Masters of the mix: Area bartenders bring innovation to craft cocktails
BY NICOLE MARSHALL MIDDLETON & JASON ASHLEY WRIGHT World Scene Writer
Thursday, March 14, 2013
3/26/13 at 11:53 AM
We gathered Tulsa's top bartenders on a sunny day just after noon. They are the innovators and the pioneers of Tulsa's craft cocktail movement.
The greetings were warm, the jokes dry.
The high caliber of combined bartending talent standing on the receiving side of the bar made this snapshot in time unique.
So did the time of day.
The tin ceiling, chandeliers and iconic glassware of Hodges Bend coffee shop and bar gleamed in the daylight as the bartenders - creatures of the night - laughed at the relative earliness of the hour.
Each works at a different bar, potentially competitors. But all say that doesn't compare to the satisfaction of excelling in their craft.
They share techniques, refer customers to one another's bars and enjoy a playful one-upmanship that has raised the level of craft cocktails in Tulsa.
They met for our photo, but the gathering promises to serve as inspiration - for future gatherings. And they stress there are many more bartenders in the city who are crafting great drinks.
These artisan bartenders no longer ask, "What'll you have?"
It's, "What do you like?"
And the answer isn't necessarily margarita or martini. It's citrus, oak, cucumber, cinnamon, pepper and ginger. Bitter, sweet, savory, floral and spice.
Then, using your ingredients of choice, they mix equal parts history and innovation to create art in a glass to the delight of the imbiber.
R Bar & Grill, 3421 S. Peoria Ave.
Apparently, asking a bartender about his or her favorite drink is almost as taxing as asking a mom to pick her favorite kid.
"That's tough," said Royal, who has honed his skills over the years, slinging drinks at The Bowery, The White Owl and McNellie's before joining R Bar.
What he loves about his job, however, is something as simple as muddling.
Like his fellow mixologists gathered at Hodges Bend the afternoon we photographed them together, Royal has a passion for craft cocktails.
And he has a passion for advancing the bartending arts in general. Royal is one of the founders of the first Craft Beer Week in Tulsa, which will be April 15-20. He is also active in advancing legislation that benefits bartenders, liquors stores, breweries and wineries in the state.
1 1/2 ounces Jameson Irish Whiskey
1/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1. Fill glass with ice, then pour whiskey over, followed by fresh-squeezed lime juice.
2. Top with ginger beer, and serve.
The Tavern, 201 N. Main St.
Working in one of the city's most attractive bars, C.J. Blakely creates and serves classic cocktails, or "oldies but goodies," as he calls them.
Some of his peers, namely Noah Bush and the bartenders at Valkyrie, focus on innovation, he said. But to best serve the restaurant's clientele, he likes to stick to the classics, many of which he found in old books.
"I like to make something cool and classic, but make it approachable," Blakely said.
One of the drinks from his new menu is the Horse Feather, a modified Moscow mule with bourbon instead of vodka and using homemade ginger beer. Another new drink is the New Pal, an updated relative of the Old Pal, from The Savoy Cocktail Book, circa 1930.
Tulsa's bartending community is unique in that many of the serious mixologists are friends, he said.
"In this city, we get along very well. If we are not working, we go to each other's establishments," Blakely said. "We keep each other on our toes."
2 ounces Irish whiskey (suggested, Red Breast)
1 ounce Carpano Antica
1/2 ounce green chartreuse
1. Stir well with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
Noah Bush pours a MacHattan. CHRISTOPHER SMITH / Tulsa World
Hodges Bend, 823 E. Third St.
He can "charge" anything.
"Even a Sazerac?" we asked of our favorite New Orleans cocktail.
That would be awesome, said Bush, who has been tending bar for nearly a decade, having worked at places like Vintage 1740 and Doc's in Brookside.
We were talking about his CO2 charger, which can add effervescence to any drink.
Not that he's into anything froufrou, mind you, as Bush is more about keeping things simple, straightforward - fresh, most of all.
"When someone asks me to just make them something, I'll make some classic recipe for them," he said. "When I tell them it's a classic gin martini or Old Fashioned, they're usually blown away by how good it is. They've just never had it prepared correctly."
For himself lately, he likes drinking riesling, Japanese whiskey and mescal.
"Oh, and Fernet is always good," he said of the bitter, aromatic spirit.
For us, he made a MacHattan, a variation of the classic Manhattan with Irish whiskey and sweet white vermouth.
