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Southtown's new speakeasy-themed 1919 doesn't skimp on herbal essence

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

Bartender Stephan Mendez shakes and stirs at 1919.

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Stephan Mendez looks perfectly at ease and professional in his vest and bow tie as he stands behind the bar at 1919; there's no indication of his revealing that "there was nothing before this anything like this" in a resume that included several years working at so-called "speed bars." But according to Don Marsh, creative partner behind 1919, which recently opened (fashionably without signage — cut this out you guys) below Joe Blue's at Blue Star, Mendez got the highest score ever on his bartender's test.

Marsh developed the test to "scare [unworthy] candidates away" while managing the bar at Bohanan's and then moved on to hone other skills at Steve Mahoney's Green Lantern. Mendez acquired expertise beyond throwing Coke into Jack by, as he says, "playing around at home, logging into an online Mixology Monday group and entering online competitions."

Not with the intention of scaring him away, I gave Mendez a little challenge of my own: come up with a new cocktail on the spot utilizing tequila and the elderflower liqueur, St. Germain. With barely a moment's hesitation, he hit the ground running. Or maybe shaking is more appropriate. Would I have thought of including port? To be honest, I never think of including port.

It was beautiful and, as Mendez put it, "a bartender's drink," primarily for the inclusion of famously bitter Fernet Branca in an inventive form: blended with egg white and simple syrup and turned into a foam (gotta get one of those devices) to be layered over the top of the drink. I got the herbal aroma of the Fernet Branca up front, then appreciated how it balanced the sweetness of the St. Germain and port as the drink was sipped through the foam cap. It was, as Mendez admitted, a very sneaky way of introducing a bitter component that many might initially find difficult to appreciate.

Continuing to goad Mendez and Marsh on, I was next presented with a reposado tequila mixed with yellow Chartreuse, muddled cucumber, lime and celery bitters, all then lightly carbonated, an action that seemed to lift everything without making the drink unduly fizzy. Marsh's newly created Bloody Mary, fashioned with a malt whiskey in lieu of vodka (there's only a single, grudging vodka behind 1919's bar), a complex herb and spice blend, a float of famously smoky Lephroaig single malt and a smoked salt rim, went the other direction — it was deep and tantalizingly earthy and only got better with time.

There are many house rules at 1919, among them "Please speak easy," "Don't ask for chilled beer glasses," and "Don't ask for a Cosmo, a Long Island Iced Tea, Jaeger…" There is no rule that either you or the bartenders need to get gratuitously creative or esoteric, however. The C Cum cocktail is a straightforward concoction of gin infused (or blended) with ginger, dill, and pepper, all combined with fresh lime and cucumber juices; it's as refreshing as it sounds. Gin appears again in the company of St. Germain, pear, and citrus in the Perfect 10; it's also a winner.

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