To get your hands on some of the best cocktails in the Buffalo, you might have to cross its limits—but just barely.
At Black Iron Bystro in Blasdell, where the city butts up against rural-suburbia, Joe Graziano manages a cocktail program of tremendous merit—one that could hold its own among its most reputable downtown counterparts.
In fact, save for the extra miles and minutes required to get there, you wouldn’t realize Graziano operates far removed from the epicenter of Buffalo’s cocktail market. The trappings of a polished, urban bar aside (the superficial is easy to replicate), what makes his program so impressive is the end product: complex, harmonious cocktails formulated with deliberation and a clear point of view.
You might even say Black Iron’s distance is a boon.
“I think its seclusion from the city helps foster Joe’s creativity in a way that doesn’t leave much room for compromise,” Joshua Campbell opined over email.
Campbell is a New York City-based brand ambassador for Santa Teresa Rum, bartender by trade, and Graziano’s former boss. The pair worked together closely at the now-defunct Pasión in Allentown, which boasted a tiki cocktail program of high caliber in its early stages. It was there that Graziano cut his chops behind the bar.
“Though at the time he didn’t have a lot of bartending experience, he had the main things that really make a difference: eagerness to become better, a palate, and a certain intensity that people are simply either born with or not,” Campbell said. “You could see in his face every day that he was striving to become something better than he was the day before.”
Better himself he did. So much so that, two years ago, he was given the opportunity to showcase that intensity and his honed technical skills at Black Iron Bystro, where owner Bryan Mecozzi has given him free range to make the bar his own.
Practically a one-man show, you can find Graziano there every day prepping, planning, tweaking, and executing with quiet, unassuming thoughtfulness and the sort of dedication Mecozzi considers rare. He takes inspiration from savory and culinary flavor profiles that he refines with complementary or dissonant notes of spirits and modifiers. Keenly aware of his customers’ preferences, he also aims to make his menu simultaneously approachable and challenging.
“In every cocktail, we try to do one familiar thing, and then try to introduce them to something new,” Graziano said.
In Funky Reggae, which vies for most popular drink on the menu, that translates to coupling the mass appeal of vodka and raspberry with a cool overproof rum (Wray and Nephew) and house-made falernum, a syrup bursting with allspice, ginger, brown sugar, cinnamon, and lime zest. The result is a supremely balanced, sophisticated gateway sour.
It’s also one that’s impregnated with island-inspired flavors, a carryover from Graziano’s stint at Pasión and the unabashed fondness for rum and tiki he developed there.
He sneaks that fondness in across his menu, but nowhere is it more apparent than in The Night’s Watch—an excellent ode to the Mai Tai. Graziano makes it his own with mezcal, which he cuts with Appleton Estate for approachability, and his own black sesame orgeat, which brings richness and a dramatic dark color to the finished drink. In true, extravagant tiki fashion, the whole thing is garnished with a smoking cinnamon stick.
Despite his tropical leanings, Graziano’s favorite cocktail, All Hail the King, is neither rum based or tiki influenced. It’s also the least popular among his clientele, largely because of its intimidating ingredient list: Norwegian aquavit, Zucca Rubarbaro, manzanilla sherry, bianco vermouth, and lemon bitters. It’s a stirred drink carefully designed to traverse guests across a spectrum of sensations and flavors: bitterness, florality, herbaceousness, and salinity.
It’s also a drink that ought to be sipped and contemplated to be fully appreciated. And in that sense, it perfectly embodies Graziano’s under-the-radar body of work. The bar at Black Iron Bystro is largely unsung, but only because we haven’t been paying close attention.
“What makes Joe different from many other people I’ve worked with, even up to this day, is the fact that he actually does his research. He knows what he’s doing and has actual intent,” Campbell gushed. “I have a lot of bartender friends in Buffalo, but he and his drinks indisputably stand out for me.”
Upcoming event: Americana Good Time Party
Lead image: Photo by Deanna Bednarz