Hello friends, citizens of the nearly one million person metropolitan area known as Omaha and treasured guests who found this on Google.com after panicking upon remembering they are gonna be with their lame co-workers on an Omaha business trip in 24 hours and have no idea where to drink.
It’s Ol’ Man Drinker, risen from his boozewater grave, at your service. If it helps my cocktail credibility, please pretend I’m a gentleman wearing a three-piece suit and not a man currently sporting a faded thrift store t-shirt with the phrase “Nice Case” printed over the spot where my rock hard abs are supposed to be.
Please wipe that image from your mind, and agree with me on this: Some innovative things actually happened inside the drinking establishments of our fair second-tier city as America lurched unsteadily through 2019. A funky new cocktail bar opened and quickly and deservedly shot to the top of my Best Omaha Bars list. An Old Market wine shop hit its stride, becoming the go-to place for natural wine, orange wine, German wine…pretty much any kind of wine you didn’t realize you wanted to drink until you drank it.
I discovered new haunts and rediscovered old haunts and kept remembering that my taste buds have tired of IPAs only after I ordered one. 2020 resolution: Malts before hops.
Without further preamble, here are my current top 5 bars in Omaha, followed by a number of Old Man Drinker awards in all sorts of categories. It’s like the Oscars, except instead of worldwide fame and fortune, these bars win the right to be occasionally visited by a man with a salt-and-cinammon beard and a well-used American Express card.
We spent a lot of time here in 2019, and for good reason. Paul Kulik, chef, owner and wine fanatic, and Alex Nelson, the wine merchant’s kind and knowledgable manager, are changing the way Sarah and I understand vino.
The Merchant is a wine store where we buy a bottle to take to a friend’s house. It’s also a monthly wine club that we belong to…two always-interesting bottles for $50, as well as the option to attend the merchant’s food-and-wine-and-education events.
And the bar at Le Bouillon, Kulik’s damn fine restaurant, is located roughly four steps from the wine merchant and is the perfect spot to try interesting wine – the aforementioned natural wine, or orange wine, or German wine, or maybe all of the above – while also grabbing a fine cocktail or punch when you are wined out.
The Happy Hour crowd here is growing. There are tentative plans to open a basement wine bar, and in fact they did open it on for a one-night preview on New Year’s Eve. Kulik continues to make Omaha interesting, with both his food and his booze. I fully endorse.
4. Monarch Prime, 316 S. 15th St.
I could have listed any one of like 18 places that Omaha booze baron Ethan Bondelid either consulted on or owns, but to me the bar attached to Monarch Prime is the best of his projects, barely edging out O.G. cocktail spot Berry & Rye. (Which would be #6 on that list if this list had a #6.)
The Monarch bar, like the steakhouse it is connected to, is cutting edge and classic all at once. It’s well designed, well lit, the sort of place you can’t help but feel freakin’ cool as you sip on an Aviation or some Planter’s Punch or one of the bar’s original creations.
3. Nite Owl, 3902 Farnam St.
Nite Owl has been on this list since its first year of existence, and it probably will be as long as they keep on slingin’ creative drinks while showing trash 80s movies on mute for your viewing pleasure.
I always think of this place as my Hansen grandparents’ basement, if my grandparents, rest their souls, actually had more in their bar than a 30-year-old bottle of Peach Schnapps that we “borrowed” in high school and then refilled with water. Nite Owl isn’t sticky-fingered free, but it’s affordable, it’s comfortable and the patio could put a contented smile on even a stern Scandinavian Protestant grandfather’s face on a Blackstone summer Saturday. Bartenders change here, and the rotating drink menu changes, but one thing remains the same: Yours truly and a bunch of others return to Nite Owl again and again and again.
2. Tiny House Bar, 1411 S. 13th St.
Tiny House exploded in 2019, the bar equivalent of bottle rocket fired across the Omaha night sky as a half-dozen teenagers run away, giggling. It’s vaguely mischevious, no one gets hurt or arrested and later we look back and think, “Yup, that was fun.”
Tiny House is irreverent in the it-takes-itself-a-bit-too-serious world of craft cocktaling.
Here they have drinks named after Britney (It’s Britney, Bitch) Barack (The Obama Sex Dream) and of course Jon (co-owner Tvrdik, proud namesake of the Jon Cries Alone).
Here the social media is delightfully odd and the drink descriptions are delightfully odder. (My favorite: The Cognac Martinez is described as “for ppl who like sex only.”) The space here is forever Instagrammable, and yet at Tiny House they deliver substance along with sizzle…I personally can’t get enough of the Cognac Martinez, the mezcal Green-ya Colada or the Jon Cries Alone, and not just because I like to picture Jon Tvrdik crying alone, though I do admittedly enjoy that.
Tiny House even has the best gin-and-tonic I have ever tasted. And I hate gin and tonics.
It’s a purple and pink polka dotted unicorn of a drinking establishment. I’m running out of metaphors. Just go there if you haven’t. And be patient…yes, you might have to wait 10 minutes for a drink. It’s a tiny bar! Play your tiny violin for someone else, bub.
1. Mercury, 329 S. 16th St.
Swear to God I wanted to pick something else No. 1 this year. I was planning it in my head, scheming, darkly excited to knock Mercury from the throne…which is pretty weird when you think about it, because it’s a throne I put them on.
Anyway, it was all set. Time for your comeuppance! And then Mercury rolled out a new rotating menu this fall that is an unfoldable set of tarot cards featuring drinks called Temperance, Justice and Death.
And the 12 new drinks, pretty much every one that I tried, is just so annoyingly original, and so stupidly good. Many of these dozen drinks are a seemingly wild mixes of spirits and fruit and/or smoke and/or tea and/or wine and/or herbs and then some sort of dark alchemy that makes it taste so perfect as it slides down your decidedly non-temperant lips.
Justice is probably my favorite. It’s smooth ambler bourbon, dried cranberry, rababaro amaro and applewood smoke. It tastes like Justice. It really does.
And the just thing to do is put Mercury atop my Best Bars of Omaha 2019 list. Because it’s the best bar in Omaha, the best bar in Nebraska, maybe the best bar this side of Chicago. And if you don’t agree with me, well, put on your fake three-piece suit and make your own list.
Barely missed this list: Inkwell, 8716 Pacific Street in Countryside Village; Krug Park, 6205 Maple Street, Benson; Katiei, 6109 ⅓ Maple Street, Benson; The Berry & Rye, 1105 Howard Street, the Old Market.