Should you pick up the $70 tab for the Denmark bartender’s new cocktail class?

Story by Bear Braumoeller

To be honest, I was a bit ambivalent about the prospect of taking a cocktail class. In a way, I've been taking an ongoing series of cocktail classes for years: I've been researching and making classic cocktails at home since before it was cool, and in any restaurant with a good cocktail list, my favorite place is at the bar, exploring the list and learning from the bartender. So, while I'm always eager to learn what I can, I also wasn't eager to spend a few hours (and $70) re-learning what I already knew. The experience turned out to be a lot more thought-provoking than I would have guessed.

When I walked into Derek Reno's inaugural Sip School, I was more cautious than optimistic. Reno himself is a clipper-cut, Doc Martens-shod cocktail evangelist who comes across as edgy but not actually dangerous. When not tending bar at Denmark, he is situated at the center of a confusing Venn diagram of brands (#theRenoReserve, #sipschool, #sipsquad, #theColumbuscocktailclub) that boil down to cocktail education and enjoyment. Appropriately enough, he seems like the sort of guy you'd like to have a drink with.

Photo: Megan Leigh Barnard
Photo: Megan Leigh Barnard

Even so, my heart sank a bit when Reno asked how many of us thought that a martini was made with vodka. Of the seven Sip School students, three raised their hands. A few minutes later, when Reno warned against “bruising” the gin in his explanation of stirring versus shaking, it sank further: No one can agree on what “bruising” is supposed to mean, and while people have claimed that shaking changes the aroma, taste, or chemical composition of gin, experiments have shown that even absurd amounts of shaking produce no noticeable difference in the glass. I was ready for my first cocktail.

As I watched the other students, though, I realized that the Sip School experience was about a lot more than the specifics of cocktail making. The two young men at my table had turned 21 only very recently. They were clearly very enthusiastic about the subject of cocktails. (They had also pretty clearly been pre-gaming.) Two nearby women were also enthusiastic inductees into the world of cocktails. There were lots of questions — the sort of basic questions that people probably wouldn't feel comfortable asking in social settings. But in this boozy safe space, they got answers without shade.

I was also surprised by the first cocktail. Reno had us mix five parts Watershed four-peel gin with one part dry vermouth, stir vigorously, and strain into a coupe. The problem with this formula is that vermouths in the U.S. are typically made from bad wine. Bad vermouth might be the biggest cocktail-killer in most bars, and offering vermouth such a prominent role in a martini struck me as a bad idea.

But this drink was outstanding.

I asked Reno which vermouth he’d used (we had unlabeled carafes). Vya, he replied. This is a crucial piece of information: Vya is an exception to everything I just wrote about vermouth. It’s made from very good wine, and as long as it’s reasonably fresh it can even be consumed straight. Although I’ve known about it for years, I've always made very dry martinis for myself, mostly out of habit. I won’t anymore.

Megan Leigh Barnard
Photo: Megan Leigh Barnard

The two drinks that followed — a Manhattan and a margarita — were less revelatory. Reno also used Vya, sweet this time, for the Manhattan, along with Eagle Rare bourbon and Angostura bitters. It was good, a wine-drinker’s Manhattan, but it didn’t inspired me to switch up my usual formula of rye and Punt e Mes. The margarita, made with lime juice, Camarena tequila, and Fruitlab orange liqueur, was spot-on.

As I savored the cocktails I’d just made, I realized the other students were not only learning but having a lot of fun doing it. Reno had outfitted us with an array of cocktail paraphernalia, and his deft carving of garnishes, supple-wristed stirring, and brisk shaking technique were mesmerizing. Before long, the students were whipping up attractive and delicious cocktails with not just confidence but exuberance.

Reno is well on his way to becoming the Malcolm Gladwell of the Columbus cocktail scene — an upbeat, gregarious guy capable of conveying craft cocktail knowledge to beginners who are eager to learn. Despite my early misgivings, he even had a trick or two to offer a more seasoned tippler who could stand to brush up on his game. Mostly, though, he offers a contagious enthusiasm for his craft that lasts well beyond the class itself.