The Year of Drinking Locally
Oklahoma’s beer, liquor and wine outlook
Photos by Don Risi
Three new Oklahoma City taprooms opened in the last quarter of 2018, and in a very real sense, they were the first “graduating class” of the Brewers Union. The brainchild of Black Mesa co-founder Brad Stumph, the Brewers Union is an incubator for startup breweries, offering a range of services including equipment, taproom space and sales contacts.
“The first class was a little different than the current group of breweries,” Stumph says. “These guys all came to me with a ton of brewing experience, and all had permanent locations in some stage of development, even if it was just planning.”
That first class comprised Angry Scotsman, Elk Valley and Vanessa House, all now with taprooms in the urban core. In fact, all three are located adjacent to stops on the streetcar route, and because they are located in different districts, all three have the potential to be anchor businesses for those districts. When added to the “old dogs” such as Anthem and COOP, as well as beer bars along the lines of McNellie’s and Tapwerks, the new taprooms create a beer-dense drinking scene in the urban core, a clear indication that drinking local is easier than ever.
“I used to know everyone in the brewing business, and all the breweries,” Stumph says. “I don’t know that anyone knows everyone anymore.”
Norman, too, is blowing up as a local-beer friendly town (see “Boomer Brewers”), and central Oklahoma has breweries in Midwest City, Edmond and Stillwater, as well. Changes to the state’s alcohol laws have added energy to an already burgeoning field of home brewers with plans to launch commercial enterprises. All but a few of the current crop of Oklahoma breweries are led by head brewers who started as home brewers.
The new class at the Brewers Union is Crossed Cannons, Cross Timbers, Mad Hopper and Skydance, which means central Oklahoma will likely have a few new taprooms in late 2019 or early 2020 – not including the massive new COOP facility in the old armory building on NE 23rd.
As good as the news is for local brewing, the other two main categories of alcohol – wine and spirits – lag way behind. The former industry is showing some potential, with wines made from Chambourcin and Norton leading the way. The two red grapes do well in Oklahoma soil and climate, unlike the so-called noble grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, etc.
Guthrie-based Prairie Wolf Distillery ended 2018 with some major changes, including the launch of Obahoshe Rum and a determination to expand distribution to Texas and Colorado in the immediate future. The PW line includes vodka, gin and coffee liqueur. Castle Spirits, Oklahoma’s newest distillery, just released its first batch of Honey Blend at the end of December (see “Kings of the Castle”).
What this means overall for Oklahomans is more choices in more places, and while the decision to “drink local” still mostly means choosing a local establishment, with greater frequency it’s coming to mean drinking alcoholic beverages produced right here in central Oklahoma. This seems like a good time for an overview of how we are doing booze-wise, as well as some local establishments serving up great cocktails, and businesses that make drinking easier and better, even in your own home.
A More Beery Union
Skydance Brewing launched on Dec. 29 last year as the first of the Brewers Union’s second class to go public. Founders Jake Keyes and Nick Hodge are home brewers turned professionals, and Keyes actually started brewing with his father before he passed away in 2013. His father’s recipe became the basis for an award-winning oatmeal stout, and a dead crane fly is the inspiration behind another award winner, Mosquito Hawk Amber Ale.
“I was getting ready for a national home brewing competition, so I was kegging the beer,” Keyes says. “I noticed a dead crane fly in the batch, but I didn’t have time to re-brew it, so I scooped [the fly] out, kegged it and sent it on to the competition. It won a medal, so I guess the crane fly didn’t hurt it.”
Keyes said he and Hodge intend to stay with the Brewers Union about a year and a half. Capital investments in equipment, space and ingredients make commercial brewing expensive, so the Union lowers barriers to entry for small-scale brewers by bringing the equipment under one roof and renting it to four different startup breweries. Stumph has a background in marketing and communications, and that experience is also one of the services the Union provides to brewers, as well as teaching them the complexities of navigating the distributor system.
