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.