MOLLY WELLMANN IS THE CRAFTIEST BARKEEP IN TOWN
And now she’s transforming the Queen City’s bar scene.
By Jim DeBrosse – May 3, 2016
Molly Wellmann, age 10, is chasing Shannon Wellmann, age 8, around their parents’ two-story house in Colerain Township, demanding that her younger sister turn over a shirt she’s just purchased with her own allowance. Shannon, who at such a tender age has seen too many of her clothing items dyed, altered, ripped apart, or never returned in one of Molly’s many fashion experiments, refuses.
“If you don’t give me that shirt, I will call you ‘Onion’ the rest of your life,” Molly threatens.
To which Shannon replies: “I don’t care. You’re not getting my shirt.”
Thirty-two years later, Molly still calls Shannon “Onion.”
Shannon Gourley (née Wellmann) relates this story to explain why she hasn’t been surprised at all by her sister’s success as the face of Wellmann’s Brands LLC—a growing mini-empire of some of Cincinnati’s most popular and hipster-ish bars, including Famous Neons Unplugged, Japp’s Since 1879, Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar, and Myrtle’s Punch House—and as the evangelist of a new generation of bartenders devoted to making fine craft cocktails.
“She’s very determined. It goes along with her creativity. It doesn’t make any difference what the enterprise is, she creates her own dream,” says Gourley, who has watched her older sister morph over the years from aspiring fashion designer to jewelry maker to nutritionist, and now rock-star mixologist and nationally known bourbon expert. Wellmann has her own book (Handcrafted Cocktails: The Mixologist’s Guide to Classic Drinks for Morning, Noon & Night, published by Betterway Home Books) and a weekly radio feature about cocktail culture (on WNKU), not to mention her portrait engraved on a bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon. Procter & Gamble has sought her expertise, and in February, the American Distilling Institute invited her to San Francisco to taste and judge more than 600 craft spirits over three days. Fans who see her dining out in her favorite spots never fail to ask, “So what are you drinking?” (Wellmann’s go-to is a simple Beefeater martini.)
For Wellmann’s Brands, she serves as cocktail designer, bartender trainer, stock manager, spokesperson, and goodwill ambassador. She’s also much in demand for private bartending classes, tastings, and guest bartending appearances. In short, she’s come a long way from being fired from one of her first bartending gigs in Cincinnati. (“They said I didn’t appreciate their menu. I told them nobody does.”) Later, as an itinerant guest bartender and a stickler for fresh, homemade ingredients, Wellmann hauled around a large metal case crammed with her own bitters and mixing tools (“I looked like I was working for the CIA”). Her mission: to sabotage the city’s “beer slingers” and their cloying array of mixed drinks sloshed together from sodas, juice concentrates, and artificially flavored syrups and mixes. Instead, she would lovingly craft each of her drinks from fresh ingredients, shaken or stirred, in the presence of her customers.
One of her legions of converts is Rob Highlander, a resident of Highland Heights and frequent habitué of Japp’s in Over-the-Rhine. “The first time I ever came in here, I asked the bartender, who happened to be Molly Wellmann, for a rum and Coke. And she said, ‘I’m not going to make you that,’ ” recalls Highlander. “My reaction was, like, Who in the hell do you think you are? I ordered a rum and Coke, I want a rum and Coke. She said, ‘I’m not going to make you that, but I’ll make you something else with rum in it.’ So she made me a Mean Street. It was the best drink I’d ever had, and consequently, made me more willing to try different kinds of alcohol and different mixed drinks.”
Although her job demands that she spend less and less time at Japp’s, Wellmann is never more content than when she’s concocting a custom-made cocktail for a thirsty devotee. Or anyone, really. But it took years of dedication to achieve that level of satori, and she makes no apologies for her high standards. Store the vermouth behind the bar instead of in the refrigerator where it belongs? “Believe me, I’ve almost been in fist fights over that,” she tells a recent private class of aspiring mixologists. Shake a Manhattan rather than stir it? If she catches somebody shaking one, “I’ll tell the bartender to stop it right there and toss it out,” she continues. “I’ve worked very, very hard to be a good bartender in this city and I have every right to be snotty.”
