Raising the bar: Like chefs, mixologists making name for themselves + video

eshaw@islandpacket.comJanuary 14, 2014 

Mike Woods, general manager of Neo, holds the restaurant's signature cocktail, an all-natural margarita known as the "skinny bitch."

JAY KARR — Staff photo Buy Photo


  • MATTHEW GARAPPOLO'S 'SPANISH HARLEM' MANHATTAN

    2 ounces Woodford Reserve bourbon

    1 ounce Dolin Rouge vermouth

    1 dash Bittter Truth Jerry Thomas' Own Decanter bitters

    Amargo-Vallet bitter liquer, to rinse

    Bitter and pepper-infused Maraschino cherry, for garnish



    Rinse cocktail glass with Amargo-Vallet by pouring a small amount into the glass, swirling it around and discarding the liquid. Fill a separate mixing glass or cocktail shaker with ice, add Woodford Reserve bourbon, vermouth and bitter and shake. Strain into rinsed cocktail glass. Garnish with cherry.

  • BOURBON QUATTRO FROM PALMETTO BLUFF'S MUSIC TO YOUR MOUTH FESTIVAL

    1 1/2 ounce Maker's Mark Bourbon

    1 ounce Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur

    1 1/2 ounce Tazo Chai Tea Concentrate

    Ginger beer

    Mix bourbon, liqueur and chai tea in a shaker filled with ice and shake well. Pour into a highball glass and top off with Ginger beer.

In today's dining world, phrases like "eat local," "eat clean" and "farm to table" are becoming familiar sights on menus, as are the faces of the chefs who produce them.

The orchard or vegetable patch that provided the food is stamped on the menu like a designer label. And the chefs behind these dishes are gaining credibility for their thoughtful and pointed fare. Especially in the South, where turning a fried-licious classic into an elegant, refined meal is seen as the height of culinary innovation.

Nipping at the heels of this trend is a rise in fresh, unique cocktails -- drinks that play off the flavors on the menu, yet can stand alone as well thought-out creations of their own.

Just as diners revel in original dishes, why not expect the same individuality from our cocktails?

We know the chefs. Now, it's time to get to know the bartenders.

"Bartenders are kind of like the new chef," said David Mason, the beverage director at the Inn at Palmetto Bluff.

Bartenders at the Inn focus on using fresh, local ingredients and create their own bitters in-house, Mason said. The Inn's drink menu advertises "Garden to Glass" libations like the Garden Margarita, a mix of Sauza Silver tequila, fresh strawberries and cilantro.

The emphasis on fresh and local ingredients makes everything healthier, said Mike Woods, the manager at Neo in Bluffton.

"It begins with your food and what you drink," he said.

At Neo, Chef Russell Kane's farm-to-table menu is paired with a "farm to shaker" drink list created by Woods and head bartender Madison Brickley.

The fruit used in the drinks comes from nearby Hilton Head Plantation. Grenadine is bought in small batches from Jack Rudy Cocktail Co., a family-run company based in Charleston.

Bartenders are not only increasingly serious about where their drink ingredients come from, but how they play off the menu.

"When we develop new drinks, I usually get with the chefs and try to think really outside the box," Mason said.

"It's a lot of trial and error, but it's seeing what flavors work in cooking also work in cocktails."

Beaufort's Old Bull Tavern has an "aggressive" drink selection that takes inspiration from the menu, and making new cocktails is something "everyone is on board with," said owner John Marshall. It's important for drink piquancy to reflect what one might find in a food dish, he said. Like the LBG, which has lemon, basil, ginger and vodka, or the Orient Express, a citron, ginger and lychee concoction with ingredients similar to an Asian-inspired dish.

"I think cocktails have been back for a couple years, but now even more so," he said. "Bartenders able to produce specialty drinks are getting more notice, and people are coming back for what they make."

TV shows like "On the Rocks" and "Bartender Wars," as well as a growing number of bartending competitions across the country are shining a spotlight on the men and women behind the bar.

"Whereas in the past it was just somebody behind the bar making you a gin and tonic, now we're thinking through every little bit of the process, and people are appreciative of it," said Cara Swanson Myers, the food and beverage manager at the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa. Myers said shows on Food Network and other cooking channels that have opened up doors for bartenders pursuing mixology as a career.

In 2012, Myers won Hilton Head's Concours d'Elegance Cartini Challenge, a competition concocting car-themed drinks using Ketel One Vodka. Although this year's Concours did not have a cocktail challenge, organizers asked Myers to create a signature drink in line with its Great Gatsby theme. She made a punch with vodka, lemonade, cranberry juice and sparkling soda water.

At the Westin, Myers recently oversaw the installation of two new bars, stocked with high-end bourbons to maintain a Southern charm and fresh juices for a pool-side feel.

"We're focusing on what kinds of ice cubes we're using and have a juicer behind the bar so all of the drinks are made fresh to order," Myers said.

The trick to creating a unique cocktail, she added, is first deciding on the base spirit, whether it be vodka, gin, tequila or rum, and building on a basic flavor profile.

Another method is starting with a classic and adding a twist. Sapphire Grill's Matthew Garappolo did just that and earned the honor of creating Savannah's best Manhattan cocktail.

More than a dozen Savannah bartenders created their version of the Manhattan as part of Woodford Reserve and Esquire's Master of the Manhattan regional competition in October. Among the regional winners, judges selected Garappolo's cocktail, Spanish Harlem, as one of six finalists for the finale on Jan. 13 in New York City.

"It's one of the true, classic cocktails," Garappolo said of the Manhattan. "I changed it a little bit but not enough to make it a totally different drink."

Instead of the traditional garnish of a Maraschino cherry, Garappolo vacuum-sealed his cherries with bitters, vermouth, cinnamon and chiles, letting them ferment for three days.

The Manhattan win was Garappolo's first bartending competition, mainly because there aren't many in the area, he said, even though he's noticed a lot of mixology going on.

"I think there will be more in the future, because this one has gone over really well," he said. "It's created a lot of noise."


Video: Neo general manager Mike Woods shows how to make the restaurant's signature all-natural margarita

Follow Erin Shaw at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.

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