Cincinnati mixologist Molly Wellmann transformed a local bar into a hotspot hang-out, where the cocktails are custom-made and the aura is old-school cool.
It’s a sunny, chilly Saturday afternoon in Cincinnati, and I’m standing outside of Japp’s, a bar in the city’s Over-the-Rhine area downtown, waiting to meet with the owner, Molly Wellmann. I spot her through the bar’s glass door, hurrying toward me, her heels clicking. Wellmann, 38, is a familiar face around Cincinnati, and once you meet her, it’s easy to see why she’s not quickly forgotten: Her flaming red hair, copious tattoos and quirky fashion sense match her vibrant personality. She opens the door, tells me she loves my sparkly Betsey Johnson purse and welcomes me into her quaint urban establishment.
Wellmann asks me what I want to drink and I request a water—definitely the most boring drink you could order at her bar, but hey, it’s only 3 p.m. Typically, Wellmann’s patrons are far more adventurous in their drink orders. Japp’s doesn’t cater to a Bud Light/Miller Lite kind of crowd and doesn’t carry either of those mainstream beers, opting instead for an eclectic mix of bottled brews and liquors. But the bar is best known for its specialty cocktails. The menu includes such unique concoctions as Mystery Box (a mixture of champagne, Bullet bourbon, St. Germain, vanilla syrup and a twist of lemon) and the New Orleans (a mix of bourbon, Prichard’s rum and triple sec). Wellmann frequently asks customers what types of drinks they like and then creates a custom-made drink based on their preferences. It’s an approach that seems to be working: In January 2012, readers of Metromix, an online entertainment guide, voted Japp’s as the city’s Best New Bar and Best Cocktail Bar.
The magic in making a cocktail, Wellmann says, is in the details. Her concoctions are made from all-natural ingredients. “I don’t have any high-fructose corn syrup in here,” she says. “I make all of our own liquors, all of our own syrups. We use real sugar with all of our syrups. It’s amazing: Sugar will take the flavor of almost anything—I [even] made popcorn syrup once.” After bartending for nearly four years, she’s developed precise ideas about what works and what doesn’t. “We make our own sour for each drink; I just don’t have sour mix,” she explains. “I don’t have that glug-glug-glug in a fucking jug. That stuff is nasty. I would much rather have an egg in my drink than that glug-glug-glug of artificial-sweetened, high-fructose corn syrup, nasty syrupy crap in my drink.”
If the thought of having an egg in your drink makes you want to vomit, don’t knock it ‘til you try it. Wellmann’s specialty drinks surprise even the most sophisticated palates, and she loves to encourage patrons to experiment with new drinks. “A lot of times if I’ll make a drink and I have a little bit left over I’ll be like, ‘Here, I want you to taste this,’” Wellmann says. “And they’re like, ‘Wow’! And then they want one, you know? And then I’ll tell them the story [behind the drink’s creation] and then it becomes an experience.”
Part of the experience is watching the bartenders create the unique concoctions. “I think people enjoy watching the process—you know, watching the drink getting made,” says Japp’s regular Anh Tran. She met her boyfriend, Philip LaVell, at the bar in July 2011, and loves to tell the story of how their relationship blossomed over the copper-topped bar at Japp’s. “Molly always jokes [about how] we would come in every Saturday and stay until close—that we were the happy ending,” Tran says.
Wellmann’s attention to detail in cocktail creations is reflected in the atmosphere at Japp’s, which LaVell describes as having “an old-world romanticism.” Wellmann, who describes herself as “an old soul,” adds, “It’s modern, yet it’s very much an old-school place. There are no TVs in here. The music is usually 1960s or before.” And it’s not by accident that visitors feel as though they just stepped back in time when entering the building. Japp’s first opened in 1879—not as a bar, but as a wig shop that specialized in hand-sewn wigs made from human hair. After the wig shop closed down, Japp’s re-opened as a bar in the 1990s, but it was closed again when Cincinnati was besieged by riots after a white police officer shot an unarmed black man, escalating racial tensions. In January 2011, Wellmann acquired the lease for Japp’s with her business partners from Famous Neons Unplugged, another Cincinnati bar. In July 2011, they officially re-opened Japp’s.
Wellmann confesses she has no formal background in business. While in college in San Francisco, she studied nutrition and jewelry making. She is, impressively, a self-taught mixologist. “I read constantly about cocktails, spirits, how to make things, what’s going on,” she says. “I read old cocktails books from, like, before Prohibition.” Bartenders at Japp’s study to keep up with the profession, too. “[There are] some pretty good bars with really good bartenders, but everyone here loves and has a passion for what they’re doing,” says Tommy Lansaw, 23, who has been bartending at Japp’s since it re-opened under Wellmann’s management. “[We] want to make sure that every drink we give [customers] is the best drink they’re going to have for the night, or the day, or the year, or ever.”
In the past few years, Wellmann has made quite a name for herself around Cincinnati. These days she occasionally guest-bartends at various venues around the city, and every once in a while on a Sunday—which is usually her day off—she makes drinks for shoppers at Findlay Market, a popular public market in the city’s Over-the-Rhine district. Occasionally she hosts special events at Japp’s, like the cocktail-mixing class she taught in November 2011.
Just thinking about how busy Wellmann is can make a person tired. “When you do something that you’re passionate about and you absolutely love, you don’t get burned out,” she says. “It’s a part of your life. It’s like having kids, you know? You might get sick of your kids sometimes but you’re never going to hate them. I don’t have any kids, but that’s how I imagine it would be. But I love this place. I feel like I’m married to it sometimes.”
It’s a marriage that appears to be flourishing: Japp’s recently expanded its liquor license to include the space next door, where Wellmann hosts private events; the space is also open to patrons on busy Friday and Saturday nights. In May 2012, Wellmann and her Japp’s business partners will open Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar in the Mainstrasse area in Covington, Ky.—just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. They plan to start with between 50 and 70 types of whiskey, but hope to build up their selection to include about 150. Already Wellmann looks forward to using the new venue as a platform to teach patrons about the historical significance of bourbon, whiskey, scotch and rye.
Wellmann’s approach to her business may be unorthodox, but it works. “This is my style. It’s kind of different and weird,” Wellmann explains. Her success, it appears, hasn’t gone to her (red)head: “I just see myself as a goofy girl who just knows how to make a really good drink.”