Today we have the great pleasure of talking to mixologist Lisa Carrington, better known as The Cocktail Maven.
Lisa is one half of the notorious The Lushus Life Podcast duo, where she and her co-host Alicia White talk about spirits, cocktails, distilleries, alcohol related products, news, tips, tricks, fun facts and the occasional nonsense with a fair bit of innuendo built in for good measure.
Lisa recently launched her new blog cocktailmavenaz.com where she shares her passion for craft cocktails.
We invited Lisa to a chat about craft cocktails and its history. Her new amazing cocktail blog, and why cocktails are gaining so much ground, even among die hard whisk(e)y fans.
Lisa was also so incredibly kind, to create a special whiskey based cocktail, with the whisky enthusiast’s palate in mind, for The Son of Winston Churchill and its readers. (Find it below the interview)
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, and for crafting this amazing cocktail, I truly appreciate it. Before we get started, you might like to introduce yourself to those of our readers who don’t already know you?
I live in Phoenix, Arizona USA. I am a passionate cocktail creator and alcohol enthusiast. My love is finding ways to enhance the way you experience your favorite spirit. I believe that life is meant to be lived as a series of unforgettable moments. So instead of creating something that is simply nice to drink I strive to create something that is an unforgettable experience.
Admittedly I’m a bit green when it comes to the cocktail scene, so first off, would you be so kind and explain the difference between a regular cocktail and a craft cocktail and the difference between a bartender and a mixologist?
The term “craft cocktail” is really not much different than when we use the term “craft distillery” there is no specific definition for it. It doesn’t actually mean better, or smaller or with greater attention although we certainly assume those things just as we do when we hear about a craft whisky.
It does help set the expectation of the drinker though. Over time we have learned craft cocktails are made by mixologists and that must make them much better. Whereas the jack-and-coke of our youth was probably made by a grumpy old bartender who didn’t really care if you liked it or not. The term mixologist also endeavors to better recognize those that have honed their craft with precision. They don’t simply “tend to a bar” which is reminiscent of the old days of simply pouring a beer. They take the time to create something special for the guests who have chosen to spend time in their establishment. They take their career choice as seriously as any professional and it shows in their craft.
Back in 1806 Harry Croswell was the first to use the definition of cocktail as an alcoholic beverage in The Balance and Columbian Repository when he answered the question, "What is a cocktail?" Now Maven, would you be so kind and answer the same question?
While origin of the actualadoption of the word cocktail is somewhat disputed, the meaning today is clear. It is any alcoholic beverage that you are drinking that is something other than spirit alone. Simply put, if you add anything to a spirit then you have created a cocktail.
One of the things I really love about whisk(e)y is the heritage and history behind it, therefore I would really like to know more about the history of cocktails.
A lot of Americans love to tell you that we have prohibition to thank for the invention of the
cocktail. That the moonshine coming out during the prohibition was so bad that people had to add mixers to make it more palatable. While it’s a wonderfully romantic story and the whiskey of the era is not the smooth consistent thing we enjoy today it really isn’t true. Although it is quite true that bars like the American Bar at the Savoy hotel in London served droves of desperate Americans looking for cocktails and certainly contributed to the growing popularity of the cocktail during the prohibition years.
The true history of cocktails is quite murky actually. We know people have been mixing drinks for centuries, but it wasn't until the 17th and 18th centuries that we actually saw anything in print. The earliest documented use of the word cocktail is from London newspaper in 1798. It was in referenceto a somewhat vulgarly named French ginger based cocktail. Exactly what this implied is open to conjecture. One of my favorite explanations of the evolution of the word cocktail is around horses and a practice call “Gingering”. Which was a technique employed by horsetraders to fetch higher prices for their horses. A horse with a spring in its step, wide-open eyesand, most importantly, a cocked tail (held high) would sell for more. A well-placed piece of peeled ginger in the horses rear end produced the desired effect long enough to sell the horse. There are dozens of other equally intriguing stories about the word’s origin.
What’s the difference between a highball a duo and a trio?
