When you distill the essence of a personality into a drink recipe, the results may not be palatable to the subject.
Liz Masnik, the much beloved and soon-to-be-former owner of downtown Raleigh’s The Borough, would never toss back Rocket Fuel, the drink named in her honor on her bar’s specialty cocktail menu. For good reason. It’s a shot of Sauza Hornitos Tequila topped with a Red Bull, which sounds to me like a desperate concoction created by someone who had to grope around in a hotel mini bar when the power went out.
But she says the recipe accurately represents The Rocket, the nickname that didn’t start as a nickname but has come to embody the most strait-laced aspects of her personality.
Longtime Borough lovers probably know this story.
If you’ve ever visited the loo in Masnik’s bar, you’ve seen what looks like a band logo painted on the wall that reads “Schmitty and The Rocket.” More than a decade ago, Masnik and her longtime bartending pal Andrea Ventura were behind the curvy bar at the old Poole’s Diner, long before its Ashley Christensen reinvention. Poole’s was much more a local watering hole than a destination dining spot then, with Masnik and Ventura having as great a time mixing the drinks as the regulars did quaffing them.
On a whim one day, Masnik jokingly suggested that they should start a band called Schmitty and The Rocket. The details were fuzzy, but it would be a two-person show involving at minimum a big bass drum, a mouth harp and a kazoo.
So, Ventura asks, which one are you?
Maznik immediately replied, “Well, I’m not Schmitty.”
She was definitely The Rocket.
Masnik explains that when she imagines The Rocket, she sees an in-control woman, the sort who would walk around in a black trench coat with a couple of Dobermans on leashes, a woman who is all business. That character, that persona would drink Rocket Fuel.
“There’s no fuss. There’s no mess,” she says. “It’s hardcore. It’s the essence of what The Rocket represents.”
Schmitty, meanwhile, is a free spirit, surrounded by rainbows and glitter with a penchant for speaking in rhymes “like a cloud come down to earth,” Masnik says. Her cocktail essence, Schmitty Schnapps, involves gin and a variety of juice.
“It’s different every time,” Masnik says.
The Rocket may have been what kept the books balanced at The Borough for the most of the past decade, but the more approachable aspects of Masnik’s persona have kept her patrons coming through the door. Masnik’s bar is a stylish place with a funky vibe that never grew too hip for its own good. It has been widely praised for giving downtown’s LGBT and straight communities a place to hang out side-by-side. Masnik’s straightforward approach to human interaction fueled that environment.
“I’m fascinated by people, by what they do, by how they live their lives – and especially what’s going on underneath the surface,” she says. “I really think we should cut through the small talk and get to what you’re about – as much as you can describe it.”
Gender identity, race, class, economic status – none of these factors should keep people from sitting down together to share a drink and meal.
When her loyal crowd heard earlier this month that she plans to sell The Borough, the heartbreak was palpable, with multiple media outlets reporting it and hundreds of posts to her Facebook status update where she broke the news.
“It’s been overwhelming. It’s been incredibly appreciated. It’s been nuts,” she says. “I feel like this is what a celebrity feels like.”
Her next adventure will be law school, Masnik says, and her new plan is to pursue a career as an animal welfare lawyer. New owners will take over the space and reopen sometime after her Jan. 30 departure.
Until then, her plan is to keep up with what has been a manic level of demand at The Borough, where crowds amass nightly to raise one more glass to the place where many of them have felt most at home for the past 10 years.
Amber Nimocks is a former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at email@example.com.
If you miss getting that last drink at The Borough, console yourself with the cool comforts of a Greek Mule at nearby Taverna Agora on Hillsborough Street. Variations on the Moscow Mule are myriad these days, but the combination of fresh ingredients in Taverna’s makes it stand out as a crisp frontrunner. Tito’s vodka, just-squeezed lemon and lime juice, baklava syrup meld with ginger beer and a grate of fresh ginger for a drink as bright as the copper mug it’s served in.