Kelly's Bar & Lounge
6012 Penn Circle South, East Liberty
The extensive cocktail list at Kelly's Bar & Lounge is no bit of random wonderfulness. This roster of classic mixed drinks has a pedigree all its own -- call it "When Kelly's Met LUPEC." Like many successful ventures, the East Liberty watering hole's list is the product of a marriage, a long-standing union that has paired the retro-ish bar with a local group of cocktail historians committed to superior mixology.
A recent evening found four members of Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails -- Jennie Benford, Cindy Yogmas, Katrina Struloeff and Jen Gottschalk -- cozied up in Kelly's prized window booth. Over amusingly named cocktails -- Ink Street, Gin Rickey and Colorado Bulldog -- they reflected on the origins of the partnership.
LUPEC, a group of friends who sought to educate about women's history as well as re-introduce forgotten cocktails, was in search of a compatible venue to hold events. Kelly's was an easy fit. The longtime neighborhood bar, renovated and re-opened in 2002, was already trading on its well-preserved vintage interior by offering classic cocktails, even with booth-side mixing. Recalls Benford, "They just did cocktails right."
Since 2004, Kelly's has hosted LUPEC's end-of-March party for Women's History Month. Each year's event has had a theme -- "Home Fires," "Good Girls" -- matched with a fresh slate of celebratory cocktails. And six of that year's highlighted cocktails are picked to be advertised on table tents, where a patron can't help but read about the Pink Pussycat or Last Chance.
People "absolutely look at the table tents," affirms Melissa Schafer, Kelly's front-of-house manager. For some regulars, "their mission is to try a new drink each time."
Schafer, who also tends bar, knows that many of Kelly's customers are inspired by both the LUPEC table tents and the venue's lengthy list of "permanent" cocktails. (In this boozy meritocracy, seasonal LUPEC cocktails that sell well are moved to the fixed menu.) "People try to be more adventurous," Schafer says. "It's nice to see them look at the cocktail list and say, 'I'll try a Firefly, or a Gin & Sin.'"
But don't expect to see faddish new drinks like fruit-flavored martinis, or frat-party staples like Slippery Nipples. Classic means just that: "The beauty of classic cocktails is they're really simple, and they show how good a cocktail can be," explains Schafer. "They don't have to be super-crazy, or filled with lots of ingredients. They're just basic liquors, some juice, lemon and lime. But after [tasting] them, people are impressed."
The mixologists behind the bar at Kelly's also welcome hearing about classic drinks from patrons, and will try to recreate the drink. Schafer says it's not uncommon for people to tell her that they were watching some old movie, and saw a particular drink served. "I'll say, 'Here, I'll make you one.'" (I've had the opposite experience: The day after I had a Mary Pickford at Kelly's, I heard that very cocktail discussed as "new" on Boardwalk Empire, HBO's 1920s bootlegging series.)
Back at the window booth, the LUPEC ladies were still fondly recalling cocktails of yore that have found a new home at Kelly's: the Pink Squirrel, Silk Stockings, the White Witch. All had passed LUPEC's muster (Gottshalk admits that some old cocktails sound better on paper than they taste in a glass), and garnered the appreciation of Kelly's patrons. These cocktails, explains Benford, "have to earn their keep." After all, preserving classic cocktails is a team task -- one that involves Kelly's staff, the LUPEC ladies and you, dear drinker.