Bartender in Residence

For Orestes Cruz, Every Ingredient Is Sacred

November 09, 2020

Story: Chloe Frechette

Art: Angie Webb

Calling on unexpected ingredients—creamy-agave syrup and smoked rhubarb—the Empire State South bartender has built a roster of fresh, uncomplicated cocktails.

Orestes Montero Cruz is a bartender in Atlanta, by way of New Orleans, by way of Mexico City—an itinerary that plays out in the peculiarities of his original cocktails. His first opportunity to work in the field arrived by chance when his father, who lives in New Orleans, opened Casa Borrega, a Mexican restaurant and mezcalería in the city’s Faubourg Livaudais neighborhood, in 2013. Not long after, in 2014, Cruz moved from Spain, where he had been working as a photographer, to assist with everything from busing to dishwashing to bartending.

The creative aspect of the trade appealed to Cruz, a trained visual artist, and the similarity between crafting a cocktail and conceptualizing a work of art was immediately apparent. “It’s the same when I have a blank canvas in front of me and you have an idea,” explains Cruz. “You visualize it, and you have your paints, your acrylics, your brushes, but what is going to be your first stroke? … Once you start doing it then your body, your mind, everything just works in that direction.”

Cruz’s early education in spirits came entirely from tasting through the selection of tequila and mezcal at his father’s restaurant. In an effort to expand his palate, he applied for a bartending job at Couvant, a stylish French restaurant and bar in The Eliza Jane Hotel, a popular destination for cocktails near the French Quarter. Looking for a change, in 2018 he moved to Atlanta, where he landed a job at Empire State South under the tutelage of bar director Kellie Thorn. He describes Empire State as his “school,” where he has unlearned and relearned the fundamentals of bartending. In particular he notes that Thorn instilled in him a professionalism and understanding that “every detail counts.”

It’s a philosophy Cruz brings to his own approach, too, which he describes as “a bridge between cultures,” blending narratives and ingredients from his personal experiences in detail-oriented builds. Take, for instance, his Noche Triste. A blend of black tea–infused reposado tequila, amontillado sherry and Gran Classico Bitter liqueur, the simple cocktail is finished with a dash of chocolate bitters and an orange twist. “It reminds me of Mexican hot chocolate,” says Cruz, “very full with cinnamon and clove, more spiced and bold, with a lot of character.”

At the core of each of his recipes is a respect for individual ingredients, which Cruz lets shine in uncomplicated constructions. “Each ingredient by itself is sacred for me,” says Cruz, “so I try not to abuse [them] by mixing a lot of elements—just keep it simple.” His Smoke Also Rises, a play on the Hemingway Daiquiri, illustrates this less-is-more approach. The blueprint of the original remains almost entirely intact; Cruz simply cuts the maraschino with a measure of Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro for a smoky element that spotlights the particular woodsy quality of the amaro, while still honoring the template of the classic Cuban cocktail. “It’s just mixing certain elements and creating something different,” says Cruz. “I love that feeling.”

Noche Triste

Inspired by the Remember the Maine, a drink whose various elements tell the story of the USS Maine, which sunk off the coast of Havana in 1898, Cruz set out to create a similarly narrative cocktail. In his Noche Triste, he creates an abstract interpretation of the Mexican War of Independence, in which sherry represents Spain, tequila stands in for Mexico, and the Gran Classico represents “the bitterness of the battle,” explains Cruz. Finished with a dash of chocolate bitters, the spiced nuttiness of the drink calls to mind Mexican hot chocolate.

Romance in Graceland

“I wanted to highlight the natural properties of Cognac,” says Cruz of this brandy-based cocktail, observing that the dried fruit notes of the spirit remind him of a cheese board. His first instinct was to incorporate mascarpone into the recipe, but during the workshopping process—while snacking on a peanut butter and banana sandwich—inspiration hit. Taking a cue from the timeless pairing, Cruz opted instead to fat-wash the Cognac in peanut butter, play up the banana notes with banana liqueur and the nuttiness with amontillado sherry, while adding acidity with fresh lemon juice. The element that ties it all together is a housemade “creamy agave syrup,” made from condensed milk and agave nectar, adding silky texture to the cocktail.

The Smoke Also Rises

“Hemingway was obviously my inspiration,” says Cruz of his Papa Doble variation. “I love Hemingway, and I love Cuba … so I wanted to make an homage to this culture.” His rendition changes little from the rum-grapefruit-maraschino combination of the original, he simply adds a half-ounce of Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro for a smokier variation that feels as timeless as the Cuban classic.

Royal Gift

Cruz’s sour-style cocktail, the Royal Gift, comprises a base of basil-infused gin, which complements the spirit’s inherent botanical makeup, along with pineapple liqueur, fresh lemon juice and lemon syrup. In other words, it puts refreshment above anything else. “It’s all about respecting the properties, the fragrance, of the basil,” says Cruz.

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