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My booze heavens 

Capital Bar and Grill and Colonial Wines & Spirits are the twin pillars of local liquor culture.

Whiskey at Capital Bar and Grill image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Some of that 'brown liquor' at Capital Bar and Grill

Last week, I had a cocktail at the Capital Bar and Grill that, it's reasonably safe to say, no one else has ever had. Its ingredients were Benedictine, a sweet French liqueur that was supposedly first created by monks 500 years ago; St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, a rum distilled from fermented molasses that tastes strongly of clove and nutmeg; juice from yuzu, an East Asian fruit that with the tartness somewhere between that of a lemon or a grapefruit, and Grand Marnier. Stirred and strained and served with an orange peel, it was tart and sweet — though not cloyingly so — and delicious.

I am not a cultured drinker. I have Maker's Mark in my liquor cabinet and Budweiser longnecks in the fridge. I order house wines at restaurants, and I don't know a Gimlet from a Greyhound. Booze knowledge has always struck me as arcane and expensive — not worth the trouble. But after spending time recently at the Capital Bar and Colonial Wines and Spirits I'm starting to think maybe a fancy liquor savings account might be in order. Once you taste the good stuff, everything else is swill.

At the Capital, Spencer Jansen served as my guide. A runner-up for best bartender in this year's Toast of the Town and a past winner, the 28-year-old is a passionate liquor autodidact. The first thing he showed me was The Root, a liqueur that's only recently available in Arkansas. It's based in root tea, an herbal remedy made from sarsaparilla and sassafras and such that dates back to at least the 18th century, when colonial settlers first heard about it from Native Americans. Recipes were passed through generations, and at the height of the temperance movement, a Philadelphia pharmacist removed the alcohol and birthed root beer. Or at least that's the story Art in the Age, the Pennsylvania distillery that makes pre-temperance Root, tells. Jansen used it to make an ice cream float not long ago that "was incredible."

For perhaps more serious-minded drinkers, the Capital carries more than 60 varieties of scotch, including a Macallan 30-year single malt that's $120 a shot. It's the only place in town to find Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, a line of bourbon that Jansen said the Capital endorses as the "best bourbon made" today. Breckenridge, another small batch bourbon, uses "snow-melt water" in production. On the bar's cocktail menu, "The Old Timer" uses Breckenridge in a sort of time-lapse Old Fashioned, where simple syrup and Angostura bitters are frozen in an ice cube; as the cube melts, the flavors emerge.

The Capital is mostly known as a "brown liquor bar," Jansen concedes, but that's ignoring a lot of good stuff. Like Hangar One Fraser River Raspberry Vodka, infused with raspberries grown in the Fraser River Valley in Washington State, a ruby-colored drink that tastes like raspberries, not raspberry flavoring. Or one of Del Maguey's mezcals — a cousin of tequila, made with water and the heart of the maguey (agave) — that come from individual family producers in remote villages in Mexico's Oaxaca state.

Colonial Wines & Spirits, the perennial Toast of the Town winner for best liquor store, carries Del Maguey (a "single village mezcal" costs $72.99 a bottle) and just about everything else The Capital stocks — and more. Pressed to name some of the unique inventory, store media coordinator Ben Bell thought for a minute and headed over to the beer aisles, where he pulled out a bottle of Lambrucha, a Belgian beer made with Kombucha, a fermented tea. It was one of 40 new beers — including a smoked beer Bell said reminded him of smoked sausage and a Swiss beer aged in oak — the store had recently begun to stock after its beer buyer provided a distributor with a wish list of his most coveted international brews.

Other highlights, according to Bell: Rogue Gin, aged in pinot noir barrels; several varieties of Signatory Vintage, a line that repackages small batch whiskeys from different, highly-sought-after micro-distilleries; Geniver, a Dutch-style gin that's not made to be mixed, and Punt e Mes, an Italian vermouth with a bitter flavor that Bell says he drinks straight when he really "wants to wake up" his palate.

Near the beer aisles in a relatively small shelf soon to be replaced with a much larger one is Bell's primary passion — sake. He'd just returned from New York, where he'd taken an examination to become Arkansas's first Certified Sake Professional. Sake "is probably the most misunderstood category in the U.S., but it's growing in popularity," he said. Colonial will have a "world-class" sake section by next year.

Education will be key to growing sake's popularity in Central Arkansas, Bell said. Lucky for him, he's got something rare or perhaps unique among liquor stores in town — a tasting bar, where customers can sample before they buy. It's open 1 p.m. until 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Jansen, at the Capital Bar, is always happy to impart his knowledge as well.

"People can come in and say, 'Create something.' We're going to try to push our limits. We want to have an interaction with our customers. I want them to have the experience of drinking and trying," he said.

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