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The Proper Cocktail

Jon Karel wants to put Buffalo on the artisinal drink map

Meeting someone for drinks in Buffalo usually means you’ll be ordering some sort of beer—could be a Labatt Blue, a PBR, Bud, an import or a local craft brew. One thing is certain: People here are more likely to be downing a cold one at a sports bar in the suburbs than drinking cocktails at a downtown bar. Jon Karel, owner of Buffalo Proper, wants to expand our booze palate, our tastes and our perception of downtown Buffalo.

Photography by Cheryl Gorski

In a recent conversation Karel humorously observed that Buffalo is a blue collar town that respects hard work and strong drinks. “That’s what we do we do here. We work really hard at making really strong drinks.” Their drinks are indeed strong, but not because they over pour on the Jack and Coke or deliver jumbo shots of vodka. The drink specialty at Buffalo Proper is very creative cocktails, very smooth, very pretty, and some—not all, are very strong.

If someone can be considered a cocktail expert, Karel is it. While talking to Karel you’ll learn the history of cocktails in America, the ingredients for an endless number of craft cocktails, which most people will never remember, and the style of drinks in almost every major U.S. city.

“Geographic and cultural influences are definitely reflected in the cocktails,” said Karel. “People make drinks for me sometimes and I’m like ‘Oh that’s a Portland, Oregon thing, or that’s so LA, or Manhattan.’ You learn to tell by the flavor, the style of mixing, and garnish presentation. You start to recognize trends that make all the cocktail bars slightly different even though they’re still keeping within the overall cocktail style,” said Karel. “There’s a Texas hang when you go there, New York City has a sort of vibe with their drinks. Toronto has a limited access to booze so they’re somewhat challenged. In San Francisco you see much smaller, tight, clean, pretty drinks that are very Asian market influenced.”

Coming from Nyack, NY just outside of NYC, Karel, 31, has been in the service industry for over 16-years and has been working behind a bar since he was 18, where he began learning and loving many of the classic cocktail recipes. In 2010, he moved to Buffalo and started bartending at Faherty’s on Elmwood. From there he moved on to the very popular Vera on Lexington Ave., where at the invitation of owner Cameron Rector, he designed their beverage program, menus, trained all the staff, and “really created the model here in Buffalo to do a craft cocktail program.”

The cocktail saw its golden age in the late 1880s, originating in the American melting pot that mixed cultures and various immigrant alcohol traditions. Bartenders were viewed as celebrities, highlighted by the popularity of Jerry Thomas’ 1862 book How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion. The guide was reprinted many times and Thomas became know as the “Father of American cocktails.” The book became the template for the classic cocktails of the era. However, with the beginning of prohibition, the golden era of the cocktail came to an end in 1919. Although Americans never lost their taste for hard beverages, the cocktail and the artistry of bartending never returned to its golden age popularity.

There was, however, a renaissance of the cocktail during the 1950s and 1960s spearheaded by icons like Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack partners, especially Dean Martin whose schtick was to always have a martini cocktail in one hand and a burning cigarette in the other. In the 60s the torch was carried by James Bond, Broadway and by Madison Avenue taste-makers, who have currently resurfaced in the AMC series Mad Men. Yet like doo-wop rock-and-roll and greaser haircuts, the cocktail was suddenly out of favor after the arrival of The Beatles, Dylan and the hippie culture.

It wasn’t until a little over a decade ago that the cocktail bar started making a resurgence in American culture, something that Karel describes as the “craft cocktail revival.”

Karel, who lived less than an hour from the World Trade Center, has a theory that after 9/11 the country felt it inappropriate to go out and party at big nightclubs, and were more comfortable in the intimate craft cocktail bars that began springing up. “It almost seemed disrespectful to go out and party when the city and the country had undergone such tragedy. So for better or worse I think that really paved the way to allow this sort of bar to flourish in the wake of those fallen night clubs.” No doubt people also found comfort in the 1920s throwback style of dress, beards and general ambiance of a craft cocktail bar—an ambiance from long before the War on Terror. Another trend parallel that probably contributed to success is that craft cocktails are all made with fresh ingredients, fruits, vegetables and juices. There are no concentrates, corn syrup or any other artificial drink making ingredients that had taken over the bar industry for decades.

