Laura Cloer, bartender at Main Street Pizza, mixing a Whiskey Sour at the cocktail bar.Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press
A few years ago, a local eatery and bar decided to go a different direction with its drink selection and the rest was history, literally.
The Main Street Pizza Company bar manager Laura Cloer, with the support of general manager Elise Clair, decided to develop the establishment’s cocktail menu by creating drinks that incorporate Johnson City and Tennessee history.
With Cloer’s artistic touch, the results are enough to knock any lightweight from their bar stool, and not from the potency of Cloer’s concoctions but from the creativity.
Ingredients, ingredients, ingredients — that is what she has tried to emphasize in putting out perhaps the most unique, well-made cocktails in Johnson City.
“I don’t think there’s anyone doing anything like we’re doing here,” Cloer said.
A strict avoidance of processed foods and products, like drink mixes and fruits laden with high fructose corn syrup used at a lot of other bars, is the rule. And Cloer follows it very closely. She salivates at the chance to use herbs and the bounty of local gardens to make the drinks, she said.
The restaurant has always been willing to pay a little more for high-quality products to give their customers something better. In the cocktail world, this is as clear as day with the type of jarred cherries Cloer brought in to give her cocktails that perfect finish.
Whereas candied maraschino cherries top many drinks at other establishments, Cloer pushed to spend the extra dollars to bring in gourmet Italian Luxardo cherries.
Such a cherry tops Cloer’s version of a classic whiskey sour, complete with a creamy egg white to cover a mixture of Bulleit bourbon, simple syrup with raw sugar, ice and fresh-squeezed lemon juice. She likes to complement the bright yellow drink, topped with cream and that top-shelf cherry, with several drops of juice from the Luxardo cherry jar.
Cloer, 31, who studied history at East Tennessee State University in graduate school, said she fell in love with the area after coming here from Seattle. Her love of history, she said, is what got her into making cocktails, which have a big historical edge to them since so many of their ingredients have been around for so long.
Coming from an extremely artistic family, Cloer said she felt funny going into history, but noted that she’s found her way to express her artistic side.
“There’s a lot of beauty in the cocktails of the past,” she said.
This, with her employment at a place where high-quality and top-shelf spirits are appreciated and served hasn’t made her a drink “snob,” Cloer said, but she does like sharing with customers why certain liquors, even certain brands of liquor, might bring their cocktails to the next level.
“The kind of drinking we promote here is family friendly, not rounds of shots as much of a slow-sipping experience,” Cloer said. “It’s more about the experience.”
With Cloer’s love of the experience-driven cocktails, she said they’ve been able to keep the costs to customers low. She is often floored when she’s told they could be charging a lot more for some of the drinks she and her staff are putting out.
As talented as Cloer is with mixology, she said her tight-knit group of bartenders is able to put out this same quality of drinks. She holds herself to a high standard with the drinks she’s named.
“I don’t want any drink to go out that isn’t as good as it could be,” she said.
The War of the Roses is one of the more popular drinks on the menu, consisting of Smooth Ambler Rye, George Dickel Tennessee Whisky, fruit juices and Campari. It has been flying off the highest shelf, Cloer said.
The drink is based on the favorite true tale that took place in Tennessee when the Taylor brothers both took a shot at the gubernatorial race from each side of the aisle, with supporters wearing white roses in support for one brother and red for the other. The War of the Roses, for that reason, consists of red and white elements, Cloer said.
Another one that hits close to home, or just a few blocks down from the bar, is The Lady of the Fountain.
This Limoncello (homemade), Galliano and Prosecco cocktail is topped with a long cut of lemon twist, honoring the recently restored bronze replica statue of The Lady that stands downtown. The statue was made famous as the guardian of the area when train traffic gave Johnson City an economic boon in the early 1900s.
The Lady of the Fountain and the War of Roses are just two of six in a series of drinks developed by Cloer for The Spirit of Johnson City drink menu that rolled out in 2012. The restaurant, Cloer said, has seen a positive response to the drinks.
“I love having clients try something they’ve had a million times but (they enjoy) ours differently,” she said.
To read more about Cloer’s cocktails featured at the Main Street Pizza Company, including recipes, check out her blog at sassandgin.blogspot.com, which earned attention across the nation when it was featured on www.seriouseats.com.
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