In any city worth its cocktails, there’s at least one or more person who cuts a wide swath of influence across the local bar scene and rises to national prominence – a person whose name becomes linked with the city and its drinking culture. Seattle has many, including Andrew Friedman, Jamie Boudreau, and Anu Apte. In Portland, Jeffrey Morgenthaler fills that role, while Huston has Bobby Heugel. In Indianapolis, Crossroads of America, Ed Rudisell is on track to join that club.
While Indy is famous for its annual race, and as the birthplace of Kurt Vonnegut and David Letterman, its high-end cocktail scene isn’t likely yet on most people’s radar. Their loss. In a three-day dash across the vast stretch of Indianapolis, Ed Rudisell showed us why ignoring Indy as a cocktail destination is done at your own peril.
The occasion of our visit to Indianapolis was the Mixture Indianapolis Cocktail Tour, now in its second year. Mixture showcases Indy’s wealth of innovative bars within the city’s limits. Unlike cities like San Francisco and New York, where most of the highly regarded bars are found close to the city core, in Indianapolis, many of the great watering holes are clustered in up and coming, gentrifying neighborhoods such as the Wholesale District, Fountain Square, Mass Ave., and Fletcher Place. For the price of a ticket, Mixture matches up locals and visitors like us with twenty Indy bars for a fun and convenient way to sample some of the best drinking establishments in Indy over the course of an evening or two.
While Mrs. Wonk and I have no problem hunting down the best bars in a city–we have done our damage in London, San Francisco, New Orleans, Prague, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, etc…–on this trip we lucked out, with Ed shepherding us around while providing a running color commentary on Indy’s neighborhoods, history, and nightlife. As a longtime resident, and owner or co-owner of four restaurants in Indy (Rook, Black Market, Siam Square, and Thunderbird), Ed is intimately familiar with Indy’s food and drink scene. Walk through a doorway with Ed in this town, and you’re guaranteed that someone knows his face.
Our Friday started out in a sleepy haze after a red-eye from Seattle. After freshening up in our luxe suite at Le Meridien, Ed arrived in his pimping white Buick SUV, heavy metal blaring on the stereo, to kick off our day. Food was a pressing thought, and what better way to dive into Indy’s food scene than giant burgers at Kuma’s Corner. Yes, a heavy metal burger palace, its motto: Eat beef. Bang your head. As one whose teenage years were a steady diet of hair metal and hard rock, the décor at Kuma’s was a trip back to in time to my bedroom, circa 1988. (Mrs. Wonk is kind of glad she wasn’t around at the time to witness those years.)
Before Mixture kicked off at 5:30, we had time to make the first of several visits over three days to Black Market, way at the end of Mass Ave. and nestled up to Interstate 70. Set in an older, two story brick building, you’d be forgiven for barely noticing it from the outside. But step through the door and you’ll first encounter a black mural faithfully recreating the cartoon drawings on an often-photographed exterior door at the Damoiseau distillery on Guadeloupe. This is your first clue (at least to an informed rummy) that Black Market is serious about rum.
The overall aesthetic is exposed brick and wood. A giant reclaimed beam suspended over the bar area is a bit of Sword of Damocles meets adjustable lighting, and each of two twenty-foot-long communal dining tables tucks under a trio of oversized black metal pendants. Find your seat at the bar and take a moment or three to study the bottles on the shelves– you won’t find any that don’t belong. Not a vodka bottle in sight. While high end spirits of all persuasions are to be found there, it’s obvious that bar manager Chris Coy is also a rum fanatic like Ed. With rare and exotic bottles, including a large collection of Duncan Taylor rums, there’s no doubt that Black Market intends to be ground zero for Indy’s rum scene.
While Mrs. Wonk took a power nap after lunch, Ed and I checked out Crown Liquors to pick up a few special bottles of Dictador and give me a perspective of what’s in-market in Indiana. Before starting our Mixture fun and swooping by to pick up a revived Mrs. Wonk, we pre-funked at Rook, another of Ed’s restaurant mini-empire, which specializes in contemporary Asian cuisine and offers a modestly sized but impeccably curated bar. It wasn’t long before I found myself enamored with the obscenely colorful flower garnishes wielded by bar manager Eli Sanchez. During our pre-funk, the Rook staff was setting up for that evening’s Mixture cocktail, a Vesper, made with Hotel Tango “Golf” gin.