There is room to expand, but Stumph called four at a time a good number for now. “I don’t want to try to do too much,” he says. “I want to focus on the guys who are there.”
Helping small brewers is the future of craft beer. Stumph cited numbers that indicate nearly all growth in the beer sector is in micro- and nano-brewing niches. Of the approximately 7,000 breweries in the country, 75 percent of them make less than 1,000 barrels of beer per year. That number translates to 13,000 cases annually. How small is that? When InBev acquired Anheuser-Busch, total production jumped to 357 million barrels per year, or just more than 4.5 billion cases annually. Given that scale, drinking local is basically a virtue.
Shop While You Drink or Drink While You Shop
Julia McLish obtained two degrees at UCO, neither remotely related to tending bar.
“I completed degrees in forensic science and criminal justice, but I never wanted to be a cop,” says McLish, now owner of Barkeep Supply, 1121 N Walker. “While I was at UCO, I worked in a bottle shop, and then I started bartending, and once I started, I never wanted to stop.”
After six years spent behind bars at The Garage, Power House and VZDs, she made a decision to apply her love of bartending to a retail concept that would offer supplies and hands-on training for home bars.
McLish used seed money from an inheritance left by her paternal grandfather, a WWII veteran and career Major Leaguer whose full name was Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma “Buster” McLish. (Yes, really.)
“According to the family story, my great-grandfather had not been allowed to name any of the previous six children, so he didn’t waste his opportunity when naming my grandfather,” McLish says.
As part of her concept, she included a four-seat area in the back that she thought would be a “tasting bar” – but soon, folks started showing up to sit and drink there. Turns out people love a little bar with a bartender who is extremely good at her craft, especially when she will also show you how to make that drink you love at home, and then sell you the supplies.
Barkeep has also become a hangout for some of the city’s best bartenders, and McLish even offers “takeover” nights on which local bartenders will offer their own menus, either to get the creative energy out into the world or to try a new menu of cocktails before it rolls out.
The bar is also small enough to encourage people to engage each other in conversation, and the “other half” of the team – Brenna Murphy and McLish’s mother Kathy Sandefer – are very much a part of the social fabric of Barkeep.
As for the store, it’s stocked with professional-bartender-quality tools and the city’s best selection of bitters, including local options from Winship. McLish carries educational books, quality glassware – so you won’t need to steal from your local bar – bar carts, aprons and a wide range of bartending necessities. She can guide you through the whole process, and if you’re looking for a fun (and educational) night with friends, you can book private parties or rent out the whole space.
If the bar’s full when you arrive, just mill about, and McLish will find you, take your order and put a cocktail in your hand while you browse. It’s a terribly civilized way to go shopping.
Bartending Stars’ Top Concoctions
Tamarind Whiskey Sour
From Chris Castro of The Kitchen at Commonplace
1325 N Walker, OKC
- 2 oz whiskey
- 2 oz tamarind syrup (see below)
Combine in a shaker filled 2/3 full of ice. Shake vigorously until cold, strain into a pink or green short glass with ice.
- Tamarind Syrup
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1/3 cup seedless tamarind paste
Place all ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat and stir until tamarind is broken up. Cook, stirring occasionally, until sugar is dissolved and mixture just comes to a boil, about 10 minutes. Turn off heat and let cool slightly, at least 10 minutes. Once cool, strain mixture into a jar; discard solids. Date, label and store in the refrigerator until ready to use. Keeps about two weeks.
From Colby Poulin and Chris Barrett of cocktail consultants A Clockwork Pour
- 2 oz Pimm’s
- 3/4 oz cranberry juice
- 1/2 oz lemon juice
- 1/2 oz honey
- Muddled rosemary
Shake well, strain twice and pour over rocks, top with ginger beer and garnish with a sprig of rosemary.