Her fans tend to agree.
Like her clock-making father, Wellmann is a perfectionist; at the same time, “she never asked anyone to do anything she wasn’t willing to do herself,” says Stuart MacKenzie, one of Wellmann’s first employees at Japp’s and now the co-owner of Northside Yacht Club. “She was down in the trenches.” Not to mention the floor at times, where Wellmann has been known to clean up an over-indulging customer’s gastric gratuity.
Wellmann’s bartenders use private Facebook pages to circulate cocktail recipes and instructions, along with drink histories and origins. At the Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar, where Wellmann maintains the most stringent standards, new hires spend months researching and preparing for her 250-question oral exam, which could include a question on any of the 400-plus bottles of whiskey stocked on the shelves. “She came in during one of my shifts, and I was making drinks for customers while answering her questions at the same time,” says Val Diehl, who has worked at OKBB for two-and-a-half years but has known Wellmann much longer. “It was weird, and nerve-wracking, answering questions from a friend.”
All this makes Wellmann sound like the Dragon Lady of Cincinnati Spirits, but anyone who knows Wellmann knows this: She is incapable of being mean. Her brand of persuasiveness at age 10 may have stooped to threats of lifetime shaming, but today it has far more to do with her infectious energy, encyclopedic knowledge, and girl-next-door charm, made all the more alluring by her décolletage of floral tattoos, Chanel-meets-punk sense of fashion, and whiskey-sweetened voice.
Polly Campbell, longtime food and dining writer for The Cincinnati Enquirer, remembers her first encounter with a Wellmann cocktail when Molly was a bartender at the now-defunct Chalk Food and Wine. “I got this cocktail with beet juice in it, and it was like, well, I’ve never had a cocktail with beet juice in it. I knew there was such a thing as craft cocktails, but this was clearly delicious and so fresh. I remember thinking, This is something new and this is going to be fun.”
Not long after, when Wellmann began bartending at Lavomatic (in the space now occupied by Krueger’s Tavern), Campbell would stop by and chat with her about the latest developments in the local bar scene. “She was so full of new ideas,” Campbell says. “Somehow, she hasn’t toned herself down or been beaten down by the business. She was the perfect person to do this craft cocktail thing in Cincinnati because she loves the city, clearly, and because she always brings that freshness to her work.”
A freshness that arises, if you ask her family and friends, from her gently in-your-face individuality.
“Molly did her own thing from birth—make that from conception,” says her long-suffering mother Nancy. “She loves people—she has always loved people—but she really didn’t care what other people were doing or what they thought. If they wanted to follow her, that was great. But she didn’t follow the crowd, they followed her.”
She remembers with one part nostalgia, one part relief a long list of Molly anecdotes: the magic show she staged in the backyard when she was 8 “with jobs she’d assigned to half the kids in the neighborhood”; the “wedding day” with the boy up the street so she could wear the gown she had designed and sewn herself; the hair dyed various shades of purple, blue, and pink during her teen years; the 16th birthday party attended by legions of young guests in leather, chains, and ripped T-shirts; the tennis lessons at the local pool where she wore a Cyndi Lauper tutu dress and bright red sneakers; the prom date named “Germ” who showed up sporting a purple Mohawk and a pair of gladiator boots; and of course, the endless arguments over setting limits—what age for her first tattoo, how many piercings, which body parts, where she could go out, when she should come home.
Nancy Wellmann strived to set boundaries without quashing her daughter’s creativity. She held firm on a number of issues—no tattoos, no tongue piercings, and no outfits sporting a skull and crossbones. But that wasn’t good enough for some mothers who didn’t like Molly’s influence on their own daughters and gave her a hard time. “It was me who had the hard time trying to protect Molly,” her mother recalls. “None of it bothered her.”
