The Old Sugar Distillery's cavernous space on East Main - beautiful copper still, banged-up old piano, low pendant barn-lights, walls painted a green that would not be out of place in a public school, soft indie rock, muted voices - feels a bit like the site of a potentially awkward chemistry class lock-in. In a good way.
A calm, unpretentious vibe exudes from the bartenders and patrons alike, making the experience seem like a novel getaway in this quiet warehouse backstreet. More impressive, the cocktails match the decor: The drinks are a pleasant mix of simple tutorial pours and quirky touches.
They're divided among drinks featuring the distillery's Cane and Abe Rum, Honey Liqueur, Queen Jennie Sorghum Whiskey and Americanaki Ouzo. Starting light, the popular Honey-Cap is a brightly refreshing drink that is out of place in fall but that would work well outside on the picnic tables in summer. Billed as being similar to a Brazilian caipirinha (the national cocktail of Brazil, traditionally made with sugarcane rum, sugar and lime), it is sweet by Brazilian standards but right for the palate of most non-caipirinha drinkers. For anyone looking for a perky vs. contemplative sip, this should be a regular east-side go-to cocktail.
The Main Street cocktail is Old Sugar's version of a Sazerac and is a blend of Queen Jennie Sorghum Whiskey, bitters, sugar and ouzo. The drink description says it comes with an ice cube or two but it was served staunchly neat with a slice of orange and a straw. It was tasty, but a little process such as cooling the glass with ice, swirling the ouzo in the glass first, or rubbing the rim with peel would have brought a little more life to it. These are sometimes sneeringly referred to as "mixologist's" tricks, but they exist for a reason and do improve drinks. They are also important steps for a cocktail claiming to resemble a Sazerac.
The Fall Special cocktail is a winter-holiday-flavored mix of Cane and Abe Rum and Reed's Spiced Apple Brew, topped with weapons-grade amounts of cinnamon. On a cool fall evening, this drink's simplicity is endearing - if not at all subtle. Old Sugar's rum is great stuff, and here the warm brassy flavor imparted by the charred casks and the Ozark-made copper still shines through.
A truly successful highlight of the drink list is the Gringo, a mix of horchata and Honey Liqueur, topped with cinnamon and nutmeg. If you enjoy horchata you might love this concoction enough to buy some horchata mix and attempt to replicate the drink at home. Again, it is a bit heavy on the cinnamon. Never mind that the Gringo is a Mexican-inspired drink - its frothiness and spice make it applicable in cool weather, and it is an imaginative tipple with a wow factor.
Old Sugar's charming ambiance makes it an ideal place to bring out-of-towners or even dates. It is a refreshing change from restaurants and bars, and the fact that the bar is in the actual distillery introduces a welcome nerdy element. The local sourcing is also welcome - the Honey Liqueur and the Americanaki Ouzo use Midwestern beet sugar; the sorghum whiskey uses all-Wisconsin sorghum.
A little touch-up to the mixology would allow the cocktails to rely less heavily on the inherent strengths of Old Sugar's products and truly make the distillery a destination showroom for these beloved locally crafted spirits.