Fast-forward to Buffalo in 2010 when craft cocktails started to gain traction locally, largely thanks to the program Karel designed with Vera Pizzeria. “I’m not going to say we were the first craft cocktail bar in Buffalo. There were other guys with decent programs but I think if there was a tipping point that pushed Buffalo over the edge and into full throttle cocktail revival it was starting that beverage program at Vera,” said Karel.

Karel left Vera in 2013 and was hired by Josh Miles and Tyler Wolk to open and design a bar and drinks program for the Revelry in Rochester, NY. A year later with Miles and Wolk as partners, Karel returned to Buffalo and opened Buffalo Proper with a plan to bring the craft cocktail revival to the downtown area.

“Buffalo Proper has been my dream since the very first day I made a drink, it’s my fantasy environment. I tell people everyday, I had to create, own, and operate my own establishment in order to have my ideal bar job.”

The name Buffalo Proper comes from its location in the downtown city proper, which Karel feels could have been risky in spite of the ongoing cultural and financial rebirth the city is experiencing. “We’re the first of our kind to have the courage to open in the downtown proper and not keep it on the outskirts or suburbs,” said Karel.

“I’m passionate about promoting downtown and making downtown a cultural hub. Prior to Buffalo Proper opening you couldn’t get a serious vintage cocktail in the entire downtown quadrant of the second largest city in one of the largest states in the country,” said Karel.

Located at the corner of Franklin Street and West Tupper Street, Buffalo Proper not only carries the vintage style drink selection of the cocktail’s golden era, but embraces the energy of that time as well, when being served a fancy cocktail was one of the most exciting moments of your night. Prohibition era styled bartenders in black vests, mustaches and dress shirts serve a wide variety drinks, mixed with a unique food selection, all under the intimate dim light of the open brick two–story building.

“I’m sure we’re probably the largest cocktail bar in the city, putting out an insane amount of volume, but our volume never compromises our craft,” Said Karel. “I have the most loyal, badass team of warriors, who work super hard and I work super hard because we love what we do. We’re not here because we need to be, we’re here because we love it.”

That sentiment is what sets Buffalo Proper’s bartenders and many others fueling the craft cocktail revival apart from those who just tend bar. For them, bartending is not just a job; it’s their career.

The career bartender is sometimes referred (often on their own accord,) to as a mixologist. “You’ll hear a controversy amongst people that do what I do, whether they like the term mixologist or not. Part of the reason why some people don’t like using mixologist is because it’s a self appointed title. It’s not like Sommelier with wine, where you go through several layers of testing and certification processes, and you get appointed first level, second level, master,” said Karel. “Mixologist is a self appointed term, so that’s not something that people are really proud to call themselves, in fact it’s a tell. You can almost immediately know when someone doesn’t know what their doing when they’re like ‘I’m not a bartender I’m a mixologist.’ I just prefer the term bartender.”

There’s no denying there are different levels of bartending and what the job means.

“I think it is fair to say that there is a difference between the bartending I do and what the chesty girls at whatever nightclub on “chip-strip” do. I like to say mixology is one aspect of my job, but so is being a DJ, so is being a therapist, and a matchmaker. Mixology is only one hat that I wear.”

As the craft cocktail continues to grow locally, Karel hopes Buffalo will soon make its own mark on the cocktail community. “The cocktail scene in Buffalo right now, in my opinion, is very exciting. At this stage we have a lot of bars, a decent amount of diversity and my goal, my dream is for Buffalo within the world of cocktails to start developing its own personality in mixology,” said Karel. “My hope is in two years people in San Francisco or Portland will be saying, that’s like that Buffalo thing, this is one of those Buffalo style drinks.”

Buffalo Proper

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