Best Of 2021

Over-the-Rhine’s Wodka Bar was the only one of the two dozenish bars across the country praised by Esquire in their most recent “Best Bars in America” list to be located in Cincinnati. Food & Drinks editor Jeff Gordinier wrote of the cocktail lounge, “The very existence of a bar devoted to vodka feels like a rebuke to all the bartenders who’ve scoffed at the spirit. But this spot takes the defiance a step further, offering shots of vodka infused with (among other things) mangoes and peanut brittle.” And, of course, plenty of pierogi and other Eastern European eats. wodkabarotr.com.

This winter, Longfellow crafted and bottled their own amaro, a popular herbal digestif, for purchase and in special themed snack packs. They also began making their own line of cocktail bitters, infused with chamomile and coriander, which fans can get to-go. longfellowbar.com.

Braxton Brewing Co. took the PSL trend a step further this fall by introducing VIVE Pumpkin Spice Hard Seltzer. The bubbly beverage contains only 100 calories and 2 grams of carbs, but packs plenty of cinnamon and spice into its slim-can design. viveseltzer.com.

This summer, Weathered Souls Brewing Co., a Black-owned brewery based out of San Antonio, Texas, invited brewers nationwide to participate in its Black is Beautiful campaign to foster inclusion and raise awareness of social and racial injustice. They shared their base imperial stout recipe with craft brewers across the country and encouraged them to give it their own unique spin. (They also provided free Black is Beautiful label artwork.) Weathered Souls got a response from more than 900 breweries across the country, including Rhinegeist Brewery, Listermann Brewing Company, Samuel Adams Cincinnati, Northern Row Brewery & Distillery and Streetside Brewery. But the campaign was more than just a way to sell beer. Weathered Souls asked participating breweries to donate 100% of the beer’s proceeds to local foundations that support police reform and legal defense for victims of police brutality or organizations that support equality and inclusion. blackisbeautiful.beer.

Cincinnati’s beloved Turkish coffee pop-up Rüya teamed up with Over-the-Rhine brewery Rhinegeist on a limited-edition brew, just in time for Halloween. Ghost Dreams, a stout made with Rüya coffee and cardamom, brought together the two cultures — “geist” means “ghost” in German and “ruya” means “dreams” in Turkish. Described as “Dark as Hell, Strong as Death, Sweet as Love,” the beer was available on tap. rhinegeist.com; ruyacoffee.com.

University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music alumna, Classical pianist and music professor Brianna Matzke created The Response Project in order to commission artists and composers to “respond” to existing artworks or ideas. Since its inception in 2014, the project has produced concerts, short films, art shows and interpretive dances, to name a few. These installments introduced artistic interpretations of themes such as “Something is Happening Here,” a look at Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited; the phrase “On Behalf,” inspired by Killer Mike and Stephen Colbert asking composers to write on behalf of a person, thing or idea; and the controversial composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mikrophonie 1. Debuting throughout January, the fourth iteration of The Response Project challenged five composers (Evan Williams, Tina Tallon, Nate May, Charles Peck, Jason Charney) and five visual artists (Joomi Chung, Samantha Parker Salazar, Christian Schmit, Samantha Haring, Ryan Strochinsky) to respond to late American composer Pauline Oliveros’ Sonic Meditations. The Oliveros Response Project premiered four short films and an art show that not only enacted deep listening through brand new compositions but also explored the way history and place relate to the experience. Produced by local filmmakers Biz Young, Jason Nix and Andy Gasper, the films debuted the musical responses as performed by Matzke, percussionist Chris Graham and a Classical ensemble concert:nova. But it wasn’t just a concert series. Four beloved and historical Cincinnati buildings were chosen to house the performances featured in the films. Acoustics and historical significance were among factors considered in the selection process, which boiled down to performances taking place in The Imperial Theatre Mohawk, the Kauffman Brewery tunnels, the King Records building and the Emery Theatre. theresponseproject.org.