The word highball is generally associated with a type of glassware now, as well as a style of cocktail. The highball glass is taller than an old fashioned glass but shorter and wider than a Collins glass. Often what I think of as a “water glass” almost. Often you see things like gin and tonic, seven and seven, rum and coke, or scotch and soda in these types of glasses.
Duo and Trio on the other hand are part of the same family of cocktails. As their name implies, a duo contains two ingredients and a trio contains three ingredients. The duo contains a spirit and a liqueur. The trio contains both of these but adds a third ingredient usually something creamy like maybe an irish cream or actual cream. All drinks in these categories are generally quite sweet due to liqueur being a key ingredient. An example of a duo might be a Rusty Nail which is made by mixing Drambuie and Scotch. A common trio could be a white Russian made of vodka, Kahlúa and cream.
It seems to me that the cocktail scene is booming right now, and more and more bars are replacing their old bartenders with professional Mixologists. A lot of die hard whisk(e)y fans – including our own Whisky Pete – are diving into the world of Cocktails. For example some Independent whisky bottlers like The Single Cask, have their own mixologists in their whiskey bar in Chijmes, Singapore. Can you relate to this?
I think it’s exciting to see whisky bottlers jumping into the world of cocktails actually. I believe that alcohol should be accessible to all. I would fight for the right of each of us to drink what we like, how we like it. I have no time for whisky snobs and the distillers are coming around too. They are realizing there is more than one market for their products. People are willing to spend upwards of $30US on a single cocktail in cities like London, Singapore and New York which allows bartenders to use premium ingredients in their cocktails. There is an entire cult of cocktail aficionados that can detect the region their scotch comes from in a well made cocktail.
Why do you think whiskey fans, which are well known for being a bit conservative when it comes to other drinking cultures, are jumping onto the cocktail bandwagon, and what is it about cocktails that apparently appeals to a whiskey lover’s palate?
Many of us started drinking while we were still deep into the “cocktail dark ages” 1980’s-early 2000’s. Cocktails were terrible things that used cheap booze, gimmicky colors and bad surgary syrups. But that all changed. The craft cocktail movement came on the heels of the slow food movement where people started to think about cocktails differently. They weren’t just designed to hide the taste of the bad booze they were something to be experienced and savored just like the meals they were being paired with.
I don’t think whisky lovers are actually any different than gin or rum drinkers in that sense. If you love a craft spirit and you drink it to discover the mouth feel, the nose and to carefully detect each and every flavor on your palate a poorly made cocktail is nearly an insult to your mouth. As cocktails have become more and more sophisticated they began to appeal to the highly refined palate of the whisky drinker. These days whisky drinkers can regularly find cocktails that appeal to their taste if they know what to look for. The world of cocktails has finally caught up to their palates and it’s time to give this new world of spirit-forward cocktails a try.
Please tell us a bit about how you create a new cocktail, and how you come up with the ideas for them?
Cocktail ideas come from everywhere. Sometimes it’s a flower, a fruit or a trip to the farmer’s market that sparks my interest. Other times is a holiday or a special event like a wedding. Sometimes it’s a person or a single ingredient. Whisky drinkers, especially bourbon drinkers, are suckers for a great story. I love to build a cocktail around a story. When I can engage you in a story I have not only appealed to your eyes, your olfactory senses and taste budsI have appealed to your mind and your heart. That’s when you can say you truly had an experience and not simply a cocktail. You will not only remember the cocktail but also the moment, and where you were when you had it.
Do you start out with a specific flavor profile in mind, or do you starts out with a base spirits, building it up from there? Kind of tasting your way through it?
The answer on this is “it depends” Sometimes I set out to create a cocktail that pairs perfectly with a cigar or a certain dish. Whisky for instance pairs wonderfully with cigars so I might determine that’s my base spirit and then work from there layering in the flavors and tasting as I go. Taking into account things like the weather (cold or hot), the occasion, and the guest. I scribble it down in a messy note pad until I find what I like. Then I make it for some friends and see what they think. After a few test runs I decide if it’s a hit or not. It may kill people to hear this but a lot of good booze goes down my kitchen drain. A drunk tester is not real valuable so I don’t drink every drop when I’m creating.
