When you are bartending in a place like Lily’s Bistro, being curious is part of the job. They are constantly exploring what they can do with seasonal, fresh ingredients, meaning their menu is perpetually evolving. As their food menu changes, their cocktail, beer, and wine menus are always changing with it. Amber Brady, head bartender at Lily’s, has been handling that job for a long time and handling it well. She embraces the challenge of keeping up with all the working parts in the cocktail menu, from developing cocktails that pair well with food to navigating the complexities of Ohio liquor constraints.
Beyond her considerable talents, she has a personality that could light up a few city blocks. Her pride in the city she works in is almost a force in itself; she sees the wealth of culinary and bar talent Dayton possesses. The specials that Lily’s offers every evening are for a good reason. Emily and Amber use those to test concepts that, with a little bit of tweaking, could end up on a future menu. The well-curated cocktail, wine, and beer menus have something for every taste. If you love the classics, there are a few explorations of those cocktails. Those that want something more adventurous also have their Funky section to try out. And every new menu offers at least one gin, vodka, tequila, whiskey, and rum cocktail.
Amber also knows how hard it can be to keep up the creativity. She enlists the whole staff to come up with their own ideas for cocktails, or suggestions for beer and wine. They know that there is wisdom in crowds, and they use it to keep their menu lively. The other challenge to the creativity, one that all Ohio bars face, is the state removing liquors to sell. Ohio controls what can and cannot be sold commercially in the state, so some of the bitters and Amari that Amber loves can be lost if they are not robust sellers. She does not lament it, she just sees it as an another challenge. This encourages more experimentation but ultimately is it difficult when a spirit can no longer be sold in a state. While a fine rhubarb liqueur can be replicated, there are subtle nuances that would be lost from a century-old family recipe.
If you have not met this bartending bundle of energy, you need to head over to Lily’s Bistro and experience Amber for yourself. Not only is she one of the top bartenders in the Dayton community, she is a huge advocate for the city where she creates those cocktails. If love is a secret ingredient in a drink, her drinks are filled with them.
I started in the service industry in the kitchens and back of the house. I have worked in several bar and restaurants and had bar-backed some. I had also worked auxiliary bars during high volume events. While I was working at Blind Bobs, Lily’s was born, and I came on as a server from the beginning. This opportunity grew into me bartending full time and eventually becoming the bar manager. I had always wanted to go a bit beyond volume bartending, and more into the culinary side of the craft and learn more about obscure spirits.
What is your favorite drink to make?
I enjoy making most drinks! I have favorites of the moment, however, I just really enjoy finding a good balance, putting it in front of a guest, and getting an honest reaction, hopefully a good one!
Which drink makes you internally cringe?
I don’t think any specific drink does that. Possibly a mojito on a super busy night, when I’m low on mint. We call it the “Mojito Effect”: once one goes out, every guest wants one. However, it’s a great drink that I don’t mind making at all, as long as there is plenty of mint!!
Do you have a favorite spirit you like to work with?
I tried to narrow it down but I just couldn’t! I love bourbon and gin especially, but I absolutely love just about any Amaro you put in front of me. I love being challenged by a spirit that might not be that accessible to most people and I really appreciate the craft that is behind most Amari.
When you go out for a drink in Dayton, where is your favorite place to go?
We have so much bar talent in this city! I have a toddler, so I don’t get out much, but when I do I enjoy great cocktails at Coco’s, Wheat Penny, or Corner Kitchen, or a Porn or Pawn Pepper Ale at Toxic or a flight at Warped Wing. And of course, I love PBR’s on Bob’s patio!
Who is the most famous person you have served?
I made drinks for the Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio. Sean Lennon was in Lily’s for lunch one day and I poured his girlfriend a lemonade. I’ve made Dave Chappelle a few mules.
What do you do when you are not bartending?
Spend time with my husband and son. I also go to school, work on a horror podcast and try to find time to play in bands! I’m a busy gal.
What are your favorite trends from the last year?
The resurgence of mezcal! Keep it coming!
Beverage wise, I think more rose, more sour beers, mezcal, and coffee cocktails! And I don’t mean Irish coffees, I mean coffee as a bitter component rather than the main ingredient!
What advice do you want to give bartenders just getting into the business?
Experiment. Keep an open mind. Find balance, speed, and consistency. Use jiggers. Learn as much as you can about everything behind your bar. Have fun with it!
What do you love most about Dayton?
We may be a smaller city, but we have a lot of heart. We find a way to reinvent and persevere and that’s inspiring.
Most interesting thing you have seen from behind the bar?
While I have definitely seen a lot of crazy stuff in this industry, each Hauntfest on 5th that I work brings a whole new set of interesting sights to see!
How has bartending changed in the time you have been in the industry?
I think that we think more of the bar industry than we once did. I think that in Dayton, Ohio, we are keeping up with the bigger cities and not just as bartenders, but as bar patrons. The bartending scene is constantly evolving. The business of booze is thriving. Here in Ohio, we have distilleries and breweries popping up everywhere. Social media has fueled the craft everything trend, including cocktails. As trends flow from bigger cities to smaller ones, we all grow. Our bar guests evolve as well. They are becoming more educated and open minded when it comes to their choices in beverages. I think that rules.
What do you wish customers knew that helped you do your job?
That a bar’s signature cocktail list is theirs, and we don’t all have the same drinks and ingredients. However, I will try my best to make something you’ll enjoy! Talk to us, we want you to enjoy your drink!
If you were not a bartender, what career would you be pursuing?
I am actually attending Sinclair Community College to hopefully one day become a Physical Therapist Assistant. However, it will be hard to get me out from behind the bar completely. I love what I do!
Lily’s Bistro Bar Hours are: Tuesday-Thursday, 5pm-10pm; Friday and Saturday, 5pm-11p. Visit Lily’s at 329 E 5th Street in the Oregon District
“In addition to a number of great breweries, Ohio has some amazing distilleries,” Emily Mendenhall, owner of Lily’s Bistro said. “We want to focus on some of our favorite spirits being made in the state, or in the case of Belle of Dayton, right down the street! I think people are going to be impressed with the range and quality of what’s being made here, and with our Bar Manager Amber leading the event, she is going to introduce folks to the spirits, and also how to mix them into
craft cocktails, which will be a lot of fun.”
The Ohio Spirit Tasting will feature OYO Stonefruit Vodka, Watershed Distillery Bourbon Barrel Gin and Watershed Nocino black walnut liqueur, and Belle of Dayton Gin. Each spirit will be tasted and discussed by Bar Manager Amber Brady. Brady will then showcase the spirits in sample craft cocktails. “I’m really excited about our ‘Oaxacan Winter’ cocktail-it uses tequila, mezcal, fresh lemon, pear liqueur, and Watershed’s black walnut Nocino made in Columbus. It’s an unexpected combination but ends up working together in a really unique way!” Brady said.
Lily’s will also be sampling their ‘About Thyme’ cocktail featuring Belle of Dayton gin, which Brady won first prize with at the Dayton Visual Art Center’s “Artful Cocktail” contest. Brady will talk about the art of crafting a cocktail to highlight each spirits unique flavor profile and is in the process of creating some additional cocktails for the special event.
A small plate prepared by Lily’s Bistro’s Chef Amy Finch will accompany each of the spirit tasting and cocktail sample. For those interested in The Ohio Spirits Tasting, the event costs $39 which includes tax and tip, and takes place on Tuesday, January 31 starting at 6:30pm at Lily’s Bistro. Tickets can be purchased online.