David Bottoms’ long-in-the-works 550-page Stacks of Wax: The Complete Story of the Record Labels of Cincinnati, Ohio.

When the general public heard the word “pandemic,” they started hoarding toilet paper, guns and hand sanitizer, prompting a nationwide shortage of at least two out of those three. So people got creative. And when the Centers for Disease Control said, “If you’re going to make your own sanitizer, you need to make sure it uses at least 60% alcohol spirits,” distilleries thought: “We can do that.” So thanks New Riff, Brain Brew, Northside Distilling, Karrikin and Northern Row for making hand sanitizer for first responders, health care workers and general humans.

Findlay Kitchen start-up Mixicles offers small-batch frozen mixers in ice-cube form. They are non-alcoholic, preservative-free fruit and herb concoctions that cool your cocktail (or mocktail) and flavor it as it melts. Infusions include jalapeno citrus, cucumber lime sage and lavender peach, among others. Find them online or at Spirits of Madeira, Crafts & Vines and ETC Produce & Provisions. mixicles.com.

New Riff Distilling released almost 900 bottles of a 15-year-old straight bourbon whiskey in order to raise funds for the Ohio Restaurant Employee Relief Fund and The Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. They sold out in minutes. “We sprung this extremely limited bottling from our warehouse to support the bar and restaurant community that has supported us from the start,” said Hannah Lowen, New Riff VP of operations/GM. “This is how we can raise a glass — and funds — for our embattled friends.” newriffdistilling.com.

This summer, the ever-expanding Braxton Brewing Co. took over the 3 Points Urban Brewery taproom in Pendleton, marking the Northern Kentucky brewery’s first move into Ohio. (And probably not their last.) braxtonbrewing.com.

Mt. Healthy’s Fibonacci Brewing Company — which turned five this summer — offers more than just a taproom. In fact, their campus houses two taprooms along with an expansive outdoor beer garden and urban farm filled with plenty of friendly chicken and goats. (If you’re looking for a getaway, they rent out two rooms in their farmhouse as Airbnbs.) The locally-focused nanobrewery blends science and nature in its line of hybrid beer and also produces its own wine, both of which are available on-site, via a new drive-thru window or delivery. But what really sets Fibonacci apart is their seasonal monthly farmers market to help with food insecurity in Mt. Healthy. In addition to the farmers market, and two new little free libraries they just added, each month they also select an organization to get 10% of all Oberhausen Kolsch pint sales via their Fib Funds charitable giving campaign. fibbrew.com.

As everyone went into lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital wanted to offer their patients and the greater community some happiness, so they asked a slew of Cincinnati musicians to collaborate on a cover of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” from their respective living rooms. In the resultant YouTube video, Cincinnati Children’s says, “At Cincinnati Children’s, we know we don’t carry the burden of this tough time alone.” Local musicians who used their time and talents to make the uplifting video included Bob Nyswonger on bass, Brian Lovely on guitar, Kim Taylor on vocals, Mike Oberst on vocals and banjo, Ricky Nye on electric piano, Rob Fetters on guitar, Roger Klug on guitar and many more. 

Siri Imani, a member of Cincinnati’s popular Hip Hop and community service group Triiibe, debuted her solo album Duality in September. The nine tracks offer an intimate glimpse into the yin and yang that encompass the artist’s life journey. It presents a “coming of age” song-story with some narration by Imani’s mother Jennie Wright, a nationally ranked slam poet who also goes by the name Black Budda’fly. “The vibe of Duality is directed by the ‘light and dark’ concept,” Imani says. “Exploring and understanding your darkness is just as important as understanding and embracing your light.” The album can be streamed on all major platforms. siriimani.bandcamp.com.

Over-the-Rhine bar Lost & Found celebrated its one-year anniversary during the pandemic, so they put the in-person festivities on hold while coming up with a creative way to bring the party to the people. After releasing some teasers leading up to the big reveal, Lost & Found announced their new Booze Boxes, which offer a way for loyal patrons to enjoy craft cocktails, bites, art and groovy jams from the comfort of their own homes. The boxes include three or four two-serving pre-mixed cocktails, a paired snack, a Lost & Found zine with curated playlist and cocktail commentary and plenty of funky stickers. The concept was so popular, the bar expanded its Booze Box offerings beyond its anniversary celebration with additional themes and the option to build your own. lostandfoundotr.com.

