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The Mystery and the Mixology of New Cocktail Lounge Obscura

By Brenna Smith · October 7th, 2013 · Drink
eats_obscurabar_jf4Benjamin Newby - Photo: Jesse Fox

The American gentleman is back, and the guys who brought you FB’s — Scott Sheridan, Bill Foster and Anthony Huser — are celebrating with their new cocktail lounge Obscura, located on Walnut Street downtown. With only 80 seats on the main floor and 12 seats at the bar, Obscura will offer an intimate experience with high-craft drinks and small bites — a respite from the crowded Over-the-Rhine or Banks scene. 

The owners hired Benjamin Newby, a mixology consultant who works in Chicago, along with other bartenders from Chicago and Miami to help them with their project. 

“They didn’t want to open the hot new bar,” Newby says. “They wanted to create something new to Cincinnati, something that would be a worthwhile addition and raise the level of the nightlife industry. What I’m all about is making things accessible. … It’s raising the level of hospitality, creating a much more personal experience.”

The cocktail menu they developed is recognizable, with classics like the Manhattan and Moscow Mule, but with added components they call the “Obscura elements” — special touches that showcase their brand — accompanied by a few bells and whistles behind the bar, including juices made daily. (Sorry, Rose’s lime juice fans.)

For example, a traditional Moscow Mule is a simple mixture of vodka, ginger beer and lime juice. The Moscow Mule at Obscura uses Columbus, Ohio’s OYO vodka, simple syrup made with ginger, Australian peppercorns and lime powder mixed in a hand carbonator. 

Hand carbonator not enough? Newby loves using a food-smoking gun to add another layer of flavor to drinks. For the Obscura Manhattan, they mix local Woodstone Creek five-grain bourbon and port (instead of sweet vermouth) with bitters and then he fires hickory smoke on top for a final touch. 

One of the cocktail menus is called “For the Love of Local” and features many Cincinnati names, including Churchill’s Fine Teas, Colonel De Gourmet Herbs & Spices and a cocktail made with Rhinegeist beer.

They’ll also feature a superfood cocktail called Market Share, made with seasonally available produce including things like kale or chia seeds.  

“What’s been good is having that relationship with the market and farmers. (It) means that you’re always in a very good position to be really creative with the menu,” Newby says. “For example, I need some sugar cane, and now they’re bringing me sugar cane and lavender.”

For non-cocktail drinkers, Obscura has wine, bottled beer and two beers on draft: MadTree and Bavik, a Belgian pilsner. They’ll also offer full tea and coffee service with teas from Churchill’s. And for late night bites, they’ll offer pastries made off-site and aperitifs made in-house. 

Obscura harkens back to a more sophisticated time in drinking, according to Newby. The inspiration for the cocktail lounge comes from the disappearance of American businessman Jim Thompson, once the most famous American living in Asia. Known for revitalizing the silk trade in Thailand in the 1950s (his silk was used to make the costumes in the 1951 film The King and I), Thompson mysteriously disappeared while going for an afternoon walk from a friend’s house in Malaysia. 

He is, to the owners of Obscura, the epitome of the American gentleman. And they were so moved by the intrigue surrounding Thompson’s story and disappearance, they deemed the basement, which is used for private parties, as the “Thompson” room. They even have some Thai-inspired cocktails planned. 

“Every cocktail has the Obscura element,” Newby says. “Whether it’s the flavored cocktail or the smoke that comes out of the glass while the server tells the story of Jim Thompson disappearing in a puff of smoke.”

The team takes the guests’ experience seriously and pays attention to every detail: the music, the art, the spacing of chairs and tables, and especially their staff. They’ve hired professionals to help the front-of-house perfect their personal looks ranging from hair and make-up to advanced grooming — no razor burn here.

“If you’ve got that great drink and that beautiful environment, plus a well-groomed, well-disciplined, intelligent, communicative staff that wants to share the Obscura experience with the guest, I just think that creates something so unique and something so much more personal and resonates on a very basic level,” Newby says. 

“People just deserve a better time, they deserve a better night out, and that should be the priority.” 

True to form, Obscura’s official opening date is left a mystery for now, but unlike Mr. Thompson, at least we know where to find them. 

For more information: obscuracincinnati.com.



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