I stepped out of The Libertine onto Washington Street, my mind swirling with questions. Could a bar in my hometown really be this good? I’d been waiting for a decent mixology bar for so long, I didn’t think it was possible that one finally existed in Indianapolis. I couldn’t trust my own judgment.
I had to call in the best: drinkers of fortune, a Dream Team of alcohol aficionados. Three white males came immediately to mind, so I threw caution to the diversification wind and called up Kyle Ragsdale, an artist whose art studio is party central. Populist in taste, Kyle consumes copious amounts of Jack and Coke. I called Clay Robinson, Bearded Biermeister of Indianapolis, owner/operator of Sun King Brewing Company. I reached out to Demian Hostetter, former rock star turned wine guru. Loves wine so much he sells it.
A quick email to the right person, a nod in a dark alley, a stein-shaped light in the sky, and I had the team together. But questions led to questions. Could The Libertine siren Kyle away from his beloved Jack and Coke? Would my hipster taste buds give The Libertine Best New Music? Would Clay be so impressed he’d up and quit the beer biz? Would Demian jump behind the bar and start drinking straight from the shaker, or would he walk away shaking his head?
We assembled inside The Libertine on a chilly afternoon a few days later and Neal Brown, head of The Libertine along with his wife Lindy, greeted us with an explanation. He’d built the menu not on flavor profiles but on a spectrum, like a story rather then a sentence. That’s what we’d taste today.
Neal introduced Joshua, a stoic man sporting a dapper bow tie, who said hello and then served up the Silver Gin Fizz, a mixture of Smalls Gin, egg white, orange blossom water, and lemon. Clay sipped. “It’s like a fizzy delicious beer,” he remarked. “Perfect for the porch,” Kyle said, wiping foam from his lip.
While Joshua mixed our next drink, we got to talking about where we’re from. Clay noted that instead of leaving Indy, he decided to bring the best of the world back. Hence: Sun King Brewing Company. Similar story, we guessed, for Neal and Lindy and The Libertine. But it wasn’t just Clay and the Browns. We noted the recent openings of the Black Market on Mass Ave and La Revolucion in Fountain Square. It was like Indianapolis had hit a tipping point, as if everyone had ganged up to do something awesome. “We’re inciting a riot,” Clay said with a grin.
But before we could get too heady, Joshua dropped off our next round: the tequila-based Nouveau Carré. While Kyle noted the presentation of the drink, a silky orange-red pool garnished with a sliver of lemon rind in a wide-mouthed cocktail glass, Clay poured his into a tumbler. “Stemware and I don’t mix well,” he shrugged.
“It uses Lillet Blanc, an aromatized combination of herbs and spices. Like KFC, but way, way better,” Demian explained. We concluded that the Nouveau Carré was a complex drink, maybe good enough to cure Clay of a long-time aversion to tequila, but not something we’d chain drink.
I looked over at Clay, who was holding his glass up to the light, swirling the remaining liquid, “I’m a brewer, I’m interested in things like viscosity,” he explained. Demian, too, was impressed. “They didn’t pick the spirits based on name but taste.” The Libertine’s charm was working on them. Maybe I was right about the place.
But then our third drink arrived: the Highlander. It smelled awful, more like Highlander’s armpits. I wondered if this was the drink that would break the spell and turn these experts off to The Libertine. We toasted to Joshua and sent it down the hatch. I watched them nervously.
“Looks like a lemon drop,” Clay remarked. “But tastes like…leather?” I added, surprised. It tasted amazing, like a chess board and a forest all at once. Joshua, betraying a smile, explained, “It’s the Peat Monster, there for nose. It’s basically a Scotch sour with maple syrup.”
“This is my favorite,” Kyle said. Clay and Demian nodded in agreement. Whew. Sipping away, the three started talking about Moustache Month. My mind wandered. It’d taken three rounds, but The Libertine had turned acquaintances into something more. Something inside me had changed, too. I’d been waiting for a mixology bar in Indianapolis for years, but The Libertine was not the bar I thought I wanted. Go to the Violet Hour in Chicago and you’ll get remarkable drinks, but they’re tucked away behind an unmarked door, three long hallways, and a dozen curtains. I thought I’d wanted one of those places. I was wrong.
The Libertine is something else: it’s Indy, and it’s Hoosier. Their drinks hold their own, but The Libertine does something different. It establishes Indianapolis as a real live city. It takes the good about us–our lack of pretense, our friendliness, our localism–and it leaves behind the baggage of being backward. It’s confident without needing to impress. Just share a drink and some words with a friend.
It was getting late. Clay wondered if someone might be stealing his beer tricycle, but Demian told him not worry, we had his back. “We’d still lose,” Clay laughed. “By the way Kyle, I like your jacket,” he said, noting Kyle’s velour blazer. “It came from H&M,” Kyle said. Clay cringed. “Huh. That took away a lot of the mystique.”
Joshua offered one more drink: the Dark and Stormy, a simple combination of ginger beer and spiced rum. We could maybe even make it at home. But as we laughed about Kyle’s jacket and Clay’s beer-cycle and Moustache Month, I realized there was something different about having the drink there at The Libertine. It was about more than drinks. It was about what was said in between sips–about who’s waiting with you for the next round.[iframe: width=”630″ height=”457″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/QGBlEo2NlsY?rel=0″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>]