In May I went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, a city of about 400,000 people. It’s a city that too many coastal dwelling Americans know from the bouncy and saccharine and very excellent, Rogers and Hammerstein musical and Merle Haggard’s famous song, the catchy Okie from Muskogee. Add to that the state being pigeonholed for its tornadoes, football (and more football), farmland and pickup trucks. Now, this is not a column about yours truly, a New Yorker, falling for a small midwestern town’s slower way of life and reconsidering her life choices. I could never exist without markets where I can shop for papayas, knishes, Irish butter and Greek olives 24-hours a day. That’s to say nothing of the self-anointed messengers of God who preach their gospel on the F train, always an entertaining interlude to a busy day.
I mean, I did fall for Tulsa, a gorgeous metropolis with an astonishing number of art deco buildings because, I learned, it was the Saudi Arabia of the world back in the 1920s and 1930s and home to oil moguls flush with cash. The city is presently undergoing a renaissance thanks to tremendous investments in public spaces and cultural programs from native son George Kaiser, billionaire oilman and philanthropist.
No, this is a story about the way the whisky bar has become as much of a dependable constant around the United States as Starbucks, Target, Burger King, or Chinese restaurants. I’ve been lucky to travel a great deal in the past two years, from major cities to those in so-called 'flyover states.' (Oklahoma is smack in the middle of the continent, which I was reminded of when I searched a bar on Google Maps and the red dot showed up like a bull’s eye on the map of the country.) Walking into a whisky bar has become as familiar as taking a seat at the worn mahogany at an Irish pub. Except it’s not. Unlike a pub, or an outpost of any one of those aforementioned businesses, each whisky bar is familiar, yet as individualised as its location, its décor and vibe, its uncommon bottlings on the back bar. It’s worth noting that in 2004, when Flavien Desoblin opened the famed Brandy Library, New York City’s standard-setting and enduring whisky bar, it raged onto the scene before there even was a whisky scene. That being said, he named it Brandy Library because Whisky Library sounded too fusty.
Now the whisky bar is a creature comfort, an institution that provides continuity across the United States, reminding whisky-loving Americans of our shared interest, despite the nation’s ferocious division. You could say the same of bars in general, but I would argue that whisky bars in particular serve as conversation-starters moreso than your average bar.
Such was the case at Cirque. A coffee shop by day, the airy, laidback hangout has colourful murals on the wall, tables, couches, and a bar area where locals sit, tapping away on their MacBooks. There’s also a huge wall of spirits, which become the focus later in the day, when the place turns into a bar. It’s here that I spotted some Japanese whiskies that I don’t commonly encounter on the east coast: Kurayoshi pure malt whisky and Tottori blended whisky. Boy, did my flimsy coastal supremacy fall flat. I had a long chat with Nate Wood, the generously tattooed and heavily pierced bartender, who spoke matter-of-factly about Tulsans’ exponentially growing enthusiasm for trying new whiskies and explained with a sly look how resourceful bar owners and managers figure out how to get these exciting whiskies from distributors. It’s a mystery which is the cause and which is the effect. Are people interested because they try more whiskies, be it familiar brands or more unusual ones? Or do bars increase their selections because guests’ excitement prompts them to?
The same question ran through my head as I scanned the cocktail menu, a beautiful hard-cover book divided by sections: highball, tart, sparkling and tart, creamy and tart, and so on. Elaborate text described various cocktails’ histories or back stories. I ordered a Hot Rod; Bourbon, curacao, nitro cold brew and simple syrup, and asked Nate if I could keep the menu. I couldn’t wait to take it back to the east coast and show it off.