n November 2007, I penned "Richmond on the Rocks," my field report after sampling 40 drinks at 20 bars in 30 days. The money quote was this: "The best place to get a cocktail in this town is my house." Twenty-two months later, I gladly concede my mixology crown to Bobby Kruger, craft bartender behind The Mint, Richmond's first speakeasy (well, since Prohibition anyhow).
Part of the opening staff at Julep's New Southern Cuisine, he's been behind the restaurant's bar since 2003, and now he'll perform the same function for its after-hours cousin. At a place called Julep's, he'd better know a thing or two about the namesake cocktail, and indeed he does. Six years of simple syrup, muddled mint and bourbon have imbued Kruger with a deep knowledge of whiskey and a rare respect for drinking's place on one's social and dining menu. Add to that a bartending philosophy that parallels the chef's, and you've got a combination of locally sourced ingredients, seasonal inspiration, and a mission of quality and craftsmanship.
For instance, August's drink of the month was the Cucumber and Ginger Collins. In a town that swills vodka like sweet tea, Kruger's menu is laden with gin concoctions like this one that elevate a cocktail lover's palate. When treated with handcrafted love and assiduous know-how, a pinnacle cocktail is no different than a sumptuous entrée or a silky dessert that is so pretty, diners go scrambling for camera phones and start issuing Twitter updates.
"Right now," Kruger says, "I'm into summer basil, honeydew, cantaloupe, cachaça, Hendrick's, crème de violette and Square One botanicals — a vodka-gin proprietary hybrid." Looking toward autumn, Kruger speaks of pumpkin, rhubarb and figs with balsamic syrup. And his frothy drinks evince cunning and confidence: "Egg white won't hurt you. It's good for you and the drinks."
Kruger attended craft bartending classes in New York City and earned his shaker stripes on stage shifts in crackerjack joints such as Angel's Share and PDT, an East Village haunt known for Chartreuse drinks and its clandestine entrance through a hot-dog stand's phone booth. During the writer's strike, I sipped Monkey Gland cocktails there with Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers and Rachel Dratch and pined for a gin mill like this in the 804.
Inspired by innovative drinking scenes in New York City, San Francisco and London, Kruger brought the speakeasy style to Richmond, combining dimly lit environs with bossa nova circa 1920s Cuba, Prohibition-era drinks and Motown B-sides. With waitresses dressed in cocktail chic — or even vintage flapper vogue — with flowers in their hair, The Mint ain't a place for Red Bull or Jager bombs. Open weekends only, The Mint begins as the restaurant closes, though Julep's full appetizer menu is available all night, so no one's forced to get rummied on an empty tummy.
Starting at 11 p.m., doors are locked, blinds are drawn and lights are extinguished. Reservations are smart, but walk-ins are taken as space allows. The side door doesn't open out, so guests must call for entry. Unlike during Prohibition, state regulators certainly know about this joint, but few others do. Spread the word, but be selective … and tell Bobby that Tesauro sent you.
1719 E. Franklin St., 651-8621 Friday and Saturday, 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.