Taking things to the next level is Mike Gulley of Dragonfly Lounge (1865 W. 25th St., 216-696-7774, dragonflycleveland.com). Part of a growing trend of molecular mixologists, Gulley uses high-tech equipment and techniques to produce unconventional — yet delicious — cocktails. In a process called "fat washing," bacon flavor is introduced to bourbon while leaving no actual fat. That bourbon is then used to make a meaty Old Fashioned. When topped with maple syrup foam, it becomes the breakfast of barflies.
As Paulius Nasvytis likes to say, "You can't boil an egg until you learn how to boil water." At Velvet Tango Room (2095 Columbus Rd., 216-241-8869, velvettangoroom.com), tipplers can sip faithful representations of history's finest elixirs. To ensure exacting consistency, cocktails are built gram by gram on a chemist's scale. Try the Ramos Gin Fizz, a labor-intensive beverage made from small-batch gin, orange blossom water, citrus juices, and egg whites that has the ethereal consistency of clouds.
"The reason I go to work every day is so that I can buy a cocktail at Velvet Tango Room," says Chris Minnillo of Duck Island (2102 Freeman Ave., 216-621-7676). "But at $15 a pop, who can afford more than one?" In Minnillo's hands, less expensive spirits are transformed into well balanced — and affordable — cocktails so that we can say "Another round, please," without flinching. Duck Island's Manhattan may not be made with $60 rye, but the drink still tastes like a million bucks.
"I like to take cocktails from the Golden Age and put a modern spin on them," says David Haynes of Dante (2247 Professor Ave., 216-274-1200, restaurantdante.us). As comfortable behind the range as he is the bar, Haynes is a bona fide "bar chef," artfully melding spirits and kitchen ingredients with deeply satisfying results. To pack three layers of olive flavor into his Dirty, Filthy, Nasty martini, he mixes the gin with kalamata olive brine, floats the drink with olive brine foam, and garnishes it with chopped dehydrated olives. Filthy delicious.
A well-crafted cocktail is never one-dimensional; it should produce a harmonious symphony of flavors — and maybe a surprise. Take a sip of a New Fashioned served up by Kari Hazen at Crop Bistro (1400 W. 6th St., 216-696-2767, cropbistro.com) and you'll experience successive waves of heat, sweet, sugar, and spice. Maker's Mark bourbon is muddled with chipotle-cured cherries, providing a bracing but welcome dose of spice in the finish. That subtle kick in the pants makes it impossible to ignore your drink.