From Stewart Schroer at OBar
1200 N Walker, OKC
- 2 oz peanut butter-washed Four Roses bourbon
- 3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
- 3/4 oz simple syrup
- Framboise float
The Buzz & The Bees (a take on Keoke Coffee)
From Rick Patino at The Winston
110 W Main, Norman
- Eote coffee (The Winston Blend)
- Oklahoma Distilling 1907 whiskey
- Oklahoma Distilling Stiff Shot coffee liqueur
- Vanilla honey syrup
- Orange cognac foam
- Fresh grated nutmeg
Nut Brown Hare
From Julia McLish of Barkeep Supply
1121 N Walker, OKC
- 2 oz Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon
- 1/4 oz “El Guapo” Creole Orgeat
- 1/4 oz Montenegro Amaro
- 2 dashes Winship’s Café y Chicory bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir until chilled. Strain into an old-fashioned glass over a Vault cocktail rock. Garnish with a sprig of fresh rosemary and an orange twist.
The Freeze That Pleases
“There is no point in going to all the work of making a beautiful cocktail and then topping it off with frozen Oklahoma City tap water.”
A veteran OKC bartender, Alex Larrea is now the training manager for Vault Ice, a local company that produces large format cocktail ice for commercial and home use. The majority of the manufacturing is done in OKC, and Larrea said that will continue until the company maxes out the facility. Vault is already talking to national accounts, and they seem ready in every way for expansion to a national brand.
Why a company that makes ice? Larrea explained that, just as chefs use heat to marry ingredients and produce the best flavors, bartenders use dilution and chill to maximize flavor components of a cocktail. Even a neat pour of bourbon can show more complexity with the addition of a little water.
“No one should throw tap water on top of good bourbon,” Larrea says, “yet bourbon needs some dilution. Spirits over 80 proof are likely too ‘hot’ for you to taste all the different flavor components. Dilution separates glycol from ethanol, releasing the rich fats and proteins, adding to the flavor components and complexity.”
Two things are clear at this point: General Chemistry in college should begin with an explanation of how ice can make booze taste better, and ice is much more important to cocktails than laypeople realize. Most of us have had the experience of pulling ice from the freezer, adding it to a beverage and noticing the odd taste. The same unpleasant notes in tap water are also present in the ice, and when it melts into your drink, the flavors come with it. Distilled water helps, but what you really need is ice in a format that melts slowly, too, thus the large cubes.
While most of Vault’s work is focused on commercial accounts, they also make sleeves of six cubes available for take-home use. Barkeep Supply and Uptown Grocers carry them, and by not adding rogue flavor components, they truly make a difference in cocktails.
Riley Marshall is the operating partner for what is probably the hottest bar in OKC right now. Bar Arbolada is technically located in the Arts District, but no one can blame Film Row for laying a claim to the hotspot regulars are starting to call Barbolada. Marshall sees the nicknames, hashtags and mashups as a sign that people love the place, so he’s typically amused by them. When I suggested his new beer be called “Beerbolada,” he smiled patiently and said, “Of course!” with no intention of following through.
By the time this issue hits newsstands, that custom-brewed and as-yet-unnamed lager, which Marshall describes as “easy drinking,” will be on tap at Bar Arbolada. In a surprise to many locals, he chose Heirloom Rustic Ales in Tulsa’s Kendall Whittier district to make the beer.
“I think they’re making the most interesting beer in Oklahoma right now,” he says. “They’re thoughtful, interesting guys, and they don’t [worry] about trends. I don’t care about hazy IPAs or stouts with marshmallows and toffee. I want an easy drinking beer. We’ll probably go with ‘Arbolada House Lager by Heirloom Rustic Ales’ for the name, but I’m not sure yet.”
This next part is going to sound like we’re making fun of our civic sister to the south, but we’re not: Norman seems an odd place for craft beer to do well. Any local bartender can tell you that when college students show up at a bar, they don’t ask for craft beer with their shot of Jameson (or Fireball); they ask for whatever will add up to under $5.
