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Up the Stairs to Bari’s Intimate Dodici

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Imagine being led up a dark stairwell by a man of small stature with only a few candles to light your way, unsure of what awaits you at the landing above. Is this one of those Game of Thrones nightmares? Not in my case. The man of small stature was not Tyrion Lannister, but Matteo Severs, age 9. What awaited me at the top of the candle-lit stairwell was not death or any sort of mutilation (or marriage, for that matter), but a delicious cocktail. Welcome to Dodici, the heavily spirited, super-secret speakeasy from Bari Ristorante.

Dodici is the latest dream-come-true from Jason and Rebecca Severs (parents of aforementioned maître d' Matteo), the owners behind Bari at 22 S. Cooper in Overton Square. Formerly an artist's studio, the upstairs space has been transformed into a cozy, luxurious bar with delectable, carefully crafted cocktails from mixologist/magician (mixomagician?) Vincent Hale.

Calling them cocktails is hardly fair to the drinks, as they are truly works of art. Dodici is the Italian word for 12, the amount of people Dodici can seat. "We named it that to convey the intimacy of the space," Rebecca Severs says. "It's still Bari, but we added a room and wanted to give it a name."

If it sounds exclusive, it is. But this is not a snobby place. Vince welcomes each patron with lively chatter and an in-depth description of each cocktail that is ordered. He handmakes nearly everything, from the ice to the bitters to the syrups. Each liquor is selected by Vince himself, and it is likely something you've never heard of. And if you and I have never heard of it, that's pretty much a guarantee that your in-laws from Collierville won't infiltrate this place. "When Vince came on board, we quickly realized he has such a unique and clever mind for mixology," Rebecca says. He doesn't disappoint.

Dodici is accessible from a "secret door" inside the Bari enoteca (loosely translated, that's "wine library"). If Dodici is full, you are invited to stay at the enoteca downstairs until a spot upstairs is available. Once upstairs, you take your pick of velvety armchairs or a barstool at the handmade bar (also courtesy of Vince). If you're lucky, Matteo himself will escort you.

On the menu, Vincent has included an "amaro rapido." He describes it as a new style of mixing a drink. It translates to "rapid bitters," and he builds the bitters in front of the patrons. Atop the bar he has several dishes of spices, barks, and seeds, including cinnamon, Angelica, cardamom, and even beet powder, for color and sweetness. Most bitters take months to sit and stew, but Vince's bitters come together in front of you. "It's much more aggressive," Vince says. "Built quickly, you taste every little nuance; it's much more active."

The rapid bitters is ground up and mixed with gin and bourbon, double-strained into a coupe glass, and garnished with a sage leaf. "The bar is almost like an apothecary at this point. I can base a drink on a person's palate and build to suit," Vince says.

He's also making a drink from aquavit, a Scandinavian spirit not offered in Tennessee. Because he is handmaking the aquavit, each batch will be different from the last. Similar to gin, it is driven by dill and caraway and backed by autumn spices and barks before being mixed with sugar and absinthe. "You can't taste it anywhere else in the world," Vince says. He is affable and funny and there are no dumb questions when Vince is behind the bar, which bodes well for someone who had no clue what aquavit was until he told me. (Now I feel all fancy!)

Dodici will stay open later than Bari's downstairs bar, meaning that anyone arriving after closing time will have to be let in by Vince. This will probably eventually be done by phone or callbox, so bear with them while they work it out. The good news is, you can enjoy amazing craft cocktails until the wee hours, as long as Vince is willing to let you hang out. Dodici is open on Friday and Saturday nights at 5 p.m. It's available for rental for private parties. The bar will begin offering meats and cheese plates within the next couple of weeks. Cocktails range between $14 and $15.

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