Your bar, The Aviary, is one of the most exciting in the country. What is your process for creating drinks here that might be different than how you have done it in past bar programs (Drawing Room, etc.)?
I would say that my process has definitely evolved at my new home. Formerly, a lot of inspiration would come from creating cocktails à la minute for guests. That type of freestyling often leads to the foundation for what might become a menu drink. I’m still following seasonal cues heavily, looking to the kitchen for inspiration and finding cocktails in everything from good times with friends to a song on the radio. The difference now is that there is much more collaboration and far fewer limitations. The skillset of my team members is quite diverse and we all bring something different to the table. I’m also able to think much more abstractly — looking to create a great cocktail, then take it to the next level, affecting the guest’s experience by hitting on multiple senses at once. All that being said, the end result must always be a spot-on cocktail: perfectly balanced, delicious and something they would reorder.
How much are you able to utilize craft spirits in your bar? How do you decide which brands you want to feature?
We work heavily with craft spirit producers. That being said we use a ton of product from the larger distilleries as well. At the end of the day this is my stance on “craft” vs. large-scale producer: I will always look for the best tool for the job. I need a product that plays a particular role in a cocktail and don’t let who produces it influence my choice. Is it the right flavor profile? Do I believe in the way it is produced? Is it cost effective?
I’m very excited about the boom in craft spirits. Our country’s distillers are producing some amazing spirits. Due to their small scale they are able to take risks and experiment with profiles that larger companies may not. That being said, it is not as simple as boutique = quality. The large producers have the benefit of years, sometimes over a century of experience. They have access to state of the art equipment, great consistency and staff often generations in the business. For example: we use many domestic, craft gins, however, if I want a benchmark I’ll grab a bottle of Tanqueray or other venerable London dry style gin.
There does exist an intangible angle to the equation: the people. There is definitely something to knowing exactly who is making your spirits and how they do it. I have been working with Sonja and Derek from North Shore for 6 or 7 years. They make great products, they often fit the bill for a cocktail I am working on and it is quite nice to know you are building your business while helping another small entrepreneur grow theirs. Bigger brands have taken note of this and have become increasingly transparent, catapulting their master distillers or blenders to industry celebrity status. It’s a pretty amazing time in the business.
What are some US craft brands that are exciting you right now?
We use a wide variety of small distillers. If you walk through our liquor room you’ll see all of the local distilleries: North Shore, Koval, FEW, Journeyman, Ransom, Old Potrero, Del Maguey, Breckenridge, Balcones, and many more. You also have a multitude of folks doing great things in the bitters categories and really pushing boundaries.
It’s also difficult to discern exactly what we are calling a craft distillery. I’ve been to Oaxaca and visited all of Del Maguey’s producers – that stretches far beyond craft and is truly a handed down art form for the people there. Then you have other start-up companies sourcing amazing spirits like the 86 Co. Haus Alpenz also sources great stuff from all over the world — I imagine many of Eric Seed’s producers would be considered craft as well. It’s a truly great time to be making (and enjoying) cocktails. The selection, quality and innovation happening right now are unprecedented. There is plenty of room for the big boys and the smaller brands to all enjoy a level of success.