Story Provided By: Lawrence M. McNamara
An Interview with two rising “spiritualists” on Hamilton Street
LUCAS HECKENBERGER AND MICHAEL CLAYPOOL are surrounded by twenty excited patrons when I stumble into HUSH, the almost secret cocktail lounge hidden in the back of ROAR Social House in downtown Allentown.
With a gasp, the entire room watches the two perform their showpiece, the fire breaStorything inferno.
As my eyebrows singe and visions of Kokomo flash before me, I gather quickly this is not like any other bar on the Hamilton strip.
The elegantly lit room blooms with light and gasps of delight rise from the platinum cohort bracing this dashing duo.
Applause erupts, husbands move forward to fill the tip jar, and several well-dressed couples push in behind me to see what all the fuss is about.
You may not find a seat at the bar, but if you are in that room you will eventually be confronted with an intriguing question: “Will it be Whiskey, Gin or Absinthe tonight?”
It is quite a scene in that backroom, and I am not sure what to answer the first time Michael Claypool approaches.
I choose Whiskey and Absinthe, thinking such a concoction will be a challenge too far. I expected a guffaw, maybe a rolled eye, surely these two polar opposite fluids cannot be brought to concert willingly.
I am pitifully wrong, and instead treated to a four minute glass bottle ballet comprised of an almost infinite layer of ingredients from the spirit world.
An egg is cracked, a strange fruit is shaved, tumblers tumble.
The result is mind-bending, smooth and deliciously incredible.
I ask both of them (now smiling at my eye-fluttering reaction) what this beautiful smoked-sweet licorice is called.
Lucas smiles and answers, “We made it just for you. If you like it, you name it.”
So I think for a minute and ask my companion to try it, and we decide to call it “the Pixie Stick™”, because it tastes like pixie sticks melted into some undiscovered nectar of the gods.
As it was made, so it was written and Lucas quickly scribbles the name and recipe into his book of secrets.
The recipes are well guarded; Lucas and Michael both contribute an incredible skill for making the crowd pleasers for everyone. They share their ideas and build upon them in an unending symphony of cocktails.
In the five months since ROAR Social Club opened doors across from the new PPL stadium, thousands have been drawn to a speakeasy style lounge hidden aft of the kitchen.
The front of house may serve the best short-rib poutine south of Montreal, but the real fun begins after dinner, behind a door marked EXIT, where the only rule is dress smart and drink whatever they give you.
They serve and move together like old friends, seemingly connected by some mysterious knowledge of how to reshape the common into something elegant.
These two bartenders dress the part, a tad of Williamsburg on the little Lehigh with a flourish of Al Capone. They hold court six nights a week and are stars amongst a growing cadre of skilled craftspeople in town who have one mission: to make you the best cocktail you have ever imbibed.
I pulled Lucas and Michael aside before the rush at HUSH, to find out what they are all about:
LUCAS: I have been behind the bar since I was 19 years old, first starting as a barback and eventually working my way to being a bartender.
MICHAEL: I’ve been tending bar about seven years now. I fell backwards into it in college doing odd jobs I found on Craigslist with my roommate for beer money. We happened to meet a phenomenally talented gentleman by the name of Sasha Bakhru who taught us the basics of bartending, going so far as to host parties in his flat where we could practice. .
LVL: Are you both originally from the Lehigh Valley?
LUCAS: I am originally from the Allentown area, however, I spent 8 years in Philadelphia and I think that is where I really learned more and began to refine my craft behind the bar. I was fortunate enough to work in some world class establishments with some extremely knowledgeable people who have helped me along the way.
MICHAEL: I was born in Louisville, KY. After graduating, I moved to Mystic, CT where I got a job at The Floodtide at the Inn at Mystic which, while fun (I was featured when they had their restaurant redone on “Restaurant Impossible with Robert Irvine”), was short lived when the property was sold. I then worked at Junior’s Restaurant at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods Casino for a while. From there I went to Richmond, VA at The Yellow Tavern at the Virginia Crossings Resort by Wyndham. “The Bookstore Speakeasy” in Bethlehem where I really was thrown into a craft cocktail setting for the first time, a fantastic experience that shaped my style and views on cocktails.
LVL: What drew you to ROAR Social house and HUSH Speakeasy?
LUCAS: I started with the Saylor family about a week after they were commissioned to open Roar Social House. It was an awesome learning experience to be a part of opening a brand new restaurant and having some influence on the cocktails and spirit selection for the entire establishment.
MICHAEL: I started with ROAR Social House about two weeks before we opened, training and helping with setup.
LVL: How do you like holding court at HUSH?
LUCAS: It has evolved into an awesome place for a bartender like me to experiment. Originally, we had planned a rotating feature of bartenders for both Roar and Hush but somehow I managed to permanently land in the R&D room in the back of the restaurant.
MICHAEL: Lucas and I fell in love with the spot and we’ve had a fantastic response, so we stayed in the back. Probably best to keep us from polite company. But we’ve both been back there from the beginning.
