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Classic concoction

Renee Cebula’s mobile business mixes booze, vintage barware, history

Renee Cebula’s favorite cocktails change with the weather.

She’s just coming off of the Negroni – that classic Italian combination of gin, Campari, sweet red vermouth and orange peel – and heading into the season of “something with a little fizz,” such as a French 75. In summer, she likes a good whiskey sour or anything with a strong citrus note, such as a grapefruity greyhound or gin rickey with a little extra lime.

No matter the time of year, classic cocktails are Cebula’s drinks of choice. She likes them even better when they’re served in vintage glassware.

The local historian is always on the lookout for mid-century modern barware for her mobile business, Raising the Bar. Most pieces come from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, but she has some items from the ’70s, too. Inventory ranges from $4 vintage shot glasses to antique bars and bar carts for up to $850.

Cebula “field tests” many of the items before they hit the shelves of her 1959 Aljo travel trailer, which houses her pop-up antique shop. She started the business two years ago this summer, but began collecting vintage barware several years before that, shopping thrift and antique stores and estates sales from Spokane and Seattle to the East Coast. In many cases, she said she felt she was “rescuing” pieces.

“I would see things that were destined to be thrown away or not appreciated,” said Cebula, 57. “I’d bring home half my suitcase with my dirty clothes wrapped in barware.”

She also became fascinated by the history of cocktail culture in America, particularly as it relates to the working and upper classes.

“It’s within drinking and drinking culture that these two classes mingle,” she said. “Mixed drinks are more than mixed drinks. They’re a mirror of cultural trends, social customs and style. Some aspects of cocktail culture have become icons. I’m thinking of James Bond and the shaken, not stirred, martini. I’m thinking of Marilyn Monroe holding a Champagne coupe. I’m thinking about Dean Martin and the Rat Pack with their rocks glasses.”

Soon, she realized she had amassed quite a few vintage barware items.

Inspired by a shop she visited during a 2010 trip to Cape Cod, she considered opening her own barware boutique, but she wasn’t sure Spokane could sustain such a specialty shop. “It’s such a niche,” she said.

Cebula attended a small business course in Spokane and began talking with commercial real estate agents and other business owners.

She decided “that commitment that comes with a brick-and-mortar just wasn’t a possibility. It was just too much risk.”

Cebula found her vintage travel trailer in North Idaho on Craigslist. For two months in 2013, she and her husband stripped, then rebuilt its interior. The night before its debut at the South Perry Street Fair, they worked until 2 a.m. Two years later, Cebula averages three weekend events a month from May through October. She opens Raising the Bar at local and regional street fairs, antique shows and community festivals. This summer, she’s expanding her range, participaring in a few events in Seattle as well as Walla Walla and Coeur d’Alene.

Learning to pull and back up the trailer was one of her biggest challenges in the beginning. Her husband Larry, 54, still helps her, jacking it up and leveling it. She can do it on her own now, too. But when he helps, the routine – including unpacking and staging some 600 pieces of inventory per event – takes two instead of three hours. It takes another hour and a half or two hours to tear down and pack up.

“It’s like Tetris packing it up,” she said. “It’s like a big puzzle.”

Cebula tailors inventory to particular events. In general, she said, kitschy kinds of things sell well, along with decanters and bar tools. Among the most popular items now are mid-century modern “Mad Men-style double Old-Fashioned glasses and Tom Collins glasses.

“I think they’re popular just because they’re so versatile,” Cebula said. “They can be water glasses for a dinner party or for mojitos in summer.”

But buyer beware: Her vintage barware pieces don’t go into the dishwasher.

“I know this sounds crazy, but I enjoy washing and drying them and putting them away,” she said. “I want them to be perfect when I put them out. I have special towels that I use.”

When she’s tending bar, her go-to guides are “How to Mix Drinks, Or, The Bon-vivant’s Companion” by Jerry Thomas from 1862 and “Imbibe!” by David Wondrich from 2007. She also uses a commercial-grade citrus press that Larry found at a Spokane yard sale for $1 and a 1950s, hand-crank ice crusher. (It’s not for sale, but she has a few more almost exactly like it that are.) She recently began making her own bitters and often uses liqueurs from broVo Spirits in Woodinville, where Cebula’s son, Mac Kenney, 32, is a distiller. She has two adult children in the Seattle area and a high-schooler at home, where she will occasionally host shoppers by appointment.

A couple of nights per week, she and her husband usually enjoy happy hour in the living room of their South Hill Craftsman. One night last week, Cebula experimented with a Four Roses Cold Toddy recipe she found in a vintage advertisement. “It tastes like candy,” she said. “It tastes like boozy candy.”

She also made gin rickeys – “not very complicated but very refreshing.” Larry Cebula, a Connecticut native, made whiskey sours. (In summer, he enjoys a Cape Cod: vodka, cranberry juice and lime.)

He’s a history professor at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, where she’s finishing her master’s degree in history. They’ve been married 20 years.

Previously, Cebula, a Spokane native, was a high school history teacher and consultant on federal education grants. These days, she’s working part time on a photo archiving project at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

She’s also working to expand the online component of her business – from becoming more active on social media to creating a store at etsy.com – as well as hosting classes on cocktail history. Her first one, offered through the MAC, is Sunday.

Although her inventory is tucked into nooks and crannies throughout her home, Cebula still hunts for vintage barware for her business. But, she said, “I’m much more selective than when I started.”

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