Easy to Swallow: The Cocktail Revolution Plants its Flag In Southern Oregon
After a couple rather punishing decades, with sugary and boozy drinks like Long Island Iced Teas and coyly named ones like Sex on the Beach and Slippery Nipples, where often the function of simply getting drunk overrode the drink’s form and fashion, the cocktail has made a steady comeback since the turn-of-the-last century. Like so many trends, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where and when the resurgence of elegant, thoughtful and crafty cocktail began to climb into an esteemed place in popular culture—was it hipsters in New York restaurants? Or, stylish drinks in London bars?
Regardless, like craft beer and a broadening wine industry, cocktails have steadily moved into the mainstream, with creative cocktail menus as common (and complicated) as wine lists in most big-city restaurants. And with a newly organized Southern Oregon Bartender Guild, a dedicated group of mixologists in some of the region’s most esteemed restaurants are establishing the same in this region.
On a recent late summer afternoon, three local bartenders sat in the yard adjacent to Alchemy Restaurant & Bar, just off Ashland’s main drag—Jen Akin, Michael Schweighardt and Adam Hopkins. All three come from bigger cities—Seattle, Chicago and Las Vegas, respectively—and have recently settled into Ashland restaurants. And, with the influx of new bartenders is coming a quiet cocktail revolution in southern Oregon.
Akin is wearing a sleeveless black dress that shows off a full sleeve of tattoos with flowers and music notes on her right arm. She calmly, yet firmly, explains the role of the bartender. “It is about reading the guests,” she explains. Akin earnestly wants to introduce quality, artesian cocktails to each client who walks through the doors at Alchemy. To start the conversation, sometimes she will ask how a customer takes his or her coffee. “Sweet or strong can be a guide,” she explains.
Akin also explains the unique—and rewarding—relationship that can develop between a good bartender and a patron. On busy night, she will make 250 drinks, “all while pouring wine and answering questions; you’re on stage.” She points out, “it is more than simply knowing the recipes.”
But knowing the recipes is critical as well: Different than the food menu, people will routinely order off-the-menu for their cocktails, and a good bartender needs to have a Google-worthy sense of finding recipes in his or her brain; and unlike beer and wine, which have an obvious limitation of what is on tap or in stock, cocktails present hundreds of combinations of gin, vodka, whiskey and mixers.
To help foster this emerging industry and attitude for unique and stylized cocktails, and to support each other, Akin has begun to organize a Southern Oregon Bartender Guild. In Seattle, where she cut her teeth, there was a robust meet-up group of bartenders that included lessons and education about products. Akin hopes to re-create that industry in southern Oregon. At this point, she explains, the guild is still in its infancy; right now, still just a Facebook group, just “casually moderated,” she says.
“People in Ashland deserve to drink like Portland, San Francisco, Seattle,” asserts Hopkins. He is wearing a red, white and blue horizontally stripped shirt; with slicked back dark hair, his sunglasses are pushed up on his forehead and he is stylish unshaven. Earlier this year, he was visiting Ashland and, smitten with the area, started to check out jobs on Craig’s List. One jumped out immediately, he says about an advertisement for a bartender at the new Scarpetta. “It fit like a glove,” he smiles.
Hopkins has quickly designed a cocktail menu that is both as quirky as it is local (if those two qualities are, indeed, different in Ashland.) One stand-out is his invention, the “Oregon martini.” Hopkins explains that goes hiking at Wizard Lake looking for the “right conifer cones” which he stuffs into the olives. “People say it tastes like walking through the woods.”