Let’s say I want to start crafting my own cocktails. Being a guy, I would properly run out and buy all this expensive flashy home bar equipment, and I would probably get frustrated because I had absolutely no idea how to use it, and it would end up next to all my other fancy kitchenware I still haven’t figured out how to use. So do you have any beginner’s tips, for those of us who want to start crafting our own cocktails, or simply mixing cocktails from recipes, like the once found on your blog?
Just like woodworking, your tools matter, so not having the right tool can be frustrating and yield less than optimal results. But also like woodworking, you don’t need the high end router and every single bit when you first start. You can make do with about anything you already have in your kitchen. For instance, I own a culinary smoking gun which allows me to smoke drinks, cheeses, meats and about anything else I want. It’s silly to buy that in that the beginning until you know if you really want to smoke cocktails. Just torch a nice piece of cedar and set a glass over it to get some smoke and see if you like it first.
That said, a few basics are nice to have. Something to mix cocktails in, most whisky drinkers preferred stirred to shaken cocktails so skip the shaker at first. You can use a tall canning jar and long handled spoon if you want. Or pick up a cocktail mixing glass set that includes a strainer and spoon online for under $15US. A really good jigger that measures ingredients is a must. Don’t guess when you are mixing cocktails you will hate the results. It’s good to have one with ounces and milliliters since recipes might use either. My current favorite is the OXO Stainless Angled Measuring Jigger. It has the marking inside so you can view from the top and get exact measurements.
Your home bar should have a few basics along with whisky like vermouth and a standard bitters like angostura or peychauds. But buy them in small quantities if you don’t drink a lot of cocktails. Vermouth is not good for years no matter what you saw in your grandmother’s cabinet. It’s good for a couple months and that’s if you refrigerate it. A small bottle of bitters will suffice. It’s better to have small quantities and replace more frequently.
You use a lot of different homemade syrups and bitters in your cocktails. I know it would never fully be the same, but are there any good premade alternatives on the market today?
They are so many wonderful craft syrups and bitters these days. You can absolutely buy anything you need if you don’t want to make your own. I only make mine because I enjoy it and it’s cheaper to make your own in some cases. It takes me six weeks to make a batch of bitters but you can buy a great bottle for between $5-20US depending where you live. There are quite literally hundreds of small and large companies selling really good bitters and syrups. I would just say read the label, look for common ingredients you recognize, fruits, seeds, bark, cane sugar etc and stay away from chemicals and preservatives. Look for flavors you already enjoy. If you like them in their natural state it’s a good bet you will like them in a bitter or a syrup.
I know you have a soft spot when it comes to smoke. I read on your blog that peated Whiskies, Mezcal and Cigars are among your favorite things. Please tell us about your passion for smoke and how you integrate it in your cocktails?
I am always looking for new ways to incorporate layers and flavors in my cocktails. Smoke gives me one more way to touch your senses. If I make you a smoked cocktail you will see the smoke rising off the top first, then that rich tobacco or wood will hit your nose and finally you will taste it and that smoke will linger over all the over ingredients to provide another dimension to your drink. Think about how you might get just a hint of tobacco in that whisky you love and how nice it would be to prolong that. If I add a complimentary pipe smoke I might be able to take that single note and prolong it all the way through the finish. Which gives you another way to enjoy something you already love. Smoke works well in a lot of drinks but I love wood smoke with bourbons. Cinnamon sticks pair really nicely with rum. Tobacco works great with a lot of things depending on the type of smoke. One thing I don’t care for is adding smoke to islay or other smoky whiskies and mezcal. I find that that adding smoke competes rather than compliments something that is already smokey. Instead I look for ways to coax out other flavors to balance the smoke that comes naturally in the whisky.
How did you love affair with smoke start?
I think my love affair with smoke began on camping trips as a child. Is there any better childhood memory than roasting marshmallows over a fire in the woods with a sky full of stars? You are in possession of unadultated sugar that suddenly takes on the charred and woody taste of the fire and dissolves instantly in your mouth.I grew up in Washington State where we also have an abundance of fresh seafood. I fell in love with smoked salmon at first bite. Maybe it reminded me of those nights camping I’m not sure. It is really what started my love affair with smoked foods.It was first smoked foods and then a move to cigars several years later and eventually to everything I do. I smoke foods now in a smoker, smoke cigars, and infuse my cocktails with smoke as well. It’s clear to say now, I am completed and utterly addicted.
