Mixology: The art or skill of preparing mixed drinks
Over the past several years, a high end craft cocktail movement has swept across the country. Bars have popped up with the sole purpose of creating the perfect libation, and restaurants have upped their drink game with cocktails made with fresh juices, high-end liqueurs and unique flavor combinations.
We met up with Sonoma local Alex Kaplan, a craft cocktail guru, bartender and dare we say, mixologist, to talk to him about his career and how the cocktail renaissance has influenced him. As a restaurant industry veteran of over 20 years, he watched the movement gain traction and got caught in the midst of it.
Alex’s Fall Cocktail
crafted exclusively for Kitchen & Vine
1 oz gin
1 oz medium dry sherry
1 oz carrot juice
¾ oz lemon juice
¾ oz cinnamon syrup
3 dash orange bitters
1 star anise, for garnish
In a shaker, combine all ingredients with ice, except the star anise, and vigorously shake for 5 seconds. Strain into a glass and garnish with a star anise.
Q & A with Alex Kaplan:
“Bartending is being passionate about cocktails and service. It doesn’t end with handing someone a good drink.”
When did you get the craft cocktail making bug?
I didn’t know what a real cocktail was until I started working at Nick’s Cove, near Pt. Reyes, in 2008. They were using fresh lemon and lime juice and simple syrup for their cocktails, and even though we were preparing basic drinks like margaritas and sidecars, it was the first time I was using the fresh citrus. That was the “Ah Ha” moment for me, realizing cocktails taste so much better when made fresh compared to using premade sweet and sour like I had at all my other restaurant gigs. That’s when the bug hit for me.
Where do you get inspiration for your cocktails?
I like to focus on seasonality, but it’s also about trial and error for me. Green tea simple syrup with whiskey and pear sounds good in theory, but is it going to be good when you put it in a glass? I do a lot of writing and keep a notebook with me at all times to jot stuff down. When I’m done conceptualizing, I try it out and probably change the ingredients and measurements 25 times before I’m happy with the final product.
What do you aim for when you make your cocktails?
Layers of flavor. And if I can’t get layers of flavor, I’m shooting for a solid, up-front flavor that’s going to carry through to a long finish. It’s great when you can come up with a cocktail that you take a sip and, for example, you can detect the nice strawberry up front, then refreshing cucumber, and at the end you get a piny-ness from the pale ale used in it. Stuff like that is really fun. It’s just like wine and food with the layers of flavor and complexity.
What are your staple bar ingredients?
Yellow and green chartreuse, sweet and dry vermouth, amaro, Campari, Aperol and maraschino liqueur. Mainly liqueurs because it’s obvious you are going to have your tequila, gin, whiskey, that sort of thing. But you definitely need 100 proof Rye behind the bar. I can’t tell you scientifically why it is, but it mixes so much better with cocktails, especially stirred cocktails.
In what situations do you stir instead of shake?
Personally, I would never shake a gin martini, manhattan or negroni— basically any spirit based cocktail I would stir. I would shake anything with citrus, to first dilute the spirit and the citrus and also aerate the cocktail to open up the flavors a little bit. Anything with egg white you shake first in the tin without ice, then add ice and shake again. That’s called a dry shake then a wet shake.
What’s one of the most unique cocktails you’ve ever made?
I made an avocado drink for a cocktail competition a few years ago, garnished with a homemade botanical gin-inspired brittle. The cocktail was a mixture of avocado, gin, lemon juice, grapefruit liqueur and simple syrup. The brittle was made from water infused with juniper, black peppercorns, lemongrass and some of the botanicals that were in the gin, then I strained it out, added sugar and made brittle. It was a cool flavor combo.
What ingredients do you make from scratch?
Right now, I’m infusing vodka with celery and cucumber for bloody Mary’s. I do other infusions regularly, especially jalapeno vodka and tequila because for some reason people like spicy drinks. Usually you infuse for 5 to 7 days, then strain it out. Shrubs are really hot right now, which is a fruit, sugar and vinegar solution. You first macerate the fruit and sugar together, and then you add the vinegar and strain it all out.
Craft cocktails can be pretty expensive. Why?
Cocktails have really gone to the level of food and bartenders have gone to the level of chefs. We are preparing fresh products with fresh ingredients right on the spot. If you were to go home and make this cocktail you are going to spend $100 or more on ingredients. You can’t just buy one shot of gin or sweet vermouth. A cocktail is priced for a reason.
So what’s your favorite cocktail to drink?
I can’t pick just one. The Last Word, which is gin, green chartreuse, maraschino liqueur and lime juice. All equal parts and it’s hard to mess up. And I love a good Old Fashioned, especially if I go to a bar I’ve never been to before. It’s such a simple cocktail but all bartenders make it differently.
Do you like being called a Mixologist?
Something about being called a mixologist seems really silly to me. We’re bartenders. Bartending is being passionate about cocktails and service. It doesn’t end with handing someone a good drink. You have to be personable and strike up conversation and give great customer service, so I prefer to be called a bartender.