People always ask me, "Where did you go to school for this?", or "How did you become a mixologist?" The word mixologist hadn't even occurred to me until the last few years, now people blast it off almost daily. For my first writing project, I thought maybe it would be a fun idea to explore this question. I think the answer to this is inspiration. If what you do is truly interesting to you, then while you're doing it, ideas will strike. Drinks begin, like all things begin, at inception with an idea. Usually, in modern history, these ideas are just little bits of excitement brought on by other people's successes.
It's important to study history in any field, because it can be incredibly useful to understand other people's triumphs and failures. Once you develop a basic knowledge of categories of cocktails, it's easier for creativity to strike. If love for the process grows, so do the possibilities. The more you read and play, the more you understand the potential of creating different flavor profiles. The liquor industry is always providing new spirits and new twists on old classics, but typically these products just give added syrupy sugars and more artificial flavors and dyes. Proper balance in any great cocktail only comes from a good palate, quality ingredients, and sometimes a lot of luck.
An amazing part of my job requires me to design a new cocktail menu every two weeks. In the bar, Tuesdays are a special day set aside for "Cocktail Lab", where conceptualized drinks become reality. Sometimes, it can take several tries to get it just right. We only use fresh ingredients, so often we don't even get to taste the drink we create on "Lab Day" because the components take awhile to cure. It requires you to always be several weeks ahead if you don't just purchase the items for your drinks commercially. Also on this day, all of our house items have to be made: ginger beer, colas, tonics, grenadines, & juices. Fresh ginger has to be peeled and pressed, many different things are boiled, and eleven different vegetables are juiced into one bloody mary mix alone. There's a lot of work in craft cocktails because those drinks have to be actually crafted from something. There's also a lot of care involved. Garnishes are cut with a surgeon's precision and hundreds of memorized recipes are carefully measured to amazingly accurate results. You can bet when the mixing glass is poured into the shaker, tossed and strained that your glass will always be exactly full.
That's where you come in. What's a good drink with no one to serve it to? A good mixologist, is also first and fore-most always a bartender. I know at the end of the day, I'm only there to give someone exactly what they wanted: a great mixed drink that doesn't cost a fortune and doesn't take the back side of forever to make. All the other components have to be there after the ground work of making all the ingredients has been laid. I can tell you the entire history of your chosen cocktail from research, I can put the freshest stuff in it, but if it's over priced, sloppily made, takes forever, or just plain tastes bad, then I still haven't done a good job for you.
The art of this craft comes equally from the mind, the hands, and the heart. It definitely requires a lot of passion, and isn't done well without just a bit of "nerdery" involved. You really have to love what you do, and if you don't it shows. It's amazing how far drinking has come in Asheville in such a short time. While the farm to table food movement and craft beer scenes have taken off quickly, the cocktail scene lagged behind. Living in the mountains has provided us with a lot of hurdles to jump. When I started bar tending almost ten years ago, you couldn't even purchase half the liquors and spirits behind most bars now. I would read old bar books, with exotic sounding recipes and think, "What's the point? I can't even taste this drink if I wanted to." It's an exciting time to be watching where the scene could be in just a few short years. More and more talented "Bar Chefs" are starting to shine. Just the availability of better quality of bottles, pushes us behind the bar even farther, and every time a new watering hole opens, we rejoice, because it is only a sign of the progress to come.
(Photo by Ryan Stuart Burns)