Please tell us a couple of your favorite cocktail and cigar parings?
I like bold cigars just like I like bold alcohol forward cocktails which actually pair pretty well together. My go to cigar in the Oliva Series V. It is available most places and consistently a nice smoke. But I like to smoke about anythingmedium-bold. When pairing a cocktail I like to try and bring out the flavors in whatever I am pairing it with. The cigar and cocktail should compliment not compete. One of my current favorites is a rye whiskey based cocktail that has the French bitter orange liqueur China-China, chocolate bitters and a spritz of Lagavulin 16 on top. It is called ‘luck be a lady’ and it’s the most popular cocktail in my home bar for my cigar smokingfriends. I designed each element to compliment a cigar. The rye lends a touch of spice, the China-china adds a bitof sweetness and bitterness both to prolong those flavors, chocolate bitters helps to pull out the richer flavor notes in the cigar and the lagavulin 16 adds a secondary smoke aroma on the nose. Another favorite is a Oaxacan old fashioned which is a tequila and mezcal old fashioned.
A lot of women are getting into whiskey and cigars. I don’t care too much about the whole gender debate, because I firmly believe both genders should be treated equally. But I would like to know, in your own experience, if you have met any obstacles or discrimination due to your sex, from others in the whiskey and cigar communities?
Making assumptions about people based on outward characteristics robs us of the opportunity to truly learn about another person. But sadly, it still happens. I do still run into a people (both men and women) who are very surprised I have a passion for whiskey and cigars. At a bar the most common behavior is a guy who attempts to ‘mansplain’ me about whiskey. It’s very seldom they know as much as they think they do. Even if they do I have no desire to spend and evening with that type of condescending behavior. I think the second most common place is in a cigar shop. Generally, they ask if I am shopping for my husband and when I say no it’s for me they get a goofy look on their face which tells me exactly what image just popped into their head.
I think I am more disappointed by the negative reactions of women though. In a world where women continually demand equality it’s frustrating to see some perpetuating the male/female stereotypes themselves. Women aren’t “supposed” to smoke cigars and drink whiskey. That’s just plain silly. There are no rules, do what you like and like what you do!
That said, the world is changing and this is a wonderful community of people. I have met thousands of incredible, knowledgeable and passionate people and only a few jerks. My advice to everyone is don’t assume anything about the person sitting next to you. Ask intelligent questions and figure out what they know before diving into the vast knowledge of whiskey you are dying to share.
What or who opened your eyes to the craft cocktail scene? And why do you find it so fascinating?
I grew up in a non-drinking family. So I actually started out a decade ago in the foodie scene as the slow food movement was taking hold in America. That really trained my palate to see, taste, smell and experience everything on my plate. To pull out the delicate spices and layers of flavors. At some point I craved the same complexity in my drinks. The craft cocktail scene also started to take off so more options became available. Over the last few years my emphasis has shifted to craft cocktails even above food. I continue to be fascinated by how a well crafted cocktail can emphasize, prolong and compliment the delicate flavors in whisky, gin and other spirits.
I have been wondering about your nickname; The Cocktail Maven. Would you be so kind and explain to us what it means?
Maven is word that has its roots in Hebrew. Loosely translated it means ‘one who shares what they know’. While I don’t profess to have extraordinary knowledge, I love the idea of sharing my knowledge, my passion and my love of cocktails with people all other the world. It gives me a way to share and to learn from others, and that’s what I believe makes the experience of life a very rich one.
You recently launched your new blog thecocktailmavenaz which by the way looks absolutely great; I think I need a word with our own web designer, one of these days. Please tell us about your blog - What motivated you to start it?
I started the blog as a way to share my cocktail recipes and stories. I get so many requests to share recipes. Instagram is my primary social media platform and it’s difficult to share recipes that way. I also wanted a way for people to reach me that don’t use social media.
What are your hopes and future prospects for your blog?
