Orlando, to most, does not exist beyond its Technicolor facade. But venture just a few miles beyond the splashy confines of the Cinderella Castle, and you’ll find that the city is home to one of the most ambitious cocktail scenes in the country. This is thanks, in large part, to a 35-seat downtown bar called Hanson’s Shoe Repair.
The name is a nod to the space’s original function as an actual shoe repair shop dating to 1883; it’s the oldest building in the city, and earned a reputation early on for displaying Orlando’s very first electric sign. About 100 years later, the space was bought, and the first floor turned into a photography studio, then a dive bar. When the speakeasy trend hit big in cities like New York and San Francisco, former co-owners Curt Littlecott and Marc Piparo thought to transform the intimate third floor of the building into the same Prohibition-era set-up they saw at places like PDT and Bourbon & Branch. They opened Hanson’s Shoe Repair in 2013 as a tiny, unassuming space filled with a small but curated selection of spirits, and littered with little homages—an antique pair of loafers, a shoe horn—to the building’s history.
But at the time of Hanson’s inception, while craft cocktail spots and speakeasies were well situated elsewhere across the country, Orlando had yet to evolve past dive bars, according to Rene Nguyen, the general manager and head bartender. Hanson’s, Nguyen explains, was part of a very tiny group of dedicated craft bars, including The Woods and The Courtesy Bar, which initially struggled to gain an audience for their more polished approach to cocktails. “The initial response was frustrating,” he says. “People mistook the speakeasy theme as high maintenance and demanding. They would come here and order Vodka Red Bulls and Lemon Drops.”
It was hard, too, to find cocktail talent in a city that didn’t have much by way of hospitality culture. “Because it was such a new scene, we’d have bartenders transition from whatever they were doing into craft cocktails, learning techniques and how to make classic cocktails for the first time,” Nguyen says. He considered Hanson’s to be an opportunity to make sure each member of his staff developed the kind of knowledge and expertise that was “on par with what I saw in all those other cities,” wanting the bar to become nationally competitive.
Now, the scene in Orlando looks much different. “Once you are exposed to a great cocktail, you want to learn more, and you want to drink better,” he says, speaking of how, over the course of just a few years, the city has fully embraced craft cocktail bars. “If I had never gone to places like The Violet Hour in Chicago, I would also still be drinking Coors Light and Jack and Cokes.”
With this new, captive audience, the craft cocktail scene has both grown and diversified, spawning places like Aku Aku, which pays homage to classic tiki culture, and The Guesthouse, a bar-meets-garden in the area’s trendy Mills 50 neighborhood. Nguyen also recently opened a second bar—a more upbeat, Victorian-inspired spot called Herman’s Loan Office—just down the street from Hanson’s. (Yes, the building did, in fact, used to be a loan office.) There are also plans to expand the three floors of the building that houses Hanson’s into a more full-fledged cocktail experience, with a Scotch bar on the currently-empty second floor, and a rotating themed bar to replace the now-closed NV Art Bar on the first floor. “There are so many dedicated craft bars doing a phenomenal job,” Nguyen says. “I see a real effort here with places wanting to keep up with the trend.”
But even as Orlando experiences its belated cocktail revolution, its efforts to become recognized on a national scale remain stymied by the city’s theme park reputation. “We all definitely have a chip on our shoulder,” Nguyen says. “I want to tell people who visit the theme parks, ‘This is not Orlando.’”
Instead, he sees the city as a key part of the national conversation around drinks. “Our cocktails are only getting more labor intensive,” he says, adding that the familial nature of Orlando’s community has helped bartenders grow at a rapid pace. “We just want to get a bit of that spotlight.”