It wouldn’t be right to call Vince Bright’s drinks tiki. Nor would it be entirely correct to call them classical. They’re a little bit of both, but mostly they’re their own breed of hybrid altogether.
Bright’s foray into the world of cocktails, however, began not at a bar, but a coffee shop. “I feel like it’s the same as with a lot of people who went to school for liberal arts—at some point you ended up working in a coffee shop, right?” he jokes. Taking a job as a barista at Intelligentsia in Chicago’s Logan Square piqued his interest in terroir and its influence on how ingredients ultimately taste, a way of thinking that naturally carried over to his fascination with spirits and cocktails. “Intelligentsia kind of started my passion for spirits, because when I started [working there] I didn’t really understand where coffee was coming from or the ways it could be processed and roasted and how those things translated into the finished cup of coffee,” explains Bright.
In 2017, he made the jump from barista to barback at nearby Longman & Eagle, a whiskey-focused gastropub. “More so than with coffee, I really liked the way the [cocktail] industry is growing,” says Bright, who cites trends like in-house fermentation and closed-loop cocktails as part of what drew him to the bar world. “Every time I get tired of a trend, a new one pops up and it’s a whole new thing to explore and get into.”
When Lost Lake, a renowned rum bar also in Logan Square, offered him a bartending position later that year (several then-bartenders were regulars of his at Intelligentsia), he signed on immediately. In atypical fashion, Bright’s foundational bar-world education came by way of the bar’s tropical house cocktails, offering him a fast-track lesson in complexity and balance. “The tiki palate has made me unafraid of sugar the way I thought I was going to be,” says Bright. “I used to think if something was sweet it lost some sort of value.” This way of thinking is not uncommon in the world of wine and spirits, where dosage is often considered a defect, and the euphemistic “fruit-forward” is a preferred cocktail description to the pejorative “sweet.”
Working at Lost Lake, however, changed his perspective by teaching him how to use sweeteners as a tool to build balance, just as he would with any other ingredient. It’s a skill he has carried with him in his own approach to drink-making, often finding creative ways to incorporate elements of the tiki toolkit into classically inspired blueprints. This crossover approach is evident in his original drinks like the Necromancer, a Corpse Reviver riff that calls for rhum agricole instead of gin, while also adding falernum and grapefruit juice into the sour formula; or his Pequeño Boxing Club, a Ti’ Punch-inspired cocktail built on tequila and mezcal in place of rhum, sweetened with a measure of pink peppercorn syrup.
“I like putting together ingredients to tell a story,” says Bright, “and the tiki palate has kind of brought out all of the weird spices in that [story].”
Here, get to know Vince Bright in four signature cocktails.
Illustration: Nick Hensley
“I needed more of my coffee and tea knowledge than my cocktail knowledge to make this drink,” says Bright, of his non-alcoholic Lowtide Lifesaver, that features on Lost Lake’s most recent menu. Moroccan mint tea syrup pairs with grenadine as the sweetening agents, complementing the Seedlip Spice 94 base, a clove-forward non-alcoholic "spirit," and the ginger beer topper. A squeeze of lemon juice offers a hit of acid, all served over crushed ice for a layered, complex refreshment. “I have some friends who don’t drink, so it was always important to me that when they come in, they have a drink that isn’t just kind of pushed to the side,” says Bright.
In this Ti’ Punch variation, Bright swaps the expected rhum agricole for the similarly grassy blanco tequila. “I wanted to go completely into vegetation land and actually infuse roasted poblanos into blanco tequila,” he says of his base spirit of choice, which he complements with a touch of smokiness from half an ounce of mezcal. To bring out the spice while adding a touch of sweetness, he calls on pink peppercorn syrup, which adds a subtle floral hint. “The pink peppercorn enhances the poblano, which is contrasted with the smoke of the mezcal… The layers all circulate.”
Bright’s House No. 3 is one of a dozen so-called house cocktails that he’s been experimenting with over the years in his time off. Inspired by an unusual pairing of Scotch and salt that he encountered in a drink at Realm of the 52 Remedies, a San Diego cocktail bar, he landed on this original recipe that reads like a Rob Roy mixed with a Bamboo, by way of the tropics. To the Scotch base, he adds amontillado and manzanilla sherries, adding a note of salinity, as well as blanc and dry vermouths. But according to Bright, the key ingredient is actually the smallest one: a teaspoon of coconut water syrup. “It adds a little bit of salinity from the coconut, and just a touch of sweetness to bring everything together.”
“I really just love Corpse Revivers,” says Bright of the inspiration behind his Necromancer. Working from that classic blueprint, Bright swaps rhum agricole for gin as the base spirit, then adds grapefruit juice as the sour citrus element and velvet falernum for that tropical spice. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the classic one, I just wanted to spice it up a little bit.”