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With a dedication to service and style, area bartenders are crafting a cocktail revolution

Tony Rials shaves down a chunk of crystal clear ice and drops it into a highball. He measures an ounce of this, a dash of that and a dropper of something else into a shaker, stirs vigorously and then strains it – twice – over the ice. He pinches the oils from an orange peel and swirls it around the edges of the glass before sliding the drink toward the customer with a smile. Five years ago, such fanfare would have been a production. But today, for Rials and dozens of bartenders across Western New York, it’s just Tuesday.

“We work so incredibly hard on the flavors, balance, execution and appearance of our drinks,” Rials said of that studiously clear ice. “Ice is just an extension.”

Since Vera Pizzeria opened on Lexington Avenue in 2011 and launched craft cocktails into the city’s awareness, numerous bars serving complex drinks with fresh ingredients have sprung up, spreading even into the suburbs, where the fanciest drink used to be a Mudslide. Buffalo was once known as a Genny-drinkin’ town. Last summer, my fiancé and his friends tailgated with Negronis. The Queen City has cocktail fever.

Tim Stevens, who opened Ballyhoo Links and Drinks in the former Malamute, said that Buffalo is ready for this cocktail revolution.

“Buffalo has a lot of opportunity for a small-business owner, and I believe the general public is looking to embrace some challenging concepts. We plan on offering the best we can. This is a city of ‘earn it,’ ” he added.

And earn it they must. Crafting a cocktail is about more than just throwing some flavored vodka and soda into a glass. It’s about fresh ingredients, balancing flavors and most of all, dedication to service and style.

Bars like Buffalo Proper and Bourbon & Butter have created that synergy, with a price point to match. For an average of $10, customers expect a solid sipper. As the craze spreads, many bars are struggling to catch up.

Tom Dalton started a craft cocktail program at Winfield’s Pub, a former dive bar in Lackawanna. Dalton, 23, said having a solid handle on classic drinks is key. “A lot of places are throwing together menus because it’s hot right now,” he said, checking his stock of homemade bitters. “But if you can’t make a classic Manhattan, how can you mess with the recipe?”

With craft cocktails offered seemingly everywhere and more than 30 craft cocktail menus springing up around Western New York, a handful of local barmen have come together to make sure that dedication to quality comes first.

“We spend a lot of time … not only in the creation, tasting, testing and prepping, but the accurate and efficient repetition of our drinks,” Rials said. “We never stop reading, tasting, learning, but theory is only part of it.”

Rials came up under some of the best bartenders in the industry, but others learn on the job. Jon Karel of Buffalo Proper started out slinging shots at Faherty’s before he crafted Vera’s menu. Stevens rose to star status in San Diego before coming home. All of these bartenders have one thing in common: dedication.

“(It’s about) how serious do you want to take your craft,” Rials said. “This is practically the baseline in any field we could be involved in.”

Used to be, Buffalo cocktail seekers had two, three options at best. Today, the bar has been raised. Sports bar extraordinaire (716) Food and Sport has a budding drink list. Mes Que soccer bar on Hertel Avenue has a kickin’ Moscow Mule selection. Jaguar at the Bistro in Youngstown has a margarita list not to be missed, and that’s just a few of the offerings.

So is the cocktail trend like the frozen drink craze of the 1980s? Today, you would be hard pressed to find a blender drink outside a TGI Friday’s, and in 10 years, our grandchildren may laugh at our fascination with bitters.

But right now, whether the region’s cocktail fever breaks depends on the men and women behind the rail.

“It is going to the hands of the creative and brave because that is what it takes in this industry,” said Stevens of Ballyhoo.

So how do we find the diamonds? Look for bitters, drink-specific glasses and often, large ice cubes as sure signs of serious sippers. Craft cocktails usually are as strong as their bartenders’ convictions. If they’re made well, that – even for thrifty thirsts – will be plenty worth it.

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