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The Bend Magazine

The Craft of the Cocktail

11/29/2018 12:18PM ● By Kylie Cooper
By: Kylie Kinnett  Photos by: Rachel Benavides

This story, like most, starts with curiosity. Regardless of how one fell into the craft of mixology, each individual origin story begins, and also kind of ends, with inquisitiveness and the idea that pushing boundaries is an endless quest. Some might say mixology is just a fancy word; however, there is meaning behind it. Endless hours of experimentation lead to a long trail of successes and failures until the perfect drink, a pleasing concoction appealing to all five senses, is created. Here in the Coastal Bend, a handful of people stand out when it comes to the local mixology scene. Behind every bar, there is a mastermind who melds art and science to create the perfect craft cocktail.

Ben Lomax, Bar Under the Sun

Ben Lomax has been in and around the bar business for almost his entire life. Even when he left the bar for a career in the oil industry, his love for crafting a good cocktail never left him. He and his wife, Lesley Lomax, decided to take a risk and open up Bar Under the Sun. They hoped to not only expand the craft cocktail scene in Corpus Christi, but to also be part of the growing evolution of the downtown area.

Putting BUS’ cocktail menu together was one of Lomax’s favorite parts to opening the bar. “Research and development,” he says with a laugh. Experimenting in his kitchen with various ingredients and sharing those experiments with friends and family proved to not only be an exciting experience, but a beneficial one, all contributing to the end products you can now order when visiting the bar.

In a world where most things are reinventions of what came before, mixology is much the same. “I pull inspiration from a flavor or a feeling I want to experience,” Lomax says in regard to his creative process. “But, when you look around, almost everything has been done already. So, you kind of have to riff off of things and put your own twists on something in order to create something new.” 

Quality ingredients and learning how to do things the right way are key components to what makes mixology what it is according to Lomax. “Mixology is really about knowing your craft. It is about knowing where something comes from, how it was made, what flavors will affect other flavors – there is so much information and knowledge behind it all.”

Cocktail: The Blood Meridian

It’s no secret people taste with their eyes and Lomax is well aware of this fact. “The aesthetics of a drink is a much bigger deal than people might think,” he says. “Really, if something doesn’t look good, it might as well also not taste good because the person has already judged it before they’ve even taken a sip.” It is this very reasoning Lomax has put so much time and effort into perfecting each of their signature cocktails.

Like all seasoned mixologists, Lomax knows trial and error is a huge component to mixology. “A lot of the stuff you end up making tastes terrible. I mean, for every cocktail on this menu there are 10 other crappy versions of it.” He knows it only takes that one stroke of genius to create a drink worth sharing with hundreds of other people every Friday night.

In the simplest of terms, Lomax refers to the personal, gathering aspect of sharing a cocktail with someone as an experience. “It just provides an atmosphere for memories to be made, and the cocktail is at the center of it.” 

Jacob McClain, The Pioneer

One could say Jacob McClain is the progenitor of the craft cocktail scene here in town. He’s had his hand in creating the cocktail menus for places like The Post and The Gold Fish. When the topic of mixology comes up, area bartenders mention him, crediting him for their own inspiration and passion. McClain, simply put, has helped pioneer the way for what the current craft cocktail movement looks like and the future it holds here in the Coastal Bend.

20 years ago, at a family-owned bar in Houston, McClain decided to try his hand in what would soon become one of his biggest passions. From barback to bar manager, he worked in several different spots around town before eventually moving to the Coastal Bend in order to put his degree in Marine Biology to use. Instead, thankfully, the bar industry pulled him back in. After hearing that a bar specializing in craft cocktails was on the verge of opening, he knew he had to put all of his knowledge and fervency for mixology to good use. He took his talents to The Post and helped pave the way for the craft cocktail in Corpus Christi.

Cocktail: The Tempest

“People started coming in and being shocked that we could make a good, and correct, Old Fashioned,” he says about the early days of The Post. For McClain, efficiency and precision are key. He’s a methodical man and believes each craft cocktail has a base formula and, once becoming more experienced and knowledgeable about the craft, can be tweaked in order to create innovative spins on the classics. 

When it comes to the perfect marriage of science and art in order to create a drink, McClain takes it seriously. “I’ve done the research and I am constantly learning new things, I’ll never be done learning.” he says, “There is a lot that goes into this; the way you muddle something, the way alcohol gets broken up when certain components are added, the type of ice you need in order to create the right amount of surface area – these are all things that matter.”