Wellmann’s inner toughness may have had much to do with dyslexia, a learning disability characterized by difficulties with reading comprehension and spelling. “I remember I had a lot of tutors in school and things like that,” she says. “I got picked on a lot because I just had a weird way of learning things. I still do. I’m the worst speller.”
“She was a very smart student, but she couldn’t get it out on paper,” her mother says. With the help of a special education teacher at St. James White Oak School, Wellmann learned an array of mental tricks she still uses today to help her with the written word, such as how to spell “friend” without transposing the i and the e. (“I just remember that Friday—F-R-I—is my friend.”)
Wellmann tried a year at McAuley High School, where she discovered that an all-girls Catholic academy was not the best fit for a Cyndi Lauper wannabe. She persuaded her parents to transfer her to Colerain High School, where she thrived among the clique of skateboarders and gently punked-out misfits, and within a more arts-oriented academic program. She graduated with honors.
Wellmann’s dyslexia has not kept her from reading deeply and widely about liquor, its origins, and its connection to Cincinnati. “She’ll get up at 8 in the morning and just start reading about, say, bourbon history. Book after book after book,” says her fiancée Bee Gundrum, owner of Beelistic tattoo parlors, with whom she shares a house in Clifton. She also has no problem comprehending, and remembering, the myriad facts demanded by her job. It’s a passion that borders on obsession, she says. Listen to one of her weekly 5 O’Clock Tales broadcasts on WNKU, and in four minutes of air time you’ll get a crash course on the roots of Prohibition and its cultural and economic impact; the history of wassail; or how the Old-Fashioned came by its name.
Wellmann trains her bartenders not only to make cocktails but to know the backstory of every drink they make. She sees it as a way for them to interact with their customers while also educating their palates. “Every employee who works for us is familiar with Molly’s way,” says John Back, one of her four business partners in Wellmann’s Brands. “She knows how to make everyone feel comfortable.”
Even when, or perhaps especially when, she’s bending you to her will, as she did with a recent private class at Japp’s. None of her students had ever had a Manhattan. “Then let’s do a Manhattan!” she announced as though they were about to embark on a splendid adventure. “It’s a really great drink, and you all should definitely have one.” Hard to argue with that.
Wellmann’s voyage from quasi-rebellious youth in Colerain Township to reigning doyenne of the Queen City’s bar scene took a life-changing detour through San Francisco in the late ’90s and early aughts. She arrived in the City by the Bay with just $200 in her purse—enough, she had naively thought, for a one-week stay with a girlfriend who lived in Duboce Triangle. During the visit, her friend’s roommate suddenly decided to move out and Molly was invited to move in.
The decision was easy. At the time, Wellmann was stuck in a clerical job in downtown Cincinnati and an Over-the-Rhine apartment she felt she couldn’t leave at night. “It was 1996, not really a good time for a blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl to be hanging out there,” she says. “I thought maybe I’d spend six months in San Francisco. But one thing led to another and I ended up staying 12 years.”
For someone who started making her own dresses at age 7 under the tutelage of her grandmother, fashion was a natural draw. While working in a small boutique she saw an ad for a sales position at the tony Chanel shop in Union Square and landed an interview. “I was scared to death. I didn’t even walk into those kinds of stores,” she says. Removing all but one of her seven ear piercings, she faked her knowledge of Chanel’s product line and got the job. She did well enough to be made manager of shoe sales and then moved over to sell shoes and handbags at the Prada store, where she hustled to pull down “really good money” on commission. Yes, the dot-com bubble was in full inflation mode, but Wellmann harnessed her powers of persuasion. “I’ve always been good at sales,” she says. “I had a grandfather who could sell your shirt back to you.”
