Tales of the Cocktail Foundation’s Most Imaginative Bartender Competition presented by BOMBAY SAPPHIRE® Gin is an opportunity for bartenders to let their imagination and creativity shine. For more information and to enter, see the Official Rules at Most Imaginative Bartender’s site.
Don’t be surprised if you find Carley Gaskin literally scrawling drink ideas on the wall. The art school grad may have officially traded drawing for drinks—she’s now one half of a Chicago-based cocktail catering company—but her visual roots are clear: She has set up a blank wall next to her bar as a way to plot out cocktail concepts.
Most of these ideas involve minimizing waste and building cocktails using environmentally friendly methods. That might mean rescuing misshapen produce, or finding creative ways to reuse ingredients in drinks: Her zero-waste Geb’s Reviver cocktail, which won her the Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender title in 2018, uses leftover fruit pulp, spent citrus husks and “dust” from dehydrated rhubarb and carrot—all byproducts of juices used in the drink.
Building drinks for cocktail catering clients involves flexing different muscles than planning the cocktail menu for a bar, Gaskin says. A standard drinks menu generally requires a broad array of offerings. Catering, though, allows for a tightly curated list, making it easier to maximize ingredient usage. She points to a hypothetical tequila-and-carrot cocktail that might be served at a wedding: How many different ways can that carrot be used—the juice, the pulp, the leafy top? “My creative process is finding those ingredients, trying to be as creative as possible,” she says, “and doing those things in a simple manner.”
One thing you’ll never see in a Gaskin original? Wasteful garnishes. “That drives me crazy,” she says. What’s the point of adding an extraneous bouquet of fresh mint to a drink? It increases the carbon footprint, she points out. It wastes water. And what is it adding to the experience? “I think ungarnished cocktails are some of the most beautiful,” she says. “Don’t put your trash in my cocktail.”
Gaskin didn’t set out to focus on sustainable drinks. It was, instead, an organic progression. The Nashville native began her bartending career at a sports bar while attending art school at Middle Tennessee State University. From there, she moved into the cocktail world, spending four years at a tiny East Nashville joint that helped pioneer the area’s craft cocktail movement. Next was a farm-to-table-focused restaurant where she was part of the opening team.
In July 2016, she moved to Chicago, where she met bartender and hospitality pro Josh Fossitt, who was in the process of opening a vegetable-centric restaurant. She joined the bar team and was quickly promoted to head bartender. The focus there was on low-alcohol cocktails—which presented Gaskin with another opportunity to keep experimenting with sustainable recipes. After about a year, she and Fossitt joined forces to launch their catering company, bringing “fancy cocktails,” as Gaskin puts it, to home parties, weddings and other events, as well as hosting free classes for industry professionals.
Her cocktail philosophy—essentially, use all parts of the radish—doesn’t stop at the bar. “Cooking and imperfect produce go hand in hand,” she explains. “I’ve found a lot of inspiration for cooking through making cocktails—and vice versa.”
Five Items That Inspire Carley Gaskin
- Imperfect Produce. Imperfect delivers produce that is misshapen, or [that farmers or distribtuors] have too much of. We go through so much waste [for our business], we’re always trying to find new ways to reuse things. We work with oleo saccharum, make cordials, we dehydrate things and make punch rings—take a Bundt pan and use things for the punch. We’ve been getting pretty weird with that.
- The Flavor Bible. It’s one of my favorite books. I have three copies: one at home, two at the shop. I‘ve had one for five or six years; it’s full of notes, my highlight marks. You have this leftover product and you want to know what to do with it—if I have a bunch of pineapple pulp left over, [the book] might say to pair it with cloves or baking spices. It’s an easy way to get inspiration through flavor pairings.
- My Bombay Sapphire trophy. I’ve got it in the shop right now. It reminds me of the creativity that inspired me when I was working on the drinks. Overall I created eight different cocktails, including a cheese-washed tiki cocktail. It’s really delicious. Strange but delicious—that’s my thing.
- The Drawing Board. We took a blank white wall next to the bar and my business partner and I scribble ideas on it, using washable Crayola markers. We’re such creative people. We like to do so many things and we have so many ideas. We’ve concepted so many cocktails based on that wall. It doesn’t make sense to anyone else, but it makes sense to us. It’s inspiring to see what’s on the wall. And then when it’s clean, it’s on to the next one.
- Taylor Hansen. He’s my partner. We’ve been together a little over three years now. Through my career—moving to Chicago, opening my own business—he’s always been there. It’s nice having a second set of ears, having someone to support you no matter what. And I have so many crazy ideas, he sits and listens to me ramble through and work out the kinks. If I’m feeling overwhelmed or in a creative slump, he’s always there to correct my course.