One of the questions I like to ask bartenders is what they throw on the stereo while they're opening or closing -- when no one, save for their co-workers, are listening. Because what really speaks more to the essence of a bar: the curated playlist for paying customers -- you know, that paints a pretty picture, or the stuff that knocks out prep, rounds out brainstorming, and un-zombifies those who sleep by day and work by night?
At Crudo it's old school hip-hop. Unlike many other bars, open from lunchtime on, Crudo opens in the evening, and I'd arrived at the height of prep -- so I was a sort of obstacle, I guess. Good thing they wanted to talk Spring Cocktails as much as I did.
I didn't need to cross my fingers for a hit, knowing Micah Olson, co-owner and head mixologist, would deliver. What I didn't foresee was a head nod to bartender Andrew Calisterio, a young Sacramento star-tender (as an acquaintance described him), for one of his creations. Calisterio presented me with The Wishing Well, a stir of Vida mezcal, Sun Rum from Seattle, Tempus Fugit Creme De Menthe (read as: legit creme de menthe), a dash of celery bitters, and house-made cucumber simple syrup -- so suffice to say, despite its "Day Glow Green" appearance it's, well, no well drink.
How did you end up with this drink?
AC: I wanted to do a mezcal cocktail that would be a little bit more approachable for folks who just kind of associate it with this smoky, really big flavor and at the same time still bring out some of its minty undertones and the herbaceous background notes. Something that a lot of people don't realize when they're having mezcal is that there's a lot of mint in the background and one thing I did to actually bring this forward was using the creme de menthe which totally bumps that herbaceous quality. I always like to add a little aspect of cool, funky umami or some weird make-you-think tastes in the background, so that's why I reached for the rum. It has some subtle saffron that works really well with the cucumber. The nose is really bright and both cucumber and mint have this amazing cooling effect -- this being my first summer in phoenix, I was trying to make something that was spirit forward but still have the cooling effects of a spritzier cocktail.
MO: I love the way the cucumber and mint cool things down. He nailed it.
Which flavors or aromas come to mind when you think of spring?
MO: Floral always come to mind. You have all of the blossoms in Arizona -- it always smells amazing outside. So I always like to bring in orange water, rose water, some kind of springtime aromatic, whether it be lavender, which is very spring, or citrus, obviously.
Do you achieve that spring profile through the things that you bring in from outside, or can those be found in the actual liquors and spirits themselves?
MO: One-hundred percent. Liquors can definitely bring you those same kinds of things. Like Nolet's gin has a raspberry and a rose to it as well, which we're using in some of our spring cocktails. And as far as floral components, you have something like St. Germain's elderflower liquor as well, that's been all over the world and back, and those types of aromatics of the spring time do such a good job of getting people in that mood of what's coming and the greenery that comes with summer.
So then what makes a good spring cocktail? What would you want to drink when you're out somewhere else?
MO: I think that the spring cocktail transitions you from the fall/winter heaviness, and most of the country is still a little chilly at night, getting nice in the daytime, so you don't want to leap straight into the big, berry-berry summer stuff, so it ends up being a lighter style cocktail that still teeters a little bit on fall and winter. A refresher, basically.
When you're brainstorming a cocktail, do you start with a flavor in mind and try to work towards it, or are you more likely to take a classic and tinker with it?
MO: It definitely works both ways. Sometimes there's a classic that I know I've been wanting to do a riff on for a while, and other times I start with a flavor and I'm like, alright, this is in season, I want to use it, and I balance it off of the other components in the drink, and definitely use 'The Flavor Bible' -- it's basically always open in front of me. That's so often how I write my menu.
How important is it for you to be innovative? Is that even the goal -- or just to be creative?
MO: Innovative isn't as important to me as being creative. Innovation is doing something that's never been done before, but creative is taking common things and using them in different ways. Innovation is great -- it's really hard to be innovative, especially these days with everybody else out there doing stuff and documenting it, so if you think you've done it first in your head, you probably haven't done it first. But that creative side is definitely what I lean for. Just making great new cocktails.
Which spirits or modifiers are you really into right now? Are there any you have here that you're really proud of, or any others you wish you had on your shelf?
MO: I'm always get excited about whiskey. Whiskey is one of my favorite things. We have a great selection. This time of year gin and rum get me in the right place. Rum is the perfect transfer from the winter and the spring -- it has the vanilla notes that go really well with the spring flavors, full of aromatics. Those always keep me happy.
If I were to ask another bartender, what would they say is your signature style?
MO: Hopefully balanced and bold.
So, if you weren't to busy holding down the fort here and at C.I., where would you be pulling up a barstool?
MO: Joshua James at The Clever Koi. His drinks are never too complicated, but definitely over-complicated with how he thought them out and arrived at the final product. I was just there on Monday and I'm always amazed at how stellar the drinks are, and why I haven't thought of some of his drink combinations.
Yeah, he's a lot of fun.
MO: Definitely a lot of fun, and always really different. Like I look at his menu and never think it's similar to a drink from somewhere else. It's Joshua James.
And nothing is too sweet, either.
MO: Yeah, nothing ever plays too much on the sweet side at all. You know, I think he writes a menu for himself, but that works for the public too. I think a lot of bartenders get stuck writing a menu for themselves that doesn't work as well publicly. He's a master of his craft right now. He's doing really well.
What about somewhere outside of town?
MO: Oh man, there's a laundry list. Just name a town and I could probably tell you three or four bartenders. One of my favorites is Marco Dionysos at Smuggler's Cove. He is a machine. He looks like he has eight arms, yet he's still talking to all of his guests. He's pumping out all of those incredible tiki drinks. He's one of my favorites to watch. Elad Zvi out of Miami at Broken Shaker is a culinary genius behind the stick. He brings in all sorts of strange, strange flavors to his drinks and somehow they work. That guy, you read his menu, and you're like that can't be good, but his drinks are amazing, and he's so cerebral. He's someone I'd want to sit in front of all day long and just ask questions.
Andrew, what about you? Where would you go in town?
AC: I probably shouldn't say Joshua James. [laughs]
MO: No, you can say Joshua James.
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AC: We spend a lot of time between there or Michael's program over at The Parlor... Or, you know, Giant Coffee.
AC: True story. We spend a lot of time at Giant Coffee.