2 ounces Jameson Irish Whiskey
1 ounce Bianco Vermouth (sweet white vermouth)
1/2 teaspoon honey syrup (1 part honey dissolved in 1 part water)
1 dash Angostura bitters
Lemon peel, for garnish
1. Add all ingredients in glass and stir. Strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with a lemon peel.
Biga, 4329 S. Peoria Ave.
Instead of being a waiting room for diners, the bar area at Biga is the place to be for many regulars. And bartender Tom Rush is one of the main attractions.
Rush knows his customers like he knows his cocktails. He even collaborated on a reprint of a classic bartending book, "173 Pre-Prohibition Cocktails" by Tom Bullock (1917) that was published locally in 2001.
Rush, like Liz Pounds of Lucky's, enjoys mentoring and inspiring those who share a passion for the craft. Max Goldman, of The Local Table, Biga's sister restaurant, is also one of Tulsa's top bartenders who has been inspired by Rush's work.
Interestingly, Pounds and Rush went to kindergarten together. To this day, they enjoy talking about their chosen careers and a playful competition.
Just ask one of them who makes a better limoncello.
Fill a tall, thin glass with ice
1 ounce grenadine (recipe below)
1 1/2 ounces Old Bushmills Whiskey
Fill with soda
For the grenadine: Combine 1 quart pomegranate juice and 2 cups sugar in a saucepan, bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until reduced to 1 1/2 cups. Cool, add several dashes of orange flower water. Refrigerate. Shelf life 3 weeks, can be extended by adding 1 ounce 80-proof vodka.
- from "173 Pre-Prohibition Cocktails" by Tom Bullock
Lucky's Restaurant, 1536 E. 15th St.
Liz Pounds launched her career in 1973 as a bartender at the iconic Tulsa restaurant and club Nine of Cups, earning her chops under the tutelage of head bartender Callie O'Keefe.
Her skills earned her a stint as bartender to the stars in California. She worked at 72 Market Street in Venice Beach, a restaurant founded by Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli and producer Tony Bill.
During a visit to Tulsa, Pounds fell in love and moved back. And she still loves her career 40 years later.
Her specialty is "embellished classic cocktails." And they are good - really good. But after a few evenings at this mixologist's mercy, we found her personality and passion for her craft just as intriguing as her spirits.
Pounds enjoys working with retailers to bring niche liquors to Tulsa, expanding the ingredients available for craft cocktails. She also has served as a mentor to many up-and-coming mixologists, including Todd Phillips, who now works at Bodean, and her partner at Lucky's, Nick Roesle.
THE NUTTY IRISHMAN
2 ounces Frangelico
2 ounces Baileys Irish Cream
1. Serve on ice in a highball glass.
Aaron Post mixes a cocktail at Valkyrie. "I've always had an insatiable appetite for knowledge of the craft," he says. CHRISTOPHER SMITH / Tulsa World
Valkyrie, 13 E. Brady St.
He has a thing for Zombies.
"My favorite drinks to make are usually tiki-inspired," Post said, citing a particular affinity for the Zombie, a cocktail traditionally blending rum with fruit juices.
While Post worked at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar at Utica Square, he had the opportunity to tend bar, during which time he developed an "obsession" with wine and spirits.
From there, he spent another three years at McNellie's learning about craft beer.
"I've always had an insatiable appetite for knowledge of the craft," he said. "It was a natural progression to craft cocktails."
The ever-changing chalkboard menu at Valkyrie is testament to that - but it's only a small fraction of the 275 or so recipes he and the staff of nine bartenders have honed for their collective repertoire.
He makes his own ginger beer - up to 60 liters a week. It's the key ingredient in Valkyrie's best-selling Moscow Mules - though they had to stop serving them in those gorgeous copper cups because a few customers apparently had sticky fingers.
When he's not mixing drinks, Post will likely be imbibing a Manhattan.
"I love rye whiskey," he said.
On our most recent visit while he was behind the bar with fellow bartender Marie Herbst, Post mentioned a drink with rum and fresh lime juice.
"Let me make you one," he said, then commenced to crafting.
