Welcome to the indecisive mind of a reporter: it's never a matter of how would I introduce a guy like Travis Nass -- a sort of fabled mixologist, tucked away in a cabin-in-the-woods-like setting, a couple turns on a dirt road wandering from Paradise Valley's, let's say, "lustre," manning the cowboy-ish Last Drop Bar at the Hermosa Inn. It's anything but rugged, but far from an expected place to find some of the better -- and stiffer - cocktails in town.
It's more of a question of how should I introduce Travis Nass. I suppose I'll skip the mustache, the history of bars tended, his induction to The 2015 Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame -- because you'd expect all of that.
I should introduce Nass, then, by telling you that from a man that consistently reframes my perspective on what a strong cocktail is -- what he calls a "glass full of booze" -- I asked for a spring cocktail, something that could be floral or fruity, and got his version of 'The Last Word' called 'El Ultimo.' It's equal parts sotol (an Chihuahuan agave distillate made from the Desert Spoon plant), cooling Chareau (an aloe and cucumber liquor), herbaceous green chartreuse and lime juice, a combination that knocks your out of your boots and into some sandals. Rest your Spring Training cap here, weary traveler; you're both a side-street and a world away from Paradise Valley.
Which flavors and aromas come to mind when you think of springtime?
Spring to me is herbal, floral, berries -- that type of thing. Gin -- which I use a lot during the spring. Tequila. Those are kind of my go-to's during the spring.
Do you like to bring in many outside flavors from the environment -- juices, aromatics, things like that?
Well I started out in the back of house, so I kind of have a very culinary mindset. So as much fresh produce as possible -- that's always a plus. That being said there's nothing wrong with a bunch of booze in a glass.
What kind of spring cocktail do you want to drink when you're sitting down somewhere else?
Something super, super refreshing. Something -- when I think of spring I think green -- so something that tastes green. Even just a daiquiri or a margarita is a great spring cocktail to me.
As far as the classics go...
So how'd you end up with your 'El Ultimo' drink?
It was inspired by a cocktail called 'The Last Word,' which is gin, maraschino liquor, green chartreuse and lime juice. So I switched out the gin for sotol, which I like to call the gin of the agave world -- because to me it's got that same kind of herbaceous, botanical quality.
And it's a blanco, right?
Yes, not a reposado. I also switched out the maraschino liquor for the Chareau, which is the the aloe vera liquor. Both of those ingredients are so fresh, so they just scream out spring to me.
I noticed that your menu has a strong historical element to it -- you include the year and place of invention for each drink, if you didn't create it yourself. Why do you include those details?
I guess it goes back to -- classics are classics for a reason. You can't make a better cocktail than a daiquiri, or a margarita, or a manhattan. I believe that there's no such thing as an original cocktail. With the amount of history that cocktails have been around for, someone has already done whatever you've done. So I don't hold a lot of stock in my own creations. I'm not doing anything special, so everything I do is fixed in history somewhere. I'm always going to be pulling my specialty cocktails or my "original" cocktails from, and taking influence from, someone somewhere. And the more I can recognize that and the more I can fix that within that context, the better drink I'll have in general.
It also seems like many of your cocktails have their own southwestern feel to them -- at least one foot placed in Arizona.
Yeah, I mean, definitely. I love the Southwest. I love Arizona. And I very much like drinking and eating my surroundings. There's something to be said for the local movement, and if you can place yourself within that, the more you can do that the better your drinks come across because that have that sense of time and place.
So, that being said, how'd you come across the sotol? I've heard from other bartenders that it's kind of hard to track down.
Right, definitely, sotol isn't really mainstream yet. We've had the significant mezcal boom -- you can get a lot of great mezcals on the market -- but sotol has yet to be that way. Right now I know there are three commercial brands available.
And there's another cousin spirit to mezcal and sotol, right? What's the name again?
Yep, there's bacanora. Speaking in very simplistic terms, tequila is from Jalisco, sotol is from Chihuahua, and bacanora is from Sonora. There are other nuances, obviously, like the types of agaves they are allowed to use -- tequila is the blue agave, for instance. Mezcal has 30-40 agaves that they can use.
And the cooking and processing of the plant varies there, too.
Yep, with mezcal they're cooking in pits intead of ornos. Most of the other ones than tequila cook in pits. The sotol uses desert spoon agave only. It's kind of all similar, but different.
Is any one ingredient -- spirit, liquor, modifier -- your favorite at the moment? For springtime or in general?
Sotol is very quickly becoming my favorite spirit. Gin -- I always love gin. I'm using a lot of gin at the moment for the spring. But I'd say agave spirits in general are what I've been loving the most, though it goes back and forth -- I do realize that I need to drink a little of everything.
So, I'd say your about as established as it gets in the cocktail scene here in the Valley. Your name is right up there.
I've been lucky to have lots of people supporting me and talking about me.
Which stage are you at in your career? What are you chasing after right now?
Throughout my career I'm always looking for opportunities. Even though I've got a great position here -- as far as what I'm looking forward to, I'd love to have a place of my own at some point.
Most everyone would.
So that I think that is in the not-too-distant future, as far as things on the horizon go for me. At some point I would like to create a brand of... I'm not sure what yet. Some kind of spirit. I would say that's in the far distant future.
Maybe like an Arizona agave-based sotol...
Yeah, you know, my actual dream for that would be to make an arizona sotol-based gin.
What would that look like?
I mean the difficult part would be sourcing the desert spoon... Actually, it would be getting the funding. But it could be like a stripped down sotol - like a sotol vodka, and then I'd add a bunch of Arizona desert botanicals and juniper.
How do you feel about trends in the cocktail world? Is it just part of the trade -- like a way to stay relevant, or is that something you try to ignore?
Trends are tough. There's such a thing as being too far ahead of the game. And there's are trends in L.A. and in New York, but the world could be over them by the time that they get here. Some serve a purpose -- like they're trends because they're delicious.
The biggest trend right now is to make craft versions of crappy cocktails. And I think that comes from people who are growing up in the 70's or 80's, and that was their drink, and they're going to these craft bars and they want to try it there. I think it's an admirable effort to get ahead of that. If they're going to come in and order that anyways, why not give them the best version they've ever had. And it's certainly better than the trend from the early 2000's where bars wouldn't carry anything like cranberry juice or vodka and just told you to get out if you wanted a cosmo or a long island iced tea.
All trends need to be rooted in hospitality and making people happy -- those are the trends that are going to survive.
It seems like a lot of restaurants and kitchens are back on board with that as well.
Yeah, and there's also the showy, experimental stuff. Some will make its way into other drinks and dishes, and the rest will fade away. But you never know until you try it out and see if it's serviceable in a restaurant setting, or if it's executable in a high-volume format.
So when you're not too busy, where in town do you pull up a barstool?
I'm kind of a creature of habit, and I try not to go too far out of where I live and where I work. So I'll end up at the Gladly or the Parlor -- or somewhere in Arcadia. I don't know. We're lucky because we're getting to the point where it's easier to find a great drink. I try to go to Downtown now and then to see everybody down there like Bluehound or Bitter and Twisted.
Is there a single cocktail you've had recently that sticks out in your mind?
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Sure. I was just over at Counter Intuitive. Their -- I mean, everything I tried there was great, and talk about springtime drinks -- Peas-sco Sour with the snap-pea infused pisco was great.
Yeah, I really enjoyed that one too.
Spring Cocktail Guides: - Joshua James of The Clever Koi - Libby Longlott and Michael Allmandinger of The Parlor - Andrew Calisterio and Micah Olson of Crudo