In a word, he describes mixology as a dance. One, that overtime, can be perfected to a T. If you watch while he’s looking at a bar and all of its contents, you’ll see his mind begin to race. He is thinking of all the combinations he can make with the various liquors available. He is surveying his options in a way that will allow him to create a drink perfectly suited for the person ordering it. Although he describes his craft as a dance, McClain’s creative process resembles that of a painter the beginning a new masterpiece — meticulously choosing each ingredient, for he knows each element will have a very specific effect on one another. His commitment and enthusiasm to the craft of the craft cocktail is uncanny, and quite honestly, unmatched.

Michael Green, The Post

I learned about Michael Green’s “mad scientist” reputation before I even met him. Needless to say, the reputation exceeds him. Like a lot of people behind the bar, he started in the kitchen, and when asked to get behind the bar, his go-to mentality of learning how to do something as fast and as good as possible kicked in. He poured himself into his research and found he loved the idea of being able to get creative behind the bar.

When describing mixology in his own words, you can see the wheels in his brain begin to turn. The passion he has for crafting a cocktail is uncanny. A light in his eyes turns on and you are compelled to sit back and listen. His answer? “The art of combining flavors in a palpable way and having a design aesthetic in mind, to where you take every sense into account. It is really understanding all of that and then going from there.” 

It’s often difficult to know how well different flavors will blend together until you try. Green describes this guess as the combination of faith and art. “I’ll come up with something at home, and I don’t have the same selection of ingredients at home obviously as I do here at The Post, and so I will think I have a great epiphany of a new drink and won’t really know it until I get here and make it,” he says. 

Only eight years into his career as a mixologist, Green really is just getting started. He studies both herbology and has even picked up gardening. His homegrown herbs become ingredients in the drinks he makes at The Post. He is continuously learning and soaking up new information all contributing to the final product a patron ends up sipping. “Just like any artist, someone looks your craft and judges and dissects it and that’s scary,” he says. “But it just comes with it, and you have to roll the dice to create something new.”

For Green, education really is key for both the mixologist and bar patrons. Having conversations with people sitting at the bar about how the drink they have ordered is made or the flavor and texture components of it is one of his favorite things. “It really creates a full experience for someone and then they get to leave here knowing something they didn’t before, and maybe even have a broadened concept of the craft cocktail,” he says.

He jokes about how shocked he is that more people in this town aren’t drinking out of tiki glasses and how “more umbrellas in drinks” is an issue we should all be caring about. However, he ends on a more serious note. “These drinks elicit feelings from each person and you then get to share those feelings with others and it becomes one shared experience, and that is something pretty special.”

Zak Kaszynski, Green Light Coffee

For Zak Kaszynski, the scents, aromas, and execution behind coffee, wine, and cocktails, and the experiences they provided him with at his previous jobs, all meshed together in order for his love for mixology to arise.

When it came time for Green Light Coffee’s newest location to fashion their cocktail menu (a path they had yet to travel down), they knew Kaszynski was the perfect man for the job. “We had always wanted to start doing cocktails,” he says in reference to the origin story of the newest addition to their menu. “While we treat all of our coffee drinks and food with the specials we do, we wanted to also show people cool twists on something they may have already seen and kind of upset the norm. We wanted to show everyone cool, new flavors and experiences for people looking to get a craft cocktail.” 

Being able to taste each element in a cocktail, in all of its layers and complexity, enthuses Kaszynski. He describes each component of the drink as helping the others out, allowing the drink to be one cohesive product that will allow someone else to experience it in awe. “That experience really is what drives me to do this,” he says. “Being able to combine things in different ways and feel that shift on your palette — that’s something else.”

Cocktail: The Espresso Martini

“Mixology really is alchemy and in that, you are trying to appeal to each of the senses,” he says. He talks about the combining of ingredients in a way that makes it sound like a math equation. There are multiple ways to solve it, but finally reaching the answer provides a glorious aha moment. “You are trying to take all of these weird things — grains that have been fermented and distilled and weird fruits all thrown in together and filtered out — all of these different processes that go through a thousand hands before it’s bottled and brought to you, and then you’re combing them in a way to basically make gold.” This concept energizes him.

When creating the cocktail menu for Greenlight, Kaszynski — along with Sarah Hans, the owner — had two goals in mind. They wanted a nice variety of items to where someone from any walk of life would find something they would be interested in. They also wanted to feature a lot of the work they had done to discover the cool beverage flavors with which they were already working. The result? Eight signature cocktails, each with an interesting story of their own.

Kaszynski describes his favorite kind of art form as one that is experienced and then gone. That is exactly what a craft cocktail is — a moment of pure artistic experimentation that is enjoyed by the observer and then becomes just a memory. Simple, yet impactful.

Cocktail: The Negroni

Sky Shook, The Top Sider Lounge

Inside the Omni Hotel on the second floor, a cozy bar, The Top Sider Lounge, welcomes visitors with smiling faces and the freshest of cocktails. Behind the bar, you’ll find Sky Shook, a friendly and fun-loving mixologist, whipping up some of the best craft concoctions in town.

