written and photographed by Mark Wright
Opting for the indoor seating on this warm evening, my wife and I enter the lounge, look around, and decide to sit on one of the five extremely inviting brown leather couches situated throughout the room. We sink ourselves into comfort, admiring the attractive color scheme—mostly crimsons and browns, leather and wood—glancing at the local artwork on the walls which we will soon investigate, and listening to the soft jazz emanating from somewhere non-specific. I notice the television set behind the bar, something I had not expected. But there is no ballgame being shown; it’s projecting an old black-and-white classic movie. I get it.
Chadwick, our courteous, bow-tied bartender, immediately comes to our coffee table, handing us cocktail menus and glasses of ice water. “Take a look and if you have any questions, just let me know.” Any questions? Uh, yeah, what’s a Sazerac? How about Ilegal Jovan mezcal? Campari? Combier? A black raspberry Chambord mojito? As we peruse the offerings, I quickly google some of the ingredients. “Hey, it says here Campari used to get its distinct red color from crushed insects. Cool.”
Not wanting to appear the novice cocktailers we really are, we reserve our questions for later, and when Chadwick returns after a few minutes, I confidently order a Mezcal Negroni and a Blackberry Pimm’s Cup for Sue in my best James Bond voice.
This is just the kind of thing we like to do when we make one of our not-frequent-enough sojourns to Chicago—hit some trendy, expensive little place on the Magnificent Mile and have a new experience. But there are a couple of major differences this evening: we are not in Chicago, we’re sitting on Wabash Avenue in downtown Terre Haute, and we are spending half of what we would spend in the Windy City here in the newly opened Agave Vintage Cocktails. There is nothing like it in town, and that’s why Aaron Morales has opened it.
Morales has left his English professor position at Indiana State University to embark upon this new venture along with his mother and brother. “Terre Haute is ready for something like this,” he opines. There is no lack of places to go have a drink in Terre Haute. What is lacking is a quiet, comfortable, inviting place to relax, talk, and enjoy up-scale cocktails with friends. Artwork from area artisans decorates the walls, all for sale at reasonable prices. Local artist Mark Nicklasch designed the bar, and one of his sculptures further enhances the décor. It feels like home; well, if you have an exceptionally well-appointed, expensive home in the ritzy part of town with butlers and maids. Maybe I should say, it feels like what you wish your home felt like. And Morales is proud of the fact that he is trying to keep things local, from the artwork on display, to the locally-made artisan hummus on the menu.
Ah, the cocktails. Let’s just say they are not what you generally find at the corner bar. You can see for yourself by checking out their website at https://www.agavevintagecocktails.com. Chadwick Saleh, our aforementioned bartender, loves working here. “It’s a dream come true—I actually get to use some of my bartender training instead of just pulling taps all night.” He tells me they have a theme of “agave awareness.” “Tequila and mezcal are not widely popular in the Midwest, and we are trying to turn that around.” A look at the ingredients of many of their specialties confirms that.
Chadwick is just what you want your bartender to be: courteous, attentive, knowledgeable, eager to please, and willing to work to get your drink just right. “Are you okay with some tartness?” he asks my wife when she orders the Hemingway Daiquiri. “I can make it a little sweeter,” he offers, which Sue eagerly agrees to. According to him, the most popular drink is the Agave Martini, featuring Milagro silver tequila, agave nectar, pomegranate juice and lime juice. Every week one of the four bartenders is challenged to come up with two new cocktails to feature that week—either a completely new idea or some slight revision on a classic. “Our Painkiller was a big hit one week—Pusser’s British Navy Rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, cream of coconut, and fresh grated nutmeg.” No prepackaged mixers here, all real juices and fresh ingredients, locally obtained as much as possible. My Bloody Maria, with El Ultima Reposado tequila, fresh tomato and lemon juice, Worcestershire, Tabasco, and tapatio sauce, celery salt, and black pepper, convinces me that I no longer want vodka in my bloodies.
Agave offers Wednesday wine specials, featuring rotating house wines with cheese and meat trays. And each Friday is flight day, featuring 3 or 4 half-shots of different types of spirits. Mezcal, tequila, bourbon, and rum flights have been offered thus far.
Meat and cheese plates are available, served with crostinis, cranberries, and walnuts. But Aaron Morales would eventually like to expand the menu, perhaps even to the point of turning the establishment into a full authentic southwestern-fare restaurant/lounge. I sincerely hope that comes to fruition. In the meantime, I will just return until I have sampled each drink on the menu, and probably many times after. Agave Vintage Cocktails, in the Center City Building, at 630 Wabash Avenue. Check it out. I think you will find it just feels good to be there.