I’d like to eventually expand the blog to include videos and more demonstrative information on how to make cocktails. I get so many questions about how to get started, how to make certain cocktails, cocktail basics etc. I’d like to post both videos of how my cocktails are made and perhaps tips on how to make cocktails in general.
I really like the fact that every cocktail on your blog comes with an often personal background story, and some of them are even dedicated to someone, like for example you’re All American Smash cocktail which is honoring those that dedicate their life to keep America free. Do the stories or the cocktails come first?
If a cocktail has a story, and not everyone does, then the story always comes first. Because a cocktail is meant to evoke the emotion of the story. The science of memory is fascinating to me. Your sense of smell and taste are closely linked with emotional learning and memory. It’s why a simple smell can transport you back to your childhood. Not only a vague memory but an exact location and moment in time with incredible clarity. The cocktail stories create an emotional link. So when I put together the anatomy of the cocktail and how it will be served it goes something like this. I tell you the story as I make the cocktail to create the emotional attachment. Then you see it which evokes a visual response that connects to the story. Next there will be an element that ensures that your olfactory system is triggered. It might be smoke coming from the glass, a spritz of absinthe on the surface or a basil garnish. Your nose has 12 million smell receptors and these are your strongest tie to memory. So the smell of the cocktail is crucial in creating a memory. The last thing that happens is the taste. If the emotion, vision, and smell have built up to it then the taste brings it all home. If you can pull those pieces together perfectly you have not just created a cocktail you have created an unforgettable experience.
Are we going to see tasting notes alongside your cocktail recipes? If not, why?
I hadn’t really thought about providing tasting notes alongside of my cocktails before. Although that makes perfect sense. Perhaps I should send you samples so the well-trained palates of your readers could review them and provide independent notes for me!! Can you send me volunteers?
The Whiskey Social Cocktail
This cocktail uses 3 kinds of whisk(e)y, a Mexican chili liqueur and chocolate bitters to create a bold alcohol forward cocktail with just enough sweetness and spice to keep it interesting.
The ingredients are:
• 1oz/30 ml Highwest Double Rye whiskey
• 1oz/30 ml Jameson Black Barrel Whiskey
• ½ oz/15ml Ancho Reyes Liqueur
• 2 dashes of Fee Brothers Aztec (or any chocolate) bitters
• 2 barspoons demerera rich syrup
• 2 barspoons Lagavulin 16 Whisky
In a rocks glass place the Lagavulin and swirl it around to coat the entire inside of the glass. Pour out the excess once it’s thoroughly coated. Place the largest ice cube you have in that glass (the bigger the ice the less dilution)
Place all the other ingredients in a mixing glass and mix them together. Add ice and stir vigorous for 30 seconds. This will chill the cocktail and blend all the flavors together. Pour into your prepared glass slowly over the ice cube or sphere in the center doing you best to not wash the Lagavulin off the sides.
Since you asked before I decided I better include tasting notes and maybe a little education on why I chose these ingredients. On the nose you should get cedar, smoke and chocolate mixed with the spice from the rye and the toffee & pepper notes from the Jameson. The peated whisky just coating the glass will give you smoke on the nose but not on the palate which is an interesting play. So it won’t smell anything like it tastes – a favorite ploy of mine. The flavors will be slightly sweet thanks to the Ancho Reyes and demerera, but not cloyingly so. You will get a hint of spice from Ancho Reyes all the way through, but especially in the back palate. It will taste a bit like a lovely mole sauce thanks to the play between the chocolate bitters and ancho reyes.
We are a global community of whisk(e)y drinkers so I wanted to bring together whiskies from around the world into a cocktail to embody the diversity that unites us. I named this cocktail ‘the whiskey social’. The name is symbolic of a couple of things. First, most of us in this community met because of social media and it pays homage to that. Secondly, a ‘social’ in the traditional sense is a gathering of people enjoying each other’s company and that’s exactly what we do every day. We share stories, swap samples and just spend time talking about our common passion around whisky. So from me to all of you… Sláinte Mhath!
Interview By: Hasse Berg
Photos By: Lisa Carrington
Visit Lisa Carrington’s blog cocktailmavenaz.com here