Whiskey and music beneath Blue Tractor
by Sally Mitani
During Art Fair, the newly expanded Blue Tractor shut the doors to its downstairs bar, all that was left of Cafe Habana's original two-level location. Habana was just marking time there while its new berth was being prepared on Main Street.
The space reopened as Mash, a bar specializing in fine sippin' whiskey and, a few nights a week, live listenin' music. (Laith Al-Saadi and his bluesy rock trio have a gig there every Thursday night for the foreseeable future.)
"We always wanted to open a whiskey bar. So many of our people like whiskeys and bourbons," says Greg Lobdell, who has a penchant for bland understatement. Lobdell and his partners, Jon Carlson and Chet Czaplicka, own 2Mission, Blue Tractor's parent company, which employs about 900 people around the state. Lobdell doesn't even think to mention that some of his people like whiskeys and bourbons so much that 2Mission bought them their own artisanal distillery: Civilized Spirits, housed in an historic building on the Old Mission Peninsula. Mash carries Civilized vodka, gin, and an unusual white whiskey that looks like vodka and tastes like bourbon, but you have to ask for them. They aren't listed on the menu, which emphasizes the mellow golden brown spirits.
"To call something a bourbon," says Blue Tractor/Mash manager Steve Barnes, "it has to be 51 percent corn whiskey made in Bourbon County, Kentucky." There are sixteen of them on the menu, and they can be ordered in flights, to compare and contrast. There's also a reserve list of other bourbons, whiskeys, and ryes, several costing more than $15 a shot. But straight whiskey is a connoisseur's game, and there aren't enough of them in town to support a bar, so Mash--like a lot of bars in town--has come up with its own creative bag of tricks to lure in less serious drinkers.
Ice, for instance. "We have flavored ice for different drinks. Some have pieces of mint leaf. We have ice made from smoke-flavored
water. We have some other ingredients lined up for our bartenders to play with," Barnes says--look for bacon and jalapeno ice cubes next.
Boilermakers (beer and a shot of whiskey) come with a shot of pickle juice. As a bow to the brewery in the next room, a lot of cocktails are made with beer: "Lipstick on a Pig [a startling concoction of pilsner, amaretto, and orange essence] is so popular we ran out of pilsner the other night," Barnes says.
The Cuban Art Deco look has been replaced by damask wallpaper, black chalkboard ceilings, burlap-covered benches, and exposed, vintage-looking light bulbs that are supposed to give it a feeling something like an old nineteenth-century club or pub, though no one is taking set design too seriously. Exactly what period or place it's supposed to represent is not clear even to Lobdell, the architect; it's dark, and has lots of alcoves, and the main goal was to make the space, which can hold nearly 200 people, seem intimate.
As for Cafe Habana, it will re-emerge in the basement of the old Parthenon, underneath a new South American restaurant called Lena (pronounced LAY-nuh). "August 30 is the planned date, but I've never yet seen a restaurant open on the planned date," says Steve Thrall, 2Mission's director of marketing. It will be interesting to see how the public feels about the bright, chalky green paint job on the bricks and marquee. At least some folks here have seen it before: it was the original color of Cunningham Drugs, which occupied the spot before the Parthenon.
Mash, 211 E. Washington, 222-4095. Mon.-Sat. 6 p.m.-2 a.m., Sun. 6 p.m.-midnight. mashbar.net
[Originally published in September, 2012.]