Nevertheless, craft beer is thriving in Norman. Brad Stumph said it’s because the small-town vibe of the non-university part of town contributes to an ethos of supporting local. “Craft beer is expanding all over the country. That’s been true for a while, but Norman seems to appreciate local business more than a lot of places; they really embrace it.”
Lazy Circles and 405 Brewing both started in Norman, and Black Mesa has now relocated there, so why is Norman so popular with brewers? Stephen Swanson of Lazy Circles said the city has been very welcoming, both at the customer and business level. “They are just excited to have breweries in their city,” he says. “We’ve tried to honor the community, too, by making styles that local people like to drink.”
Swanson, along with his sister Holly Basey and business partner (and brother-in-law) Stephen Basey, opened the Lazy Circles taproom in December 2017, at almost the same time 405 Brewing opened theirs. They’ve jumped into the community engagement approach by hosting events, and the community has responded with tremendous support.
The Norman Transcript also reported that the City of Norman has invested about $13 million in city improvements over the past several years, and Norman voters approved Norman Forward – a citywide package of quality of life improvements – in 2015. Main Street development is showing signs of new life, including the newest Hal Smith Restaurant Group concept Neighborhood Jam, and BIG Brew Company (Beer is Good) broke ground on its new brewery and taproom at 216 E Main this year. Stay tuned.
Ten to Try
With so many new area breweries, and new options from older favorites, where should the local beer lover start? We’re glad you asked ...
Straight Razor Pale Ale from Elk Valley: Light, balanced, lovely
Havana Affair from Stonecloud: A German Pilsner that deserves to be as commonly known as the more popular (and delicious) Astrodog and Neon Sunshine.
Vanessa House’s 401(K) Cream Ale is a solid choice, but we went with the blackberry deliciousness of 11:09. Once you try it, you’ll never forget what a Berliner is.
COOP Ale Works’ longtime favorite DNR, a quad-style strong ale – sweet with high ABV
Gateway to Helles, a light German-style Helles Lager from Angry Scotsman
Prairie Artisan Ales’ Standard: If you like your beer like you like a barnyard – and a lot of people do – this is your farmhouse ale.
Lively Beer Works has a stellar balance and bright citrus on their IPA.
405 Brewing’s FDR, a chocolatey, coffee-centric Imperial Stout
Anthem Brewing Company’s OK Pils is just like it sounds: A tasty local Pilsner.
Main & Porter, a roasty, toasty, nutty Porter from Lazy Circles
Kings of the Castle
Sometimes, you have everything you need to make a still just lying around, especially if you’re a lifelong plumber. When Russell Thorp decided the time had come for a handmade copper pot still, he already had almost all the components.
“That base is a big copper bowl we used to used to hold wood for our chiminea,” Thorp says. “Everything else is just plumbing equipment.”
Thorp and his wife Vicki own Schuler Plumbing on NW 4th in the Ironworks District, and for the past two years, they have been developing Castle Spirits, a craft distillery that produces a delicious cordial. The neutral spirit plus honey has been licensed as a “honey blend,” and it’s very similar to liqueur without the cloying sweetness.
“We produced a product that we think people can sip and enjoy,” Vicki Thorp says. “We tested a lot of batches, and we found that if it sat in the barrel too long, it smoothed out too much. We wanted it to have a little bite to it.”
Castle – the name comes from the Tudor house on Canary Street where the couple live – is definitely smooth enough to sip straight at only 35 percent ABV, but it’s also perfect for a hot toddy or any other cocktail that involves tea or honey or both. Truthfully, when it finds its way to back bars around the state, it will be a popular choice for shots, too, because of the low alcohol and easy drinking character.
The first batch debuted Christmas Eve, and bottles are available on the shelf at Edmond Wine Shop, Beau’s Wine Bin, Pancho’s Liquor Town, Kickingbird Wine and Spirits, Moore Liquor and The Wild Turkey.