Here are a few fun things I’ve overheard Winston Greene, barman and proprietor of Tonic, say to patrons of his new establishment over the past few weeks: “If someone comes in here asking for Jameson, I tell them we have Powers. I’ve never had anyone disappointed, and it’s cheaper than Jameson, actually.”
“We have a tomato-based gin from Italy, and it makes for an exceptionally good dirty martini.”
“There’s the tiniest trace of wormwood in that cocktail — I use it as a bittering agent.”
“This wine is like sticking your face in fresh earth.”
“Japanese whiskeys use a bamboo filtration system that gives it a particular flavor. It’s somewhere between hibiscus and hay.”
I could go on, and clearly so can he. This dude — a self-described actor, rock climber, and seasoned bartender who was raised in Santa Fe — is eminently quotable on the subject of drinks. Tonic, the hallowed Art Deco speakeasy he’s carved out of the old Atomic Grill space next to Café Pasqual’s, is a monument to his own id, ego, and superego. I mean that in the best possible way: As much as Greene talks the talk of craft cocktails, he also walks the walk. Tonic is the best new place to get an adult beverage in Santa Fe, hands down.
But let’s not get completely carried away: There’s not much current competition for that title. Across Water Street and several years ago, mixologist Chris Milligan put Santa Fe on the garden-to-glass map at the Hotel St. Francis’ Secreto Lounge with his signature creation, the much-chronicled smoked sage margarita, which he devised in 2011. Milligan has very recently moved on to the bar at La Posada, and based on a few visits to Secreto of late, much of the creative energy there seems to have left along with him. Other
elegantly appointed downtown watering holes — Bar Alto at Eloisa and the Anasazi Bar and Lounge, as well as the Railyard’s Santa Fe Spirits Tasting Room and Paloma — may have strong drinks programs and talented staff, but none of those environs approaches the rarefied air at Tonic.
Much of the four-month-old cocktail lounge’s splendor has to do with the graceful intimacy of its interiors, which were custom-built to Greene’s specifications. Beyond a heavy carved-sunburst door, guests enter through a spacious vestibule into a dimly lit Valhalla adorned with transom windows; peacock-blue, white, and gold-paneled walls; plush banquette seating; and two stunning crystal chandeliers. Live music booked by drummer (and sometime
Pasatiempo contributor) Loren Bienvenu suffuses the space on Thursday through Saturday nights. On Friday evenings, Bienvenu hosts his own revolving house jazz band. As a trio that features sit-ins from local talent, including Casey Andersen, Pat Malone, Chris Ishee, and Greg Butera, their vibrations seem designed to heighten the bar’s Roaring ’20s vibe. This is truly the cosmopolitan spot that affords an opportunity to escape the monotony of Santa Fe style: On one late-night visit, sipping a well-built Sazerac, I might have fooled myself into thinking I was in New Orleans. Another lackadaisical Thursday evening around twilight, the lilting Irish tones of singer Gerry Carthy had me considering a glass of Powers on the rocks while I dreamed of Dublin.
Greene’s cocktail menu, along with its execution, definitely heightens the otherworldly ambience. The Cactus Coke, a bracing blend of iced reposado tequila, ginger syrup, and local Bitter End Moroccan bitters, packs a wallop in a copper mug. Greene said this piquant drink is his biggest seller, and it’s no wonder. As he served it and I sipped it — listening as he described the laborious process of making the ginger syrup, which he steeps with pink peppercorns and other complementary aromatics — I thought back on all the sticky-sweet Moscow Mules I’ve had over the years and how they could’ve been vastly improved by subbing Greene’s zingy syrup for ginger beer. In short, I drank the Cactus Coke Kool-Aid, and I am now a convert.
The Myrna Loy, named for the effervescent actress from The Thin Man — the silver screen’s greatest marriage of cocktails and detectives — is a grown-up Cosmopolitan of sorts. Made with vodka, passionfruit juice, cranberry syrup (house-made, natch), and a soupçon of sparkling wine, it’s a throwback drink with a sprightly fizz.
