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Behind the Culinary-Minded Cocktail Bar

The key lessons a number of bars have drawn from the kitchen, from techniques to mise en place.

For years the traditional stance, when it came to the relationship between cocktails and food in restaurants, was that they should coexist but never commingle. Spirits-based beverages, they said, simply contained too much alcohol to complement the subtle work coming out of the kitchen; they were best left to perform on separate stages. Recently, however, an intrepid class of bartender has worked to revise this stodgy point of view, proving that cocktails can pair remarkably well with dishes—and stand alone on their own culinary merits, as well.

Armed with skills that rival their back-of-house compatriots and informed perspectives on technique, flavor-matching and seasonality, cocktail bartenders are ushering in a new open-minded era of drink-making, one that has more in common with cooking than you might think.

What factors have led to this rise? A gradual uptick in creative synergy between bar and kitchen staffs, long treated as separate fiefdoms that did not share ideas or equipment, is a big one. “Housemade tinctures, syrups, bitters . . . all those are essentially cooking processes,” says Micah Melton, beverage director of New York and Chicago’s The Aviary—which has a reputation for whimsical and highly elaborate drinks—who worked as a cook prior to migrating over to the bar side. Sous-vide, to name just one cooking technique with relevance on both sides, can be employed as a time-saving mechanism to speed up cocktail infusions.

The philosophy of work that rules the back of house, too, has positively impacted what goes on in the cocktail sphere: In addition to drawing real inspiration from cooking methods and composed dishes, bartenders are relying on organizational techniques and smart design to maximize efficiency, ultimately improving the guest experience on multiple levels.

“There’s an incredible amount of crossover,” says Julia Momose, who was most recently the head bartender of GreenRiver in Chicago. The idea of the “culinary cocktail” has long been rooted in the West Coast style of bartending, championed by pioneering San Francisco bartenders like Duggan McDonnell, Marco Dionysos and Scott Beattie. It was, essentially, the farm-to-table approach to drink-making, which emphasized fresh produce and housemade ingredients. Today, this approach is a basic tenet of the craft cocktail movement worldwide.

Julia Momose’s Keystone Highball (left). Matthew Biancaniello’s Smoked Tomato (right).

Phase two for the “culinary cocktail” has been more about an embrace of modernist techniques alongside a dedication to fresh ingredients. For Momose and her staff, strong knife skills are a must, as they are essential for creating beautiful, consistent, and functional garnishes—something Momose is known for. “A garnish should be an integral part of the drinking experience,” she says. Some of her past tricks include cachaça-infused sugarcane dipped in white chocolate, and pâte de fruit dusted with the flavors of a Corpse Reviver.

For Matthew Biancaniello, who understands the intimate relationship between cooking and cocktailing better than most, the idea of the culinary cocktail is still rooted in where the bartender takes his or her inspiration. The author of Eat Your Drink is known for growing, foraging and scouring farmers’ markets like a chef would to come up with ideas.

“I still consider myself more in the food world than in the alcohol world,” says the Los Angeles–based bartender, who has used everything from sea urchin and heirloom tomatoes to arugula and durian behind the bar. “It’s all about ingredients first.”

Stocking the Culinary Cocktail Bar

Mise en place is the rule of law on a restaurant line: everything has its place. The French term refers to a kitchen’s meticulously organized tools and ingredients; it’s how cooks keep order, cleanliness, and efficiency at peak levels during service. No surprise: The system so highly valued by chefs has practical applications behind the bar, as well.

“The design of our space itself allows us to operate as a kitchen, essentially,” says Ezra Star, of Drink in Boston. A cocktail bar with no printed menus, Drink must be stocked with a formidable lineup of housemade drink modifiers—syrups, bitters, cordials, infusions, and the like—on top of its spirits selection, to accommodate customer requests.

Ezra Star’s Fiore de Francia (left). The Voodoo Down from Leo Robitschek (right).

Since space behind her bar comes at a premium, Star has to get creative with mise. Bottles, tools, and garnishes are stored below bar level to ensure that space remains uncluttered for customers; everything is organized in a systematic manner for the benefit of individual drink-makers. “We actually have stations designed like our kitchen stations, to produce cocktails the same way chefs would,” she says. “Everything is extremely well-ordered, so it’s standardized for our guests. Everything you need is within reach.”

At Compère Lapin in New Orleans, bartenders sometimes show up a full five hours before their shifts begin to prepare their mise, which often overflows with seasonal fruits and herbs, the bounty of a year-round growing season. “The owners allowed us bartenders so much input,” says head bartender Abigail Gullo. “When it comes to how bars are normally set up, ours is extraordinary.” For easy access, garnishes are stored in a box out of the customer’s eyeline, “like the cockpit of a jet plane.” Features like a rinser for cocktail tins, a glass chiller that doubles as a holding place for frozen garnishes, a centralized cluster of “low boy” fridges for ingredient storage, and a spacious prep area with its own refrigeration ensures that “all that we need is just a step away,” says Gullo.

Meanwhile, back at Chicago’s The Aviary, staffers can show up as early at six a.m. to begin work for a five p.m. opening. “[Mise en place] is paramount here,” says beverage director Micah Melton. Their goal of four-minute ticket times—the seconds elapsed between when an order is received and when it’s delivered—requires “a lot of pre-preparation to make the experience appear seamless for our guests.”

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