Travis Nass has been busy. In addition to his role developing drinks and working with wholesale clients for Caskwerks Distilling Co., he’s been consulting with standalone bars and restaurants looking to improve their cocktail game. Nass just finished up the menu at Joe’s Midnight Run, the new late-night restaurant in uptown Phoenix, and most recently did a number on the cocktails at Christopher’s Restaurant and Crush Lounge, the restaurant and wine bar nestled under the same roof at Biltmore Fashion Park.
When Nass writes menus for clients, they need to be what he calls “concept-appropriate.” So for a restaurant like Christopher’s, which is known for its wine program, that means integrating wine into the cocktails in nuanced ways. Nass uses a handful of fortified wines in the new cocktails, and has calibrated a handful of the drinks to contain about as much alcohol as a higher ABV wine — that way, not only is it easier to gauge alcohol intake, but also these cocktails can be enjoyed at a similar pace as wine.
Which isn’t to say that the cocktail menu is only filled with weaker drinks. This is Nass we’re talking about, who's certainly better known for his spirited sippers. But it is to say that on the new menu, there's a balance achieved between the two styles.
“You want people to be able to enjoy that second or third drink,” Nass says. “People are looking for flavor and aren’t necessarily wanting to get tanked.”
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One of the drinks Nass thinks best exemplifies the direction of the new menu is the White Port Cosmo, showing off two wines, a honey-like white port and a nutty, savory Rancio, an oxidized and fortified style of wine. It's one of Nass' favorite cocktail ingredients. Cranberry juice and a little citrus keep it a cosmo at heart — and, of course, the fact that it’s light, tart, and refreshing.
Another example of a concept-appropriate drink is firmly a classic, the French 75. At Crush Lounge the cocktail gets Nass’s twist, utilizing CaskWerks gin mixed with lemon juice, simple syrup, and, for the wine portion, a Verve Devienne Brut float.
Some cocktails straddle the line between boozy and light. The Sherry Cobbler, for instance, sticks to its name, containing only Toro Oloroso sherry aside from some Small Hands brand pineapple gum syrup. Thrown in a frosty tin cup and loaded with crushed ice julep-style, it’s garnished with fresh mint, berries, and powdered sugar — and goes down easier than any alcoholic beverage should.
But, still, “They aren’t weak,” Nass says. “I’m not very good at that.”