Other cocktails build their flavors in layers. In the muted Bliss Behind Your Eyes, sotol is blended with an herbal infusion of damiana — a Mexican herb Greene said is noteworthy for its powers as a relaxant, aphrodisiac, and mood stimulant — as well as earthy, nutty dandelion leaf and the aforementioned “tiniest trace of wormwood.” Finished with grapefruit bitters and a dram of cinnamon syrup, the result is a bizarre but oddly soothing elixir — this, out of the six cocktails on the list, is clearly the eponymous tonic.
The Lady in Black — “smoky, acerbic, and beautiful, she’s the one who got away,” purrs the menu — is perhaps not so mysterious as its name, but it’s certainly tasty, with its moody mix of bourbon, black lime syrup, muddled lime, and smoked salt bitters. These ultra-romantic libations befit a bar that seems improbably filled with darkened corners, each of which feels ideally suited for brooding or canoodling.
Don’t forget to eat while you’re marveling over the concoctions. Tonic is basically a two-man operation, and Greene’s counterpart, chef Zayne Berkey, is a rising star in his own right. He and Greene offer a thoughtful selection of nine small plates, with an emphasis on the kind of hipster bar menu items that are trending across the country. That means there’s poutine, both vegan and classic. The latter is a sizeable bowl of the Canada comfort food that’s practically designed to provide a cushion for the consumption of alcohol, with its rich, velvety chicken gravy; handcut fries; and large, luscious, melty cheese curds. On another plate, roasted Brussels sprouts — a veggie that seems to be spending much longer than its proverbial 15 minutes in the spotlight — are matched with creamy farro and tangy Mornay sauce in a luxe-hippie dish that may leave you feeling more virtuous than the poutine might.
Fried chicken and waffles are given a lighter and whimsical handheld treatment. Small whorls of sweet, medium-thick, crepe-like waffles are served in shot glasses, with little nuggets of breaded dark meat nestled in their soft centers and accompanied by dots of bourbon-maple-mustard sauce. If it’s straight chicken you’re after, though, opt for the savory crunch of the surprisingly complex black garlic chicken nuggets, which are served with two dipping options: a muted buttermilk dressing and a more lively plum Szechuan sauce.
Though the balanced sweetness of our cocktails ruled the dessert option out on both of our visits, local craft ice-cream from La Lecheria, with flavors devised specifically for Tonic, is also available. The selections may rotate, but Greene waxed especially eloquent over the Manhattan option (based on his own spin on the cocktail), which he described as served in a waffle cone and drizzled with his own bespoke Italian amarena cherry syrup.
Having opened last fall with little fanfare, Tonic is still a work in progress. A larger patio vestibule space abutting Water Street is closed for now — Greene alluded to its lack of insulation as well as his plans to eventually move live musicians to that renovated area on a small stage that might, hopefully, lure passersby on a summer’s eve. Greene also told me he’s making a firm commitment to help revive Santa Fe’s downtown nightlife with his late-night hours — the bar is officially open until 2 a.m. Indeed, especially on weekend nights, Tonic hosts a decidedly younger and more local crowd than we’re used to seeing in such a grown-uplooking bar downtown, perhaps owing to the recent demise of both Skylight and the Underground. In the well-appointed Tonic restrooms, the walls are covered in chalkboard paint, with colored chalk available for the creatively inspired. Cocktail-related — and often juvenile — epigrams are thus part and parcel of the powder-room décor.
One night, I listened as Greene told several inquisitive patrons — who had wondered aloud just how he could efficiently manage a crowded bar on his own — that finding reliable bartenders who are also capable of carrying out his exacting standards has proven difficult over the past few months. For now, that means he relies only on a weekend barback for assistance. So bear in mind that if the joint is jumpin’, good things come only to those who are willing to wait.