The Rise of the Mixologist at Steakhouses
Cocktail Culture Continues To Surge, Giving The Wine Business A Run For Its Money
A lot has changed since Natalia Cardenas first joined the hospitality industry in 2001. For her, it was a great time to hone her bartending skills before the mixology craze took hold of the market several years later. It was also an opportunity for her to fully immerse herself in cocktail culture as trend after trend came her way.
She’d worked at several high-profile Chicago restaurants and lounges specializing in craft cocktails before she landed a mixologist position at a prominent regional distributor/wholesaler of alcoholic beverages. One of Cardenas’ tasks—which is super cool—is to travel across the country helping dining and drinking establishments with their bar programs.
It’s a role, Cardenas says, that until recent years was pretty much overlooked by steakhouses. They were more focused on how their sommeliers curated the wine lists. But now that mixology is a large part of the United States’ drinking culture, even classic steakhouses are taking a second look at what’s behind the bar and who’s serving it.
She offers as an example Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse, the preeminent Chicago restaurant that opened in 1989. The restaurant group hired a beverage director in 2016 to revamp its outdated cocktail list.
“It’s definitely a change from what they’ve done before,” said Cardenas. “They’re doing all fresh ingredients in their craft and classic cocktails. Plus, everything is (now) measured.” She added that for restaurants to stay competitive, it’s a good idea to make updates whenever possible. “The consumers are demanding fresh ingredients, and Gibsons is giving them what they want.”
Gibsons’ Corporate Executive Chef Randy Waidner agreed that the change was necessary to offer diners a premium experience from beginning to end.
“We want our customers to know that they’re getting quality products throughout the entire experience,” explained Waidner. “The cocktail is usually the first thing you order when you sit down. If you get a great one, it eases you into the night. You cannot just rely on the entrée. That’s midway through the meal. You have to hit it on all cylinders and get it right all the way through for every diner.”
In addition to ingredients such as house-made bitters and sweet vermouth for Manhattans, Gibsons’ beverage director has updated the wine and beer list. “There are a lot of things to capture in the market that everyone’s doing, and he’s wildly skilled and it’s really hitting,” added Waidner.
A beverage director should be well versed in mixology and wine, according to Cardenas. She says that they “need to know everything about everything” to stay competitive.
“That’s why a lot of mixologists are going for their sommelier certifications. And sommeliers are aggressively studying spirits. They’ve always had to study spirits, but now they’re taking it a step further. Plus, cicerones no longer just study beer. They’re now diving into the spirits classes. Everyone is forced to be well-rounded, and that’s an advantage for the restaurateur who hires people with those skills.”
One of those people is Julian Cox, who was recently named beverage director at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. Prior to joining the Chicago-based restaurant group, Cox honed his career on the West Coast, garnering such prestigious accolades as three consecutive James Beard Award nominations for “Outstanding Bar Program” for his time at Riveria in Los Angeles, as well as being named one of the “10 Most Influential Bartenders of the Past 10 Years” by Food & Wine in 2014. He is, of course, well rounded, with great knowledge in spirits, craft beer and wine.
For LEYE, Cox concentrates on the company’s bar programs at il Porcellino, a contemporary Italian eatery, as well as the tiki-inspired Three Dots and a Dash and modern steakhouse RPM Steak. A restaurant like RPM Steak is well suited for Cox’s forward-thinking mixology ideas without pushback, and he admits that until recently most steakhouses veered toward the classics.
“With the latest influx of modern steakhouses and new concepts, (mixology programs) are very popular,” says Cox. “It’s pretty safe to say that most of these steakhouses are leaning toward classic cocktails in their programs, drinks like Old Fashioneds and martinis, but they have evolved with the times.”