Wellmann continued living in her friend’s apartment, surrounded by struggling artists and skateboarders who partied late and rose even later, while she adhered to the “adult hours” of her job. Even so, on a night out with the girls, she met a “wonderful guy” named Elie Israel, who put her off at first by anonymously buying her drinks and then offering her a ride home. “Being a good girl, I said, ‘I’m not taking a ride from a stranger but here’s my phone number,’ ” she recalls. A series of dates eventually took them to an orchid show, where her $10 entry won the drawing for two plane tickets to Thailand. “I thought it must have been for a Thai restaurant,” she says. “It was the only time I’d ever won anything like that.”
During their two-week adventure in Thailand, Israel proposed. It was February 2001. A week after they got back, he went to visit a friend in Santa Barbara and was killed in a freak accident: Israel, his friend’s sister, and two other men were crossing a street when they were mowed down by a teenager who was off his medication and at the wheel of a Saab Turbo doing 60 miles per hour. Wellmann, who had heard about the accident on the news but had no idea her fiancé was involved, found out when her father called. Wellmann says she remembers little of the days that followed, except her father escorting her back to Cincinnati to help her recuperate.
“My view of everything changed after that,” she says. “I couldn’t deal with people who were spending so much money on stuff they didn’t need.” She quit her job and lived off her savings for six months, just “moping around” and taking long walks. “I really wasn’t much fun to be around.”
Her depression finally began to lift when a close friend “guilted” her into taking a metalsmith class in Oakland by pre-paying the fee. “I loved the class,” she says, “and suddenly I had a creative outlet.” She then enrolled at the Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts and took every class it offered, eventually working as an apprentice to a master jeweler. But it didn’t pay enough to survive in San Francisco, so Wellmann started bartending, first for a friend who had just opened a restaurant and later for a “cheesy nightclub” called the Fluid Ultra Lounge that “looked like it should have been in Miami, Florida, but got plopped down on Mission Street.” She switched from bartender to cocktail waitress when she realized that if she worked enough tables, she could earn as much as $1,200 in a night.
Still, her Queen City roots were tugging at her. In 2008, after her father’s battles with Hodgkin’s disease and prostate cancer, she returned for good. She had earned her license as a certified nutritionist at City College of San Francisco and began working with her father on the lifestyle changes she says have helped him beat cancer twice.
Wellmann’s first job after she returned home was behind the bar at Chalk, even though she only had a beginner’s knowledge of the craft. “She told me, ‘Mom, I have a job, and you and I are going to learn how to mix drinks,’” Nancy Wellmann recalls. “She certainly did. She went to the library and got out every book she could find on the subject and hasn’t put down a book since.”
Wellmann’s renown as a mixologist built gradually, first at Chalk and Lavomatic, then as a case-carrying circuit rider at events and bars all over the city. It was during her guest bartending stints at Neons on 12th Street that her future partners took notice. “There would be these long lines to the bar in our courtyard just to go to Molly specifically,” Michael Redmond recalls. “We thought, wow, she has something we need. If we could bring her on board, it would be fantastic. But we had heard Molly was going with Orchids and we didn’t want to steal her away.”
It turned out that other bars in town didn’t know what to make of her. Wellmann says that a lot of restaurant and bar owners thought her personalized approach to crafting cocktails with fresh, natural ingredients—using her background in nutrition—was too labor intensive and too time-consuming, especially when their bartenders could be doing a volume business slinging beers, pouring wine, and dumping spirits into soda and mixers. But the owners of Neons “got it,” she says, and exactly a year after the bar’s grand opening in 2010 she came on board.
With Neons “we knew we had the best outdoor place,” says Redmond, “[and] we thought Japp’s could be the best indoor place.” One day he walked Wellmann over to Japp’s, just three blocks away, and popped the question: “What do you think about opening a cocktail bar here?”
She was up for the challenge, says Jeff Brandt, “as long as she didn’t have to write up a business plan.”