However, Shook hasn’t always been behind the bar. She once spent her shifts rolling up sushi until one of the bartenders suggested she step out of the kitchen and bring her talents to the forefront. From there, the rest is history. Her engaging personality allowed her to come into her own behind the bar. “Especially working in a hotel bar, you get to meet so many people from all over the world,” she says. “It’s so crazy to have conversations with these people as they sit at my bar.”

Creating a mood or a feeling with a drink for someone is what mixology is all about for Shook. She will never tire of being able to serve a total stranger something that could lift their whole day. “You really can paint a picture with a drink,” she says. “Then you are able to pair it with a nice meal and you create an entire mood for someone.” 

Taking classics and tweaking them slightly is really how Shook begins her creative process when coming up with new drink ideas. “A simple twist on a classic can create a whole new drink no one has ever had,” she says.

When it comes to sharing a drink with others, Shook believes your sense of urgency evaporates and you’re able to sit, relax, and enjoy the people around you. In a world where we are constantly on the go, it might be smart to take a page out of her book.

AJ Juarez, The Gold Fish 

When recalling how mixology became a part of his life, AJ Juarez says, “I fell into it by, well, not a total accident.” He had been working as a chef for a while and when struggling to go back to school, he realized he needed to make more money, but work couldn’t interfere with his class schedule. So, he started as a barback and worked his way up. 

Now, as the lead bartender at The Gold Fish, he has really been able to embrace his role and creatively come into his own. He looks at his craft as a way to challenge himself every day and with every drink he makes. “Not all the time, but every now and then, you’ll strike gold,” he says. “You might have 100 attempts and 99 of them all fail, but it only takes that one successful attempt to change everything.” 

He explains how the quality of ingredients determines the way a cocktail will taste. “You know, even something as simple as a vodka soda can be altered with the freshest of ingredients. It’s all about providing the customer with a drink, regardless of how complicated or not the order might be, that they will enjoy.”

Cocktail: The Vintage White Wall

Collaboration and understanding that everyone has different palettes is how Juarez begins his creative process of creating a new drink. Say a customer comes to the bar and says they don’t know exactly what they want, but they know they want something salty and with pineapple. It is instances like these were he finds his inspiration. “It might not be something I would drink, but I am interpreting what they are they say they want and then creating it for them to enjoy.” He compares it to being commissioned for an art piece. The consumer describes their vision, and it is then up to the artist to interpret those ideas in a way to please the consumer.

Juarez refers to the craft cocktail as something you’ve never done before. “I’m going to not only push the boundaries of mixology, but push my own boundaries,” he says. “It can start with one component, but when you start layering all your other ingredients – I mean, you are crafting something special.”

When it’s all said and done, he says one should expect the unexpected when it comes to a craft cocktail. Juarez’s end goal for each drink is to make the person who ordered it not just happy with the outcome, but excited about it, and for them to leave with the intentions of returning.

Mary Peppers, LATITUDE 28º20'

One could say Mary Peppers was born to be a mixologist. Her over 40 years of experience in the bar industry has stretched cross-country. She spent 10 years in Los Angeles, 22 years in Chicago, 4 years in North Carolina, and lastly, she brought herself and her craft to Rockport. The staff at Latitude jokes that rather than them offering the job to Mary, Mary offered her skills to them. And thank God she did, because no one can make a martini quite like Mrs. Peppers. 

Peppers, having lived all over the country, has curated Latitude’s entire martini menu with drinks she says you can’t find anywhere else. “All I ever wanted to do was be a bartender,” she says in reference to how she got started. “You can point at anything behind that bar and I will tell you everything you would ever want to know about it.”

In her own words, she describes mixology as nothing but cooking with liquids. Attempting to create something unique and brand-new keeps things interesting. There are no limits. The bar business is constantly changing, and Peppers knows her creativity has to keep up with the innovation. “The beauty of creating a new drink is that everyone sits here and drinks. And we drink…and drink…and drink…and then you’ve got it.” 

The Peppermint Martini

Trial and error come into play every time Peppers concocts a new drink for the menu. “When you get that final product,” she says, “something you’ve totally created, and you see someone else’s reaction, it’s awesome.” 

Peppers knows her craft like the back of her hand. Hearing her talk about how certain liquors taste with other ingredients is memorizing. You can’t help but listen in awe when she speaks about the craft.

When asked what people should know about getting a cocktail from Latitude, her response is simple, having spent only thirty minutes with her, I couldn’t agree more. “This is a place you will remember, and you’ll sure as hell remember me.”