We're lucky to live in Indianapolis during this time period. Never in the history of this city has there been a faster growing cultural community. While our politicians continually attempt to take us back out of the 21st Century, we as a community continually push forward. While there are numerous people working together to carry us toward a brighter future, one group that has been working non-stop in making Indianapolis a cultural hub is the men and women running our food and drink scenes.
A group of five Indianapolis bartenders has the opportunity to further our move into the national spotlight as a frontrunner in the cocktail scene. Michael Toscano and Ryan Puckett from The Libertine on Mass Ave. and Josh Gonzales, Devon Boyll, and Brian Brissart of Fountain Square's Thunderbird will be competing here in Indianapolis at the United States Bartenders' Guild World Class Regional Finals on April 26. They make up 5 of the 15 contestants from around the Midwest.
I had the opportunity to talk with them and to get their insights on their tastes, Indy's bartending scene (where it started and where it's going), and Negronis (they almost all love Negronis).
1. If you had to drink one cocktail for the rest of your life what would it be and why?
Josh Gonzales: Definitely a Negroni. The Negroni is a simple cocktail composed of equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. These three components work together to create a drink that is a perfect balance of bitter-sweet goodness. It's usually the first drink serious bartenders fall in love with and one that can be riffed infinitely. Ordering one at a bar is the equivalent of knowing the secret bartender handshake. You will instantly be recognized as an experienced drinker and you'll most likely be treated as a member of the inner circle.
Devon Boyll: Negroni, it's simple and amazingly complex at the same time.
Ryan Puckett: That's a really tough question because cocktails are so situational for me. It's hard to pick, but I find that a Negroni is a cocktail I return to most often. There are a lot of great variations in that realm, so I think I could live with that choice. You can switch the gin, vermouth, and the proportions up and have a very different cocktail so that would keep it interesting enough. And its pretty great at any time of the day. Negronis all day.
Michael Toscano: Starting with one of the hardest questions you could ask a bartender! I think it would have to be Negroni ... This drink is versatile because it can serve as a starter cocktail to kick off an evening with friends, as well as has enough booze to warm you up on cold evening, or serve as a great nightcap.
Brian Brissart: Jungle Juice in tandem paired with fried pickles. Cause I'm a wild boy.
2. Does Indianapolis have a signature cocktail?
Devon Boyll: I wouldn't say we have a signature cocktail, but we drink a lot of bourbon with our proximity to Kentucky.
3. Craft cocktails have come into popularity rather recently, what do you think lead to this and who lead the way in Indianapolis?
Michael Toscano: ... I would be remiss if I didn't mention people like Zach Wilks and Neal Brown. These two gentlemen were responsible for opening the first two true cocktails bars in the city Ball and Biscuit and Libertine Liquor Bar. It's also because of bartenders like Adam Ramsey, Josh Gonzalez, Michael Grey, Kendall Lockwood for really laying the ground-work for the rest of us to have an opportunity to hone our craft and find ourselves behind the bars in this city. It is because of them I didn't have to leave Indy to be in this position.
Josh Gonzales: Though relatively new to Indy, the craft cocktail movement has its roots in New York and San Francisco in the late '80s and early '90s. There were hints of it appearing here a decade ago at various hotel bars, but Zach Wilks was the first true pioneer. Ball & Biscuit's opening was huge for the city and redefined how we looked at bars. The opening of Libertine further pushed the boundaries and tied the movement to Indy's growing, chef driven, food scene. I think the craft movement in Indy is very much intertwined with the maturation of our local food culture.
4. What is the best cocktail you've ever concocted? The first you ever perfected?
Ryan Puckett: I think my favorite cocktail I ever made was called a Tiger Lily. Yummy stuff. It was Aquavit (a Scandinavian equivalent of gin) with lime, pineapple, coconut cream, and basil. It also had some cayenne in it. It was a great little thirst quencher during the hot months. I still have people ask for it at Libertine. The first cocktail that really stands out in my head was a Manhattan. I remember making one about a month into bartending and had a light bulb moment on what a well made drink could be like.