LVL: What makes this speakeasy style-bartending so special to you?
LUCAS: HUSH has a special place in my heart due to the fact that I can feel my finger prints on having helped shape the establishment and set the tone for the room. For me, this is the first time I’ve been part of a team to build something from nothing and it has been an awesome journey so far. We have only just begun.
MICHAEL: I love HUSH. The (more or less) complete freedom we have back here to pursue whatever crazy and weird ideas we come up with is refreshing and liberating, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. From our bitters program to our infusions, we’ve had great support from management and the public alike. Between that, the sexy decor and the fact that we get to choose the music as well as make the drinks that we want to make, we have what I think is the most fun and distinct bar in the Valley. Call us control freaks if you’d like, but we prefer Professional Party People. We just want you, America, to party well.
LVL: Do you see more singles or couples at Hush?
LUCAS: We have an awesome mix in Hush. Everything from couples sitting in a corner quietly enjoying each other’s company or large parties who want to share in the atmosphere we try to create. I’d like to think we embody the definition of the “social house” where all groups and all walks of life congregate.
MICHAEL: It’s mostly couples and groups, some singles, but it’s rare. We’re a social house, it’s in the name, so we get lots of big parties and couples looking for a sexy spot to pitch a little woo.
LUCAS: I would say my inspirations are from the classical era of bartenders. And I’m not just talking about prohibition days, cocktails, fresh ingredients, and homemade bitters go all the way back to the 1700s and even beyond. I derive a lot of inspiration from the kitchen as well. I learned to love to cook and work with flavors in the kitchen before I got behind the bar so that really helps me try and pair things you wouldn’t normally think go well together. At the end of the day, there is a process to building a cocktail. I follow steps for my recipes and then add new ingredients and a tweak here and there. Also, a lot of bartenders across the world are doing awesome things and it is not just enough to look to the past for style, inspiration, etc. I try to stay on top of current trends, newer spirits, and how to constantly stay one step ahead in an ever changing landscape.
MICHAEL: My style is… fluid? Classically inspired? Easily bored? Everything’s been done in the bartending world already, so I’d say that most of our cocktails do have a basis in older drinks that we try to contemporize and put our own spin on. Of course since we’re constantly creating our own bitters (another move of bygone bartenders) and our infusions we’re able to put together new drinks that would probably make our forefathers cock an old-timey eyebrow. At the end of the day, we’re creative and restless and we consider it a wasted week (not in the good way) if we haven’t come up with at least something new.
LVL: What makes HUSH unique compared to the other bars in town?
LUCAS: There are a lot of great bars popping up in the Lehigh Valley area but I think there are two things that help us stand apart from other establishments and that is: ambiance and style of service. Rare is the place I can go around the Lehigh Valley and just ask the bartender to make me something with any ingredient. We are fortunate enough at HUSH to ask for just about anything from the Saylor family and they deliver. It’s a huge part to being successful, having ownership behind you that gives you the tools to be successful.
MICHAEL: What he said.
LVL: What is your specialty cocktail?
LUCAS: In regards to “best drink” in my recipe book, I think it’s very objective because everyone likes different things. I just so happen to have fallen in love with the bourbon “Old Fashioned” in my (very) early 20’s. So for me I would say my variation on an “Old Fashioned” is my personal favorite. A little bit of Gran Marnier and a touch of Maple Syrup to a very bourbon forward drink adds a very nice balance of tasting the bourbon and getting some additional flavors in there. I call it the “Fall Fashioned.” However, anyone that comes in and asks for a drink with Chartreuse, Absinthe, or Fernet Branca gets brownie points in my book.
The “Fall Fashioned”
MICHAEL: My specialty cocktail is probably my “Bat-Manhattan.” It’s a bourbon based (specifically, Maker’s Mark) cocktail that I tinkered with for the better part of five years before getting it to my likings. The idea is simple – accentuate the vanilla notes that already exist in Maker’s while heightening the dark fruits and cherry esters present in the sweet vermouth and cherry accompaniments while adding a kiss of citrus to round the whole cocktail out. It’s my baby.
LVL: What is the best way to party at HUSH and get home in one piece?
LUCAS: With the revitalization of Allentown, Easton, and Bethlehem you have great restaurant in every part of town. I always opt for a cab if I know I’m having more than a glass of wine or cocktail at dinner, there is a much larger cab presence in town now that everything is happening. Uber is in town now as well and is a great way to get around. And if you’ve got a really good friend that’ll DD, that’s always a plus.
MICHAEL: Taxis, Uber, but my personal favorite is a Designated Driver – the American hero. Bring a friend, buy him or her dinner, and make sure you take your turn next time.
The HUSH Speakeasy@ ROAR Social House
Address: 732 Hamilton St, Allentown, PA 18101
Hours: 11:30 am – 9:00 pm
Photographs and Words: Lawrence M. McNamara
Lighting and set design: Nick Bowen
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