Since helping open the Phoenician's J&G Steakhouse over a year ago, Julie Hillebrand has been hard at work changing the way people think about cocktails.
A trained chef, she's an advocate of fresh ingredients and unique flavors who uses her culinary skills to concoct improv cocktails that combine flavors of both drink and food. Ingredients like basil, lemongrass and even curry mingle with bitters Hillebrand creates herself at home, resulting in cocktails that are complex, flavorful and altogether original.
When your official title is "Bar Chef," maybe it's to be expected.
How do you go about improvising cocktails for customers?
I do a lot of research during the day. I get on bartenders' blogs and food websites to see what's going on. I get ideas here and there. I also have a couple recipes I've written that I like to pull out. At home recently I made a cocktail with fresh avocado, lime juice, basil, tequila, and I put a little cinnamon in it with a pinch of cayenne. That was fun.
How'd you get started with bartending?
I worked in restaurants basically since I graduated high school and through college. I've always had a food background. I started college at culinary school and got caught up in bar tending after that. I've been very well-rounded. I think some of the food creeps into the cocktails, like the use of fresh herbs and not wanting to compromise using lesser-quality ingredients.
What makes you different from your average barkeep?
I definitely dig in and do some things that are a little bit out of the ordinary from most places where it's club soda, beer, gin and tonic type stuff. When I'm out, generally I'll have a vodka soda, because I know what I'm gonna get. I don't want to have a Manhattan that's shaken or without bitters because somebody doesn't know what the heck that is.
So do most bartenders not know what they're doing?
I don't want to be nasty about it, but a lot of people haven't had the fortune to have been trained the way we were here. We had a couple of guys sent from New York to train us, and they were very much into Prohibition-style cocktails, craft cocktails, making your own syrups and things like that. I try not to use anything from a bottle beside the spirits. We have all fresh-squeezed juices here, and I love it.
What makes a good cocktail recipe?
The key to a fantastic cocktail is making the sweet and the tart elements balance with the spirit and not killing someone with a ton of booze. Sometimes giving something texture with champagne or other drinks will improve it. Putting a fresh herb on top also helps, so you're smelling and tasting at the same time.
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When you're making a drink for someone, what inspires you?
I'll chat with the guest a bit if they're looking for something out of the ordinary. A lot of times I'll just ask if there's a particular flavor they feel like having. Is it cucumber or lime? Do you feel like having fresh herbs? I'll look for one outlet that really catches them and I'll go from there. A lot of times I have guests come in and they're totally open to whatever I'm going to make. That I really love.
What's the biggest mistake people make when mixing their own drinks at home?
Using fake stuff, like grenadine or blue curacao. It makes me feel a little bit ill when someone orders an apple martini. I call it the apple puker. There are definitely some of those cocktails in a bottle that I would stay away from.
So you're a fan of organic foods?
I just think flavors that are natural are more interesting. I don't even buy bottled salad dressing -- I use herbs from my garden. Preservatives kill me.
If there was a drink named after you, what kind of ingredients would be in it?
There would have to be some kind of fresh herbs. Also, I'm a gin girl. I just think it adds a lot more complexity to a cocktail. Gin and herbs. The other night, I mixed up a drink with passion fruit and Thai basil, and the server said, "Oh, it's the Julia!" I was like, "Okay!"