You’re most likely familiar with Rock star Jack White from his leading role in bands The White Stripes and The Raconteurs. And while his musical career may be what introduced you to the man of many talents, you’ll be pleased to discover (if you haven’t already) that he’s also a master upholsterer. One of White’s 2020 projects — under the moniker Third Man Upholstery — was a vintage masonic bench, which he restored as a gift to Johnny Wirick’s Masonic Sounds Studio inside of Dayton, Kentucky’s The Lodge, a century-old Masonic Lodge that has been renovated into a bustling arts hub over the past decade. Wirick, a Punk Blues Rock guitarist who also goes by the name Johnny Walker, met White while playing in dive clubs throughout Toledo and Detroit. According to Wirick, the Masonic bench was a surprise over a year in the making and one of its most unique features is the fact that White installed an actual guitar amplifier inside the seat. White named the bench “My Sonic Temple.” “So I can sit on it and go on crazy psychedelic guitar trips,” Wirick says. “There is enough room on it for three friends to go along with me.” thelodgeky.com.

“LIVE LIFE. DO GOOD. DRINK BEER.” is the mantra of Sharonville’s Third Eye Brewing. Walk into the brewery — located in the neighborhood’s Northern Lights District — and you’ll encounter a vibrant and whimsical atmosphere, with a colorful and slightly psychedelic mural by David Jonathan Uy serving as the centerpiece of the bar. The space blurs the line between the inside and out with a giant covered patio and indoor/outdoor bar seating. The creative design goes hand in hand with their unique hippie-named brews, including Jelly Brain, a milkshake IPA with pineapple and coconut; Higher Consciousness, a Scottish wee heavy; and Hop Shockra, a West Coast double IPA. In addition to its groovy vibe, Third Eye Brewing lives its motto with a commitment to collaborate with local organizations and charities to give back to the community. thirdeyebrewingco.com.

Overlook Lodge’s holiday bar pop-up Miracle returned in November, gracing us once again with a festively immersive yuletide celebration, and boasting a socially distant spin. The all-inclusive and ticketed event offered two themed cocktails and one shot per guest for a one-hour duration. Drink names and glassware were kitschy and festive and included the Bad Santa, with mulled red wine served in a winking-Santa mug, and the Christmas Carol Barrel, with tequila, coffee liquor, dry Curacao and spiced chocolate in a holiday Tiki cup. Artificial trees acted as dividers between groups and the decor looked like a craft corner barfed up wrapping paper, tinsel and colored lights all over the interior... in the best way possible. thatshiningbar.com.

Have you ever danced in the rain while David Bowie sings the end credits of The Labyrinth, 1986’s finest film? This past summer, East Walnut Hills bar Nightdrop transformed its outdoor parking lot into a drive-in cinema of sorts, minus the cars. Classic and cult movies were streamed outside and bartender Giacomo Ciminello crafted a slew of themed cocktails. He also dressed up as Bowie’s Goblin King for the aforementioned screening, complete with a codpiece and mullet wig. facebook.com/nightdrop.

Cincinnati native Tammie Scott opened Nostalgia Wine & Jazz Lounge in Over-the-Rhine this summer, inspired by local 1940s Jazz clubs and her time spent in Washington, D.C. The bar promises to capture the vibe of historic Queen City establishments while supporting minority winemakers from all over the world. The menu highlights wines made by women, specifically Black women. “There are winemakers out here who look like me,” Scott says. “And typically when we think of winemakers, that’s not the first picture that might come into our heads.” Live music is another part of the Nostalgia package. Scott wants the bar and lounge to be a place where people can gather in an inclusive environment, where the focus is on enjoying wine and music with friends. nostalgiaotr.com.