I was never a boozer until I went to Europe. Back in my college days, America still thought of itself as a Budweiser nation: The microbrew revolution was just beginning and it was surprisingly hard to find a good mixed drink outside of a metropolis. For most partygoers, a taste for fine alcohol was a contradiction in terms.
Europe changed that for me. When they said "beer" in a Belgian bar, they were referring to recipes worthy of being handed down for centuries by brotherhoods of craftsmen, the best of whom were monks. Whiskey in Edinburgh wasn't mass-produced moonshine, but Scotch — locally sourced for 150 years. It was a revelation — it was delicious — and America seemed like it had no way to compete.
I couldn't have been more wrong, but it was a common view, and the reason was Prohibition. By 1920, America had developed a vast and sophisticated cocktail culture, breweries of fine quality, and spirits dignified by tradition. Then, in an act of cultural suicide, we made it all illegal.
How did that possibly seem like a good idea at the time?
Imagine being a mixologist when Prohibition was passed in 1920. You have amazing skills — but if you don't want to be an outlaw, what do you do? Almost 100 years later, I know the answer: You become a soda jerk.
The Ice Cream Bar opened on Carl off Cole about two years ago as a classic 1920s soda fountain joint, part of a slowly growing movement to pick up where the dispossessed bartenders of the Prohibition era left off. Unable to ply their trade with alcohol, bartenders turned their mixology to soft drinks: to root beers and egg creams and milkshakes made with tinctures and phosphates and herbs.
The Ice Cream Bar re-creates that atmosphere perfectly. Ella Fitzgerald plays on the speakers as ice is hand-chipped from a giant block by expert mixologists who are working with everything but alcohol. Tinctures labeled "birch bark," "chai," and "hellfire" sit next to the bottled scent of tobacco. Shelves contained chicory coffee syrup, wild cherry bark tincture, gum foam, celery seed extract, licorice root, blackstrap molasses ... virtually all of these things are made by hand.
The drinks are amazing. A piece of the 1920s, slapped down into a neighborhood still stuck in the 1960s. A revelation.
It just ... isn't a bar. It's bright where it should be shadowy, fresh and metallic where it should be smoky and wooden, family-friendly where there should be more than a touch of danger. The Prohibitionists, it turns out, were right: The heart of a good bar is full of sin. Nothing about this place suggests you might need a higher power after you leave.
And, of course, until last year The Ice Cream Bar had no alcohol.
This year the soda fountain got a liquor license, and there's a new section on the menu, "remedies," that has soda shop-style mixes containing booze (good for what ails you).
It's a small list of drinks. Tops is the Angostura Phosphate (Angostura Bitters, lemon juice, fountain syrup, acid phosphate, soda) — a unique and vibrant taste I can't quite wrap my head around — followed by the Sassy Granny Sutton (vermouth, Granny Smith apple syrup, egg white, bay leaf tincture, citric acid, and soda), which is a perfect mix of tart and bracing.
The Port Egg Nog combines 10 year tawny port with a classic egg nog to great effect, while the Dublin Honey mixes Guinness with caramelized honey ice cream and chocolate syrup in a float of tawny port. The port and Guinness do amazing things to the ice cream — although the liquid alone was a taste I just couldn't get used to.
For all its remarkable artistry, The Ice Cream Shop is still figuring its "remedies" out: The standout drinks there are still the alcohol-free beverages, which you can bet your life on. It's also never really going to be a "bar" in the sense that something terrible could happen that I'll never regret.
Normally that's a deal breaker for me, but come on: Don't you want to be a part of this story? To open the lid of our nation's lost tradition and watch them taking the remains of America's lost mixology culture and breathing life into it again, one ingredient at a time? Do you really want to miss a resurrection?
I may have found my drinker's soul in Europe, but The Ice Cream Bar is a shrine to mixology that makes me proud of American history.