Micah Olson at Jade Bar

Micah Olson
Micah Olson

Micah Olson got his start in the food industry as a cook at age 16 and eventually profited from his love for wine by earning his sommelier certification, taking over the wine program at Sanctuary on Camelback's Jade Bar (5700 E. McDonald Drive, 480-948-2100) about three-and-a-half years ago. At the same time, Olson was dabbling in bartending about three days a week, but was moved to full-time after consultants who had come from Portland to revamp Jade's bar program recognized his prowess and recommended he be put in charge. The bar became his responsibility for a while and he haven't looked back ever since. You can now find him full-time at Jade Bar, mixing eclectic liquors with fresh ingredients to serve drinks that complement one of the most picturesque views in all of bar-dom.

After starting out on the wine side, how did you become so enamored with cocktails?
I just dove into it. All I do it home basically is surf the internet and look at what's going on with cocktails around the country. I'll even go to cities that are good for cocktails and do a cocktail tour -- that's how geeky I am right now. This last summer I did Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis. I've actually done Portland and Seattle twice now because I love what they're doing. They're a little bit different than down here, where people use a lot of mixers; they're very spirit-heavy. Mixing robust spirits and liqueurs is a lot harder to do well when you use less of the sugars and mixers. They do a lot of that up there, and it's interesting to me because it's a bit more challenging. If you look at old, classic cocktails, a lot of the drinks just have three or four straight liqueurs in there that happen to have their own natural sweetness. To me, that's what cocktails are all about.

Do you try to translate what you find in other cities so it'll play here?
In Arizona we have a hot climate, so all that refreshing stuff -- the citrus and berries -- will always play here. But in the winter months, I love to play with the heavier spirits.

What does Phoenix need to do to become a cocktail destination akin to Portland or San Francisco?
Number one is just getting everyone away from what I call quick bartending -- finding the easy steps to do everything. Most places here will use a store-bought sweet and sour, commercially made with preservatives loaded into it. They'll buy factory-made lime juice. We make all our stuff fresh for every drink here -- sweet and sour, lime juice, bitters. Yeah, it costs a little bit more money to do it, but it's fresh. Moving toward the farm-fresh, farm-to-the-glass type thing is where Phoenix needs to be. We have awesome citrus out here and we have plenty of farmers who grow cool herbs you can use in these drinks. A big thing, too, is that Scottsdale's kind of known for the club scene. But when you're in a big club, you're not going to get a handcrafted cocktail. A lot of our drinkers aren't used to what a cocktail can be. They just want to get their drink, not wait in line anymore and get back to the dance floor. People need to realize that you don't need to drink five or six drinks. I want you to drink two or three drinks, and have them be handcrafted and beautiful. 

With the increased focus you're giving the bar and its cocktails, do you still keep up with your sommelier skills?
I still do all the wine-buying for the resort. I kind of double-task, but the truth is I really like to focus more on the cocktail side right now. Making drinks is a chance for me to create, whereas the wine side just requires me to analyze somebody else's creation. With wine, most of the time you're just knowing about and buying somebody else's stuff. I prefer to create and get my name behind something, rather than just being the guy picking it out.

What do you draw your inspiration from when creating a cocktail recipe?
Almost all original recipes play off something in the past. It's like writing a song or a movie -- almost everything's already been done. Unless a new spirit comes out -- that's like playtime for us bartenders. You want to jump on a new spirit so you can be the first to create something. As far as other drinks go, it's just little variations on established stuff. If something calls for rye whiskey, maybe you try it with cognac and see what happens. It's little variations on old-school classics that really keeps the cocktails culture moving forward.

What are most bartenders in Phoenix doing wrong?
I think most bartenders here just treat it as a job that pays money. They don't care what they're selling for the most part as long as they're making their tips. I would much rather work a lot harder making drinks I'm proud of then make the same amount of money selling vodka sodas all night. It would be super easy to do, but it just gets boring and monotonous, like a chef who cooks the exact same meal all day, over and over and over again. It's no fun. So they need to get to a point at which they're trying to get people to step outside the box. Find an alternative.

What's your favorite liquor?
Gin -- I like it for mixing. At my house I have 24 bottles of gin; there aren't many bars in this town that even have that many. We have 25 at Jade.

How big is your bar at home?
I'm sad to say it, but it's about 140 bottles of liquor and probably 220 bottles of wine. I have a spare bedroom for my booze, glassware and mixing stuff. I go online all the time and just buy stupid little things you can only use like once or twice a year, but as a bartender who wants to be able to do everything, you need all this stuff.

What's your most memorable night as a bartender?
Probably the night I got a $1,000 tip. This guy came in -- he was with a stripper girl. The whole night she was pulling her top down, and the guy actually ended up banging his head against the bar and was bleeding all over, but he wouldn't go back to his room. He said he felt bad for being so ridiculous, so he wrote us a $1,000 tip on paper and gave me a handshake that had another $300 in it. There was another night where we had a bride go "Yay!" and raise her arms, and her whole dress just fell off. It's insane. Saturdays when people come in after weddings are always the most fun nights because people are always in a crazy mood. You never know what's going to happen. 


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