1 ounce Flor de Caña seven-year rum
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce clover honey syrup (1 part local clover honey, 1 part water)
1 medium egg white
6-8 mint leaves, depending on size
Angostura Bitters, for garnish
1. Shake the rum, lime juice, honey syrup and egg white without ice to emulsify. Add mint leaves, and shake with ice.
2. Strain into a cocktail glass or coupe. Garnish with 6-8 drops of Angostura Bitters.
Noah Bush's MacHattan (left), C.J. Blakely's Tipperrary, Josh Royal's The Pat, Matt Sanders' The Araby and Liz Pounds' The Nutty Irishman CHRISTOPHER SMITH / Tulsa World
Vintage 1740, 1740 S. Boston Ave.
For about 13 years at the Celebrity Club, Sanders was used to making "quadruple scotch and waters" for regulars.
Since those days, having also worked at the Bowery (now the Tavern) before eventually coming to Vintage 1740, Sanders has worked on elevating the cocktail.
"I'm quality, quality, quality everything," said Sanders, now an owner of Vintage 1740.
As the wine bar scene quieted down and cocktails started blowing up, Sanders was excited to see bartenders taking time, "showing respect to customers to make them something that's not just a canned vodka tonic."
Personally, Sanders' drink tastes change seasonally. The other night, he came to Hodges Bend and had a scotch.
At Valkyrie, it was a Trinidad Sour, with Angostura Bitters, Orgeat syrup, rye whiskey, lime juice and rum.
2 ounces Red Breast 12-year-old Irish whiskey
1 sugar cube
6 dashes Angostura bitters
1/8 ounce green chartreuse
1. Muddle sugar cube with bitters. Add whiskey, and stir until sugar is dissolved. Then, add ice.
2. In another glass, add chartreuse, and rinse the glass out, discarding the chartreuse.
3. Pour whiskey concoction into chartreuse-rinsed glass, and serve.
Ryan Stack mixes a Black and Red at Juniper. CHRISTOPHER SMITH / Tulsa World
Juniper, 324 E. Third St.
The house-made infusions at Juniper are creative complements to the food at one of Tulsa's best restaurants. Juniper was even featured last year in Saveur magazine.
And bar manager Ryan Stack definitely counts among the innovators in the local bar scene. Before Juniper, Stack worked at Bodean and Garlic Rose. At those locations and other local bars, he fell in love with the art of bartending.
Drinks at Juniper are made using amazing infusions, including green tea and lemon vodka, roasted peanut bourbon, and orange and vanilla rum.
"At the restaurant, we are constantly trying to come up with new things and push the envelope on craft cocktails," Stack said.
Recently, Stack took orange-infused bourbon and infused it with smoke. And you'll see bottles behind the bar with handwritten labels. Those are the homemade bitters that Stack makes to take his cocktails to another level.
BLACK AND RED
3 ounces Bushmills Irish Whiskey
1 ounce Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
2 dashes house-made orange bitters
1. Stir with ice. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with a cherry.
Original Print Headline: Masters Of The Mix
About 20 Tulsa-area bartenders will compete to be named best MIX-ologist at this year's MIX event. CHRISTOPHER SMITH / Tulsa World
Some of Tulsa's best mixologists will go shaker to shaker at the second MIX event hosted by the Philbrook Young Masters Society.
This year MIX will be at Cain's Ballroom at 7-11 p.m. April 6. About 20 Tulsa-area bartenders will compete to be named best MIX-ologist.
This year, guests will sample libations from Aaron Post of Valkyrie, Noah Bush of Hodges Bend, Liz Pounds of Lucky's, Tony Collins of McNellie's, Ryan Stack of Juniper and many more. Guests will vote for their favorite drink, and the winning bartender will receive a grand prize of $500. DJ Moody will provide music, and there will be live art installations.
Created in 2012 by the Philbrook Young Masters Society, a group of donors younger than age 45, MIX draws attention and energy to Philbrook Downtown, a new satellite space scheduled to open on June 14. MIX created such a buzz in 2012 the event reached capacity and people were turned away. This year the event was moved to Cain's to handle a larger crowd.
Advance tickets cost $100 and $75 for Philbrook members and can be purchased at philbrook.org/MIX. No tickets will be available at the door on the night of the event. Patron and sponsor packages starting at $500 are also available.
Josh Royal of R Bar, C.J. Blakely of The Tavern, Noah Bush of Hodges Bend, Tom Rush of Biga, Liz Pounds of Lucky's, Aaron Post of Valkyrie, Matt Sanders of Vintage 1740 and Ryan Stack of Juniper are the innovators and pioneers of Tulsa's craft cocktail movement. CHRISTOPHER SMITH / Tulsa World