincinnati were especially hopping seven decades ago. In 2019, Herzog Music (the instruments-and-more shop that operates on the ground floor of the studio’s former building) and the Cincinnati USA Music Heritage Foundation (which is headquartered in the same building and in the same space Herzog’s studios operated) hosted events to celebrate the 70th anniversary of two huge and important songs that were recorded at the studio. In March, they honored the second of two sessions music icon Hank Williams did at the space. In August of 1949, Williams laid down, among other songs, the stone-cold classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Just five months later, Flatt & Scruggs were at the recording studio to record “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,an eventual Bluegrass staple that NPR deemed one of the 100 most important musical works in American music history. Cincinnati USA Music Heritage Foundation, takingyoutothebridge.org; Herzog Music, 811 Race St., Downtown, herzogmusic.com.

While there’s no shortage of terrific bourbon cocktails around town, including plenty of satisfying old-fashioned drinks, the Chef’s Old Fashioned at the Bar at Palm Court beats them all. While the $18 price tag is eye-popping, you do get to enjoy this scrumptious libation in the splendid Art Deco surroundings of the historic Netherland Plaza. The drink starts with a glass containing a large semi-frozen ice cube made from bitters, simple syrup and water. Your server pours a hefty shot of single-barrel bourbon and you mush the cube around with your little plastic straw. The longer you can wait to sip, the better it tastes. Try something from the excellent bar menu, too, such as a cheese and charcuterie platter, duck confit flatbread or a burger, among many other choices. Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza, 35 W. Fifth St., Downtown, orchidsatpalmcourt.com.

Shake It Records and ArtWorks teamed up on a special (and ongoing project) in 2019 that was a smart and novel way of sharing stories about the incredibly rich but still weirdly under-noticed musical history of Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Musical Legends deck of cards are in the spirit of classic baseball cards and inspired by R. Crumb’s famous trading card sets dedicated to Blues, Jazz and Country music pioneers. Each card features a notable musician on the front — illustrated by a team headed up by Cincinnati comics artist and sign painter Justin Green — and a synopsis of their contributions on the back. The Volume 1 deck featured well-known artists like Bootsy and Catfish Collins, Lonnie Mack, Mamie Smith, Stephen Foster and The Isley Brothers, as well as lesser known acts like Junior McCants, Cody Black, Sacred Mushroom and Mr. Spoons. Some of the non-musician cards include ones dedicated to The Cotton Club, Herzog Studios and “Cincy Indie Labels” (King, Federal, Saxony, Jewel and others), as well as iconic King Records kingpin Syd Nathan. More decks are slated to come. Available at Shake It Records, 4156 Hamilton Ave., Northside, shakeitrecords.com.

Best Drinking Destination Makeover
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Over-the-Rhine’s popular cocktail bar Japp’s got a facelift last October when owner Molly Wellmann partnered with local designer Susana Tolentino to revamp the space while holding on to its original 1800s charms. Renovations included removing the pergolas; refinishing the floors; opening the windows; installing new seating on the other side of the bar; painting and installing a new banquette; and adding a gas fireplace from local shop Bromwell’s. Complete with new furniture and décor, the drinking destination emerged as a brighter, more open space. Also new is a neon sign made by the American Sign Museum. Hung in a window, it reads, “Are you thirsty?” — Wellmann’s way of greeting bar patrons. Japp’s, 1136 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, facebook.com/japps1879.

The Samuel Adams Cincinnati Taproom celebrated its first birthday by giving us a present: it released its barrel-aged Utopias on draft for the first time ever in November. One could say, “Big deal. Who cares?” But this wasn’t just any regular beer release — Utopias is one of the most expensive, exclusive and extreme beers on the market. With an ABV of 28 percent, the top-shelf beer is illegal in 15 states across the nation. Illegal. And in 2019, Sam Adams only brewed 77 wooden casks of Utopias, then bottled it in 25.4-ounce ceramic decanters that looked like shiny brew kettles and sold them for $210 per bottle. According to a press release from the brewery, the rich, barrel-aged beer has a flavor profile reminiscent of a fine sherry or vintage port. (People on CityBeat’s staff sampled it and would agree on this description; very much like a sherry.) Utopias requires a time-intensive, multiyear brewing, aging and blending process, using only the world’s finest ingredients. Last year’s edition was aged in cognac and Madeira finishing barrels and was a blend of earlier batches of Samuel Adams’ extreme beers — some dating back 25 years. Samuel Adams Cincinnati Taproom, 1727 Logan St., Over-the-Rhine, facebook.com/samadamscincy. 

