Jill Cockson’s Wednesday got shaken and stirred somewhere around the noon hour.
Until then, the head bartender at The Other Room was spending her day doing some light shopping, nothing too crazy in advance of a night mixing Absinthe-Minded Professors, Mumbai Exorcisms or whatever else anyone wanted off the craft cocktail menu at the hidden Haymarket bar.
Then the first of what would become an avalanche of texts and tweets and calls came. It was a Facebook message from Pamela Wiznitzer, a bartender who recently left New York’s famed Dead Rabbit to open her own space, Seamstress.
Cockson said she routinely texts back and forth with other craft bartenders throughout the country. But those texts tend to start at 3 a.m. If the timing of this message was a bit of a surprise, the content of the message was a complete and total one.
“Holy moly babe congrats on the james beard nom!!!” Wiznitzer wrote.
“What?!?!?!” was Cockson’s response.
The Other Room, where Cockson is a managing partner and bartender, received a substantial honor Wednesday. The James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit that honors all things culinary, named the tucked-away Lincoln spot as a semifinalist for an Outstanding Bar Program award.
The list of 20 bars overwhelmingly includes cocktail lounges and speakeasies in big cities, places that have Esquire and GQ-type seals of approval. The Violet Hour in Chicago, Arnaud’s French 75 Bar in New Orleans, the aforementioned Dead Rabbit -- those kinds of places.
“It’s just an honor to be nominated,” Cockson said soon after she learned of it. “It’s certainly a list of people that have inspired me.”
According to the James Beard Foundation, the selection committee chose semifinalists for the 21 categories from a set of over 34,000 entries nominated through an online call beginning in mid-October.
Whoever nominated the Other Room in the first place is a mystery to Cockson, and that seems fitting. The bar itself embraces an air of mystery, complete with a secret address and a speakeasy-style back alley door one must knock upon to enter, unless the light outside is glowing red. That means the room’s at capacity -- 25 people. (Hint: The bar shares a courtyard with Tavern on the Square, 816 P St.)
There are no reservations, no photos allowed, 400 square feet of space, eight mirrors of varying sizes along the east wall and a dizzying array of liquors, liqueurs, bitters, syrups and Cockson’s own Colonel Jesse’s Small Batch Tonics.
“I love it,” Cockson said. “It’s perfect.”
The list of 20 semifinalists will be narrowed to five finalists on March 24. Her best guess is that the Other Room was nominated by one of her colleagues in the United States Bartenders’ Guild. Cockson is the president of the recently founded Omaha/Lincoln chapter, and she’ll be celebrating the creation of the state’s first chapter at a margarita and tequila tasting this Sunday at the Hive in Omaha.
She’ll be joined by Berry and Rye bartender and chapter vice president Luke Edson, who Cockson said deserves the nomination more than she does. But seeing The Other Room alongside some of the country’s most-honored bars reaffirmed what she believed when she joined partner Matt Taylor and former partner Brian Moran -- that a well-run craft cocktail lounge can garner attention even if it's in a Nebraska back alley, even if it doesn't have a Facebook page.
“It’s more that I’m proud of this part of the country,” she said.