5. Which liquor do you think is the best to craft with? Worst?
Brian Brissart: I've made delicious libations with all spirits! Though most craft bartenders will tell you that vodka is the worst to work with because it's inherently flavorless, colorless, & odorless, which is why so many people like drinking it: you can't taste or smell it! A good cocktail should accentuate the attributes of its base spirit, not hide it. But hey, Jungle Juice, am I right.
6. Which cocktail is the most overdone?
Ryan Puckett: Moscow mules. I've never understood the hype. The copper mug makes it taste like pennies. There are so many better cocktails. It's just kind of boring.
Devon Boyll: Whiskey & Coke. Its not a good drink. Grow up and drink your whiskey neat.
Josh Gonzales: I don't think there is such a thing. As long as you are executing a drink correctly and using quality ingredients then keep on keeping on.
7. What will be the next big thing in cocktails?
Ryan Puckett: Right now, I think we're seeing a return to basics. Bartenders are stepping up their hospitality and really focusing on making the guest experience great. I love that. There are too many asshole bartenders in this industry. It's good to see people really wanting to make their guest have an extraordinary night.
Josh Gonzales: Sherry is big at the moment. It's a very versatile style of fortified wine that can be used as both the main ingredient in a drink, or as an accent. Drink more sherry.
Devon Boyll: People should drink more Manhattans. Will it be the next big thing? Who cares; they taste good.
8. What do you think of the word mixologist?
Michael Toscano: I HATE this word. While I understand our need to define and identify everything these days, I feel like this term creates a division between us and them. Them being the bartenders that work in the nightclubs and beer bars around this city. Let me be very clear, I COULD NEVER DO WHAT THEY DO. I don't have the patience for the volume or the clientele they typically deal with. I have tremendous respect for speed bartenders. I feel like when they hear someone refer to me as a mixologist it automatically creates a feeling of "he thinks he's better than us". What I do for a living today is what bartending was before Prohibition. Why am I anything more than a bartender now?
Josh Gonzales: I've never mixologized a bar, but I've tended one.
9. 5 of the 15 candidates in the regional finals are from Indianapolis; is there something about this city thats lends itself to crafting cocktails?
Michael Toscano: I think our hospitality and work ethic have a lot to do with our success. There really is something to be said about Midwestern hospitality. I have a lot of friends and brand reps that travel the world for their jobs. They always come back and tell us we are doing exactly what everyone else is doing. The difference is we are nice to them. We don't carry ourselves in a way that makes them feel like they are lucky to be in our presence drinking our cocktails.
Josh Gonzales: Our bartending community has grown extremely rapidly in a very short time, and when you look at the bartenders that have had success or gained notoriety at the national level, they all sprang from the same evolutionary branch. In its early days, Libertine was a hive for some amazing bartending talent. Michael Gray, Adam Ramsey, Adam Hayden and I all worked at bartending in a very specific style. A style that was based on understanding classic cocktails and how to reinterpret them into something new. As we moved on to start our own ventures, that foundation and knowledge was transferred to a new generation of bar staff. It's incredibly rewarding to see guys like Toscano, Puck, Devon and Brian all picking up the mantle and running with it. It's a testament to how we learned and came up together. It's very similar to how most of Indy's best chefs can trace their lineage back to Greg Hardesty and Regina Mehallick. I think it's less about the city and more about our commitment to teaching foundational bartending.
Brian Brissart: Though it's smaller than New York, Chicago, L.A., etc., the Indianapolis beverage scene is profoundly made up of so many extraordinary people who live for the craft. It's difficult for those who aren't involved to get an accurate picture of everyone and everything that happens here behind the scenes. We're not just a community made up of bartenders, but owners, servers, liquor/wine/beer representatives, brewers, distillers, bar backs, sommeliers, chefs, etc.. Sure, the business aspect is competitive by nature but beyond that, we're all incredibly supportive of one another and want each other to succeed.
For more info on the competition head to: worldclass.usbg.org/#competition