Here’s how Mixture works: The event is organized by the Indiana Craft Beverage Association as a non-profit endeavor to promote the city’s restaurants and bars. Spirit brands such as Appleton, Angostura, High West, Old Forester, and Hendricks sponsor cases of their respective products. In this year’s setup, each bar is assigned a classic cocktail (e.g. Sidecar, Mojito, Blood and Sand, Gimlet, and so on) and provided a supply of the appropriate sponsored spirit for that cocktail. Mixture attendees pick up a wristband and a neighborhood passport, stamped at each bar when picking up their cocktail. A Mixture bus shuttles attendees between the various neighborhoods, making driving a non-issue. The bars feature a different cocktail on Friday and Saturday evening, guaranteeing a new experience even if you’re a repeat customer. In the end, the hope is to draw locals and visitors into the heart of the city to explore.
After rendezvousing with Mrs. Wonk at Le Meridien, we pick up our wristbands and passports at the Mixture starting line on Georgia Street and then head back to our hotel. Not to rest, but to check out Spoke and Steele, Le Meridien’s restaurant and bar featured as one of Mixture’s destinations. (Mrs. Wonk was particularly enamored of the space and snapped a bundle of photos for future interior designer reference.) Spoke and Steele’s frozen Gimlet (Hendricks Gin) with cardamom bitters was a hit with Ed, Mrs. Wonk, and me, and I’d not hesitate to visit the bar, even if we weren’t staying upstairs.
Leaving Spoke and Steele, a short walk yielded more than few sightings of mobile pedal bars, stuffed with bro dudes and bachelorette parties. We were not inclined to join. (As Mrs. Wonk later quipped, the Indiana state bird must be the woo girl.) In short order we arrived at Mass Ave.’s Ball and Biscuit. The weather on the late September evening was pleasingly warm (with no remnants of the classic Midwestern thunderstorm that rolled through earlier), so the three of us sat in the outdoor patio area out front as Friday evening Mixture revelers paraded by. The official drink was a Manhattan with Templeton Rye, photo at the top of this post. In time owner Kendall Lockwood joined us, and we were soon chatting about Jamaican rum distilleries, since she, Ed, and I had all traveled there in recent months. Their extensive cocktail menu is wide ranging– classics with a twist. Definitely worth a visit if you’re in town. Alas, we had more Mixture bars to attend to!
Next stop, Libertine–a cozy hideaway of a vintage-inspired cocktail bar and gastropub tucked underneath an artisan pizza restaurant, where the Mixture official drink was the Noveau Carre, featuring Roco Anejo tequila. Scanning their solid collection of spirits and the cocktail menu, stuffed with cleverly named concoctions (“Let Them Eat Cake,” inspired by Marie Antoinette, and “Death Beyond Means,” via Oscar Wilde) and unusual flavor combinations, I knew we’d want to linger a bit for some nibbles and a few more rounds.
With Mixture “officially” over for the evening, a return to Black Market was mere steps away. While we hadn’t imbibed on our initial visit, now the gloves came off. Expensive rums and exotic cocktails appeared before us courtesy of Chris Coy, including the oh-so-familiar yet far from home Golden Shellback, an original recipe from my good friend Jason Alexander at Tacoma Cabana. Ed seems to know nearly everybody in the Tiki community, and highlighting great rum bars elsewhere is just part of doing business. Of all the drinks that night at Black Market, Mrs. Wonk’s vibrant green Agricoole-Aid–garnished with a looping two-foot strand of lemongrass–was easily the most memorable. (And while we didn’t get to deep dive into the kitchen’s magic, Mrs. Wonk commands you not to miss the house-made mozzarella sticks when you find yourself at Black Market. These are not the nosh of your misspent Jersey youth—these are worth traveling for. And don’t miss the opportunity to while away your evening on the wisteria-covered garden patio. You would never know the interstate is mere feet away.)
Fast forward past our collapse into bed, slightly beleaguered (us, not them) brunch the next morning at Spoke and Steele, and an afternoon podcast adventure to be named later: We arrive at Saturday night in Indy. Prior to the forthcoming official Mixture stops, we wisely built a solid base of food at North End Barbecue & Moonshine. Situated far from the downtown core in a somewhat suburban-tinged shopping center, the newish building resemble more an upscale chain restaurant than a BBQ nirvana. But make no mistake, the North End Barbeque is a citadel of delectable southern-inspired eats. It’s no surprise that Ed picked this particular location for its cocktail menu, which currently features two spectacularly innovative Rhum Clement-based cocktails competing in an upcoming competition judged by Clement’s Ben Jones. The Beet the Goat features goat cheese washed Clement Bleu Canne and beet juice, for a brilliant red color. However, I gave a slight nod to the Carry On, with two Clement rhums, sherry, cardamom orgeat in addition to more mainstream ingredients.
