Caer Maiko works best within particular parameters, finding inspiration in restraint. Lately, those parameters have been the self-imposed pursuit of what she calls “Super Asian Cocktails.”
Maiko began her career in hospitality at 19, when she started bartending in her college town of Boston. She didn’t dive into the craft side of the cocktail world until moving to Austin, Texas, in 2015, when she landed a bartender position at Péché, a pre-Prohibition-style, absinthe-focused bar that she credits with teaching her the fundamentals of classic builds. After winning her debut cocktail competition in 2016, she moved on to The Roosevelt Room, one of the city’s preeminent cocktail destinations. “If you look at Péché as the college of bartending, I feel like Roosevelt Room was like a PhD,” says Maiko.
While working at The Roosevelt Room, she overlapped with bartender Sharon Yeung, with whom she would go on to win the Espolón Cocktail Fights National Championship as a tag team in 2018. The two instantly connected over a shared displeasure with the lack of Asian American representation behind the bar and in cocktail culture. “At that point I had met maybe two other Asian women in the bar industry; we were a very small section, especially in Austin,” explains Maiko. “So we instantly [had] a little bit of a bond because of that.” Their winning cocktail was inspired by the flavors of orange chicken, consisting of tequila infused with sesame oil–roasted sweet brown rice and “orange sauce syrup” flavored with more than 15 ingredients, including five spice, Chinese peppers, orange zest and okonomiyaki sauce. Combined with orange juice and citric acid, then shaken with peppers, the result was an unconventional savory spin on a cobbler. “When you tasted it, you couldn’t help but think of American Chinese food,” recalls Maiko.
Today, Maiko works as a bartender at DrinkWell, a neighborhood cocktail bar in Austin’s North Loop neighborhood. Alongside Yeung, she’s also created Daijoubu, a pop-up cocktail concept that, in pre-pandemic times, toured across state lines in a retrofitted school bus serving an original menu of drinks, like her Dope Ass Midori Sour, served in a Chinese food to-go box, which quickly became the pop-up’s top seller. “Every single one of them was inspired by Asian flavors or part of our story,” says Maiko of the cocktails on the debut menu. “Every element of the drink has to go back to that concept.”
A typical Daijoubu menu spotlights Asian flavors transposed into familiar cocktail blueprints—albeit with the volume turned up to 11. Take, for example, the Kung Fu Flip (baijiu, amontillado sherry, fish sauce caramel, egg and nori furikake) or Hello Motherf*cker, an Adios Motherfucker riff built around Japanese gin and shochu, served in a Hello Kitty glass. Across the drinks, glassware, menu design, music and décor, the pop-up boldly corrects the omission of Asian-influenced cocktails in mainstream cocktail culture. As summarized in the Daijoubu mission statement, “We’re just here to celebrate our cultural heritage and get everyone a little tipsy.”
Here, get to know Caer Maiko in three cocktails.
The BIR Questionnaire
Your approach to cocktails in one word:
Contextual. I feel like my approach to cocktails changes depending on the context more than just my voice.
Best (and worst) drink you’ve ever had:
The best drink I ever had was a canned highball. I was hiking in the forest in southern Japan with my husband. We had bought canned highballs and onigiri the night before so we would have lunch on our hike. We chilled the cans in a tiny mountain stream right before we reached the summit and had the most beautiful little picnic of our lives.
The worst drink I ever had was when my friend and co-worker, Chris Gaspar, was R&Ding a cocktail. He made a Daiquiri riff and was putting an egg white foam on top. We had a foam on the menu, so we were practiced in making it with an iSi, but he had forgotten to blend the egg whites before putting them in. I took a sip of what I thought would be a silky sour and got a mouthful of slimy egg white. He’s one the best bartenders I’ve ever worked with, but I’ll never let him live that one down.
Your favorite bar, and why:
Small Victory in Austin. Partly because they have the best cheese and charcuterie setup in town, and the fact that they stir their always-perfect Martinis to temp doesn’t hurt. It’s tiny and beautiful. It’s glamorous enough for date night but casual enough for a late-night/after-shift cocktail and snack. Also, my husband and I got engaged there so it has a sentimental place in my heart as well.
Your favorite classic cocktail, and why:
It used to be a Paloma. It’s definitely been a Negroni at one point. Most recently it was probably between a gin Martini, Mint Julep and Whisky Highball, but I am currently at the end of a pregnancy and haven’t had a real cocktail in almost a year. Ask me again in three months! My favorite zero-proof cocktail is a Hurricane. The owner at DrinkWell, Jessica Sanders, has an amazing spec using Seedlip Spice and Grove that is the best thing I’ve had in a bar this year.
Worst drink you’ve ever made:
As someone who has made hundreds of bespoke, off-the-cuff cocktails over the last decade, I am sure I have made some drinks that were just bad. While some people really enjoyed this drink, the only one that I can say was on a menu and named that I still question was the Year of the Rat’s Tail, from the Year of the Rat Daijoubu menu. It was loosely based on a Lion’s Tail [cocktail] but using a soba broth syrup and a togarashi-buckwheat dram. The drink was weird but pretty good. The thing that I can’t say I’m the most proud of is the garnish. We used a cold, cooked soba noodle to emulate a rat’s tail. There’s a weird line and I think I got too close that time.
Your go-to dive bar drink order:
Blanco tequila on the rocks.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
Racist drink names. Like, we’re getting better, but I still see stuff that should never be printed, let alone printed in 2021.