Created in 2008, the Whispering Beard Folk Festival grew into one of the region’s most beloved Folk/Americana fests when it moved to its longtime home on campgrounds in Friendship, Indiana. The festival’s large cult of devoted fans — aka “Beardos” — flocked to the small town and set up camp for an expertly curated weekend of Roots music that over the years featured legends like Peter Rowan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and acclaimed modern greats like Jason Isbell and Tyler Childers. For its 2019 festival, Whispering Beard took the next step in its evolution and moved to Cincinnati’s Smale Riverfront Park. Though the popular camping element was gone, die-hard Beardos were still treated to another excellent lineup that included The Felice Brothers, M. Ward and Ryan Bingham, as well as WBFF alum like Chicago Farmer, Frontier Folk Nebraska, The Tillers and Buffalo Wabs and the Price Hill Hustle, who participated in one of the fest’s new features — riverboat shows, where fans could enjoy some tunes on a little Ohio River cruise. The festival is slated to return this year for its 13th-annual edition Aug. 28 to 30. Whispering Beard Folk Festival, whisperingbeard.com.

Blue Ash’s Fretboard Brewing marries music and beer by providing creation spaces for local musicians to rattle off riffs while grabbing brews at the taproom. What could have simply been a traditional German-bier-inspired brewery was electrified into an incredibly lively live music venue with a pro-grade sound system. Fretboard’s main stage hosts live performances nearly every night, putting an emphasis on the sort of tunes that are nearly synonymous with microbrewed beverages. So it made perfect sense that Fretboard was the place that debuted the funkiest brew of 2019: the Bootsy Brewski IPA, a beer honoring Cincinnati native and global music icon Bootsy Collins. Fretboard describes it as “front loaded with bright funky citrus and finishes crisp and dry and is approved by the grand funkmaster himself.” And the commercial video promoting the Bootsy Brewski calls it “the beer that sings, baba.” This collab, which was released in August and comes in cans, started as an experiment but has proven to have some staying power: the beer took home the gold at the 2019 US Open Beer Championship. A portion of all beer proceeds benefits the Bootsy Collins Foundation, a multi-pronged charity whose mission is “to inspired, educate and enrich the lives of individuals from all backgrounds.” Fretboard Brewing, 5800 Creek Road, Blue Ash, fretboardbrewing.com.

Night Drop, the downstairs speakeasy-esque bar of East Walnut Hills’ Branch restaurant, gets creative with their novella-length drink menu. Seasonally, they like to theme their cocktails, and last summer Hall and Oates (yes, the acclaimed ’70s-’80s Pop/Soul band), garnered a section of the menu. Cocktails named after their hits, like 1977’s “Rich Girl” (curry, walnut, bourbon and mezcal), came with a poetic description of the music and the drink. At the end of last year, Night Drop introduced its latest theme: The John Hughes Profile, which includes drinks like Totally Shermer (named for the fictional Illinois town where Hughes based some of his classic teen films), a combination of Bitter Truth EXR Amaro, lemon and orange Fanta. These cocktails complement Night Drop and Branch’s financial-themed cocktails like the Accelerated Depreciation and Joint Account. Night Drop, 1535 Madison Road, East Walnut Hills, eatatbranch.com.

HomeMakers Bar was one of 2019’s best new openings, mainly because owners Julia Petiprin and Catherine Manabat know their spirits and they know the elements that go into elevating the typical bar experience. HomeMakers merges a focus on fun design with nontraditional drinks — vermouth, low-proof cocktails, infused aperitifs — and the domestic cocktails of the 1950s through the 1970s. The food menu offers delightfully nostalgic bites like finger sammies, homemade snack mix and late-night grilled cheese pastry pockets. The retro-inspired drinking destination also opened a back bar experience called Harvey Wallbangers, named after the 1970s cocktail made with vodka, Galliano and orange juice. The intimate (and rentable for cocktail classes and parties) space lets guests directly engage with bartenders in a one-on-one-style environment, trying exclusive cocktails. Open every Saturday night, the décor blends Baja-vibes and psychedelia. Make reservations online to guarantee a seat. The $15 per person fee includes your first cocktail and snack mix. HomeMakers Bar, 39 E. 13th St., Over-the-Rhine, homemakersbar.com.