In 2011, Wellmann signed a contract with her new partners—Redmond, Brandt, and John Back—without consulting a lawyer, an oversight that worries her parents. She declines to disclose the terms but says she’s happy with the agreement and notes that she has retained the rights to her name if there ever happened to be a falling out.
The Wellmann’s Brands partners say they all pay themselves about the same salary, but profits from the enterprise may be a different matter. Redmond would not comment on how the equity is split but said that “Molly gets paid in a lot of other ways” outside the partnership, including her fees for private classes and guest bartending appearances. He added that most of the profit from the partnership is being plowed back into improving existing establishments and expanding Wellmann’s Brands into new ventures. “There are several things on the horizon that are still in the works,” he says, without naming any specific project. “Let me say this: It will be a very big year for us.”
Redmond presents himself as the unofficial leader of the partnership while Brandt, an attorney and longtime friend and neighbor of Redmond’s in OTR, serves as the legal representative. John Back designs the establishments, sometimes using reclaimed materials to create an atmosphere that strives to project authenticity, warmth, and a vintage feel without the high-end price tag. “How many places do you go into that spend $300,000 more than we do, but they don’t make you feel welcome?” says Brandt.
Her partners say Wellmann is more than just the face of the company. “Something she has instilled in us is that we should always be doing better—to keep trying different things, keep bringing back people,” Back says. Redmond says it’s not just her personality “but the knowledge that she has”; he credits her with training “the best bartenders and managers in the area.” (A number of Wellmann bartending “alums” have gone on to open Liberty’s Bar & Bottle in OTR and the Northside Yacht Club.)
In December, Wellmann’s Brands purchased Melt as well as Picnic and Pantry in Northside, and hired former owner Lisa Kagen to be the company’s executive chef. “One of the things we’ve known we had to get to was food,” Redmond says. “The thing that keeps people in bars is food and one reason they leave a bar is food. Rather than going out and trying to recreate the wheel, we went out and found someone who is doing it and doing it very, very well.” Under Kagen’s guidance, they plan to put food into all of their bars.
Wellmann’s Brands’ rapid expansion has left some in the restaurant community to wonder whether it’s too much, too soon for a business that started six years ago with just $15,000 in capital and three male partners willing to swing sledgehammers to get Neons off the ground. But for Wellmann, who has come farther than she could have ever imagined during those long walks in San Francisco, it’s not the risk but the adventure that counts. “I wake up every day excited about whatever the universe throws my way,” she says. “I just want to experience things as much as I possibly can. I’ve learned I like saying yes.”
Like that evening at Harry Denton’s Starlight Room in San Francisco nearly two decades ago, when after a long day of peddling power suits at Chanel she said yes to the best Manhattan she had ever had. That’s when she learned that a perfectly crafted cocktail could bring much-needed sunshine into someone’s dreary day. “I had the bartender teach me how to make it and I haven’t made it any different ever since,” she says.
She does it now for a guest at Japp’s, filling a martini glass with ice chips, adding a touch of dry Vermouth, and swirling the contents to coat the glass. “It just calms everything down,” she says. In a tall glass goes a half ounce of fresh (and yes, refrigerated) sweet vermouth, three splashes of Angostura bitters, two ounces of Bulleit rye (“Or three ounces if you’ve had an especially bad day”), and a scoop of ice cubes. She stirs the mixture lovingly with a twizzled-stem spoon for several seconds, strains it into the now-empty martini glass, and garnishes it with freshly zested orange peel (no chemically-saturated Maraschino cherries here!).
“OK. Perfect!” The glass is set before the guest as a near-sacred offering.
The first sip is refreshing, balanced—no high-proof alcohol burn, just a pleasing mix of botanical and whiskey flavors with the gentle sweetness of the vermouth as an undertone. The second sip brings out even more flavors and a warm glow along the tongue and at the back of the throat.
“Isn’t that lovely?” she says, leaning over the bar.
And you have no choice, no will, to do anything but agree.