At Buffalo Proper on Franklin Street, visitors can expect three things: Executive Chef Ed Forster’s food will be more creative than most Buffalo establishments, general manager and founder Jon Karel’s potables will offer an interesting interplay of flavors and someone will climb or bang on something before the night is out. That’s just how a proper Buffalo Proper night goes, and regulars have learned what to expect.
Karel has become something of a household name in the Buffalo craft cocktail scene, having founded Buffalo Proper after he designed the cocktail program at Vera Pizzeria in 2011, with a departure to Rochester-based beverage maven The Revelry in between. His self-professed drive to create a “Buffalo-style” cocktail has informed a recognizable signature that plays with the yin and yang in his flavor profiles. The “Pennyroyal Tea” is no exception.
[Read a cocktail review of Buffalo Proper's The Blinker]
When Buffalo Proper opened almost a year ago, I tried a number of Karel’s cocktails on opening night, and again many nights after that. I’ve returned to Proper at least once a month since, not just to try new offerings but because as a whole, Karel’s staff makes a darn good drink.
The first Proper tipple I tried was the “Ginger Baker,” a now-standard that has remained on its menu ever since. That cachaça, ginger jalapeño cordial, lime and red grape blend is not dissimilar to the Pennyroyal Tea, which is scotch-based with yellow Chartreuse, lemon and that same cordial. Comparing the two allows the drinker to see how Karel’s menu has evolved since the place opened, and how it hasn’t.
[Read how the Ginger Baker made Schumer's list of five must-try cocktails]
Both the Ginger Baker and the Pennyroyal Tea go down smooth, but finish with a kick. The ginger jalapeño cordial is a warming, spicy creation that has that sweet-hot, medicinal element ginger adds, as well as a vegetal heat from the peppers that needs the ginger’s sugar to keep it in check. Scotch’s peat moss flavor pairs well with the cordial’s recognizable spice.
Yellow Chartreuse and lemon is a natural marriage. The high-octane sweetness of the herbal liqueur needs citrus to cut it, and that blend would have blended well with the scotch, even without the cordial. But Karel is all about contrast. For the same reason the former drummer installed a set of rhythmic noisemakers – the better to offset the bar’s genteel vibe – a Karel cocktail usually comes with a twist.
Unlike other craft menus in the city, Karel’s cocktails have not evolved much since he unveiled his first lineup. The new additions are often similar to our old friends and if the Proper barman is playing it safe, that’s understandable. He’s found a formula and if the packed rail every weekend is any indication, it’s a winning one.
But I expect more out of the granddaddy of Buffalo’s craft cocktails. He may have been among the pioneers of the style, but if he wants to stay on the forefront of an exploding scene, that takes innovation. Rising above the status quo got Karel a prime spot; he’ll have to keep rising to stay in it.
All cocktails, $10; Buffalo Proper; 333 Franklin St., Buffalo; 783-8699
Lizz Schumer is the editor of The Sun, author of “Buffalo Steel” and covers food, drink and whimsy for a variety of publications. She can be found online at lizzschumer.com, facebook.com/authorlizzschumer and @eschumer.