After a drive south through the city, we made a stop at Black Market to check out Chris’s Mixture-inspired Hurricane. Ever innovative, Chris had made a few, ahem, improvements on the standard recipe and christened it Hurricane Bootsy – it’s got an extra bit of funk! In time, a bottle of Appleton 50—let that number sink in a moment–unexpectedly appeared in front of me. Sadly, it only held a few drops. Martin Cate’s visit to Indy the prior year (complete with road trip to pour one out at Tiki impresario Stephen Crane’s grave in nearby Crawfordsville, Indiana) had left the bottle nearly empty, but simply nosing the last few milliliters was divine. The crystal bottle and solid brass stopper are insanely heavy! You can imagine where some of that $5,000 (list price) goes.
Our final Mixture stop this year was Thunderbird, serving up Agavonis, aka tequila negronis. Thunderbird’s building has some great history as Indy’s first live rock and roll venue in the 1950s. Today, the first impressions are of a quirky, yet comfortable neighborhood bar. The backside of an upright piano greets you upon entering, and windows open fully to bring the street inside. A vintage neon thunderbird—the original rescued bar signage from the 1950s, found in a neighborhood garage–watches over the bar. But don’t let the low key vibe trick you into thinking this is a basic beer and shot bar. The cocktail menu is (currently) movie themed with solid selections all around. At Ed’s recommendation I went for a Bloodsport (DonQ Anejo, Rittenhoue Rye, Cynar, maraschino, and sweet vermouth), which arrived in a bottle labeled movie-credit style.
Ed’s heavy metal ring tone was a constant presence during our trip. With three restaurants to run, there’s always an issue to tend to and questions to be answered. Yet he still finds time to organize and co-host the Shift Drink Podcast, which launched a few months ago.
Ed’s co-host of the Shift Drink Podcast is Arthur Black, resident wine and spirits guru for National Wine & Spirits and holder of a dizzying amount of wine and spirits certifications (not to mention accomplished and dedicated yogi). We’d first met Arthur along with Ed and Chris at Rum Renaissance last year, but here in Indy was our first chance to really wonk out about our shared love of spirits.
The staff at Spoke and Steele graciously let us take over the communal table in the middle of their dining room as our podcast studio, which worked well despite the occasional loud buckets of ice being poured mere feet from Ed’s microphone. Rather than a stuffy studio, this was just like hanging out a restaurant, chatting with your friends.
It’s not entirely coincidental that Arthur heads up the Mixture event—the previous evening found him touring Mixture locations into the early morning hours. As I learned during our first meeting in Miami, Arthur doesn’t do anything without bubbles at hand. Despite all of us being fortified from the prior evening, Arthur was pouring champagne before recording even started—not a bad way to start a day.
Of course, no drinking-oriented podcast would be legitimate with only champagne, and Ed delivered with a bottle of Chalong Bay Agricole-style rum from Thailand. Ed, Arthur, and I were double-fisting champagne and Thai rum (served classy, in wine glasses) as we blazed through forty-five minutes of recording and into a second, bonus session. Arthur had to duck out early to tend to Mixture duties, so Mrs. Wonk took his slot at the microphone and added her insights. The podcast should be up in mid-October and I’ll add the link here once it’s available.
An unexpected bonus before leaving Indy was a surprise invite to Makahiki – A night of Tiki. We weren’t quite sure what we were getting ourselves into as our Lyft driver delivered us to a deserted strip mall in a distant corner of northeast Indy. The sign outside says this is usually the Time Out Lounge, but with one step inside, it was clear that a band of hard-core Tiki fanatics (specifically the Fraternal Order of the Moai, Pukapuka Chapter) had transformed this dive bar into a Tiki wonderland for one ephemeral evening.
The bar was staffed by local bartenders crafting Tiki drinks from a custom menu for the event. Entertainers for the night’s enchantment included a surf rock band, percussion exotica, a burlesque troop, and an audience participation limbo competition. Many Tiki drinks were consumed before Chris graciously shuttled us back to Le Meridien in the wee hours of the morning.
Although our intrepid troop didn’t quite make it to all twenty bars participating in Mixture, it gives even more reason for Mrs. Wonk and I to return to Indy to remedy that. Like many smaller markets, Indianapolis has an emerging food and drink scene that is worthy of attention—and not just to label it “the next Portland” or “a little bit of Brooklyn in the heartland.” Indianapolis truly deserves more attention—put it on your Midwest cocktail tour, for sure.
Huge thanks to VisitIndy.com for arranging our trip, as well as Ed, Arthur, Chris, and everyone else who treated us incredibly well and left us with great memories and reasons to return.