James Taylor, Salt, and an Education

[Editor’s Note: when our writer attended the Boulder’s Best Mixology contest several weeks ago, he took issue with how innovative he found Salt’s winning cocktail. in response, Matthew and Christy were invited by Salt’s Beverage Director Evan Faber to hear him talk about his vision for drinks and the innovative approaches he is taking to mixing drinks with simple ingredients (not to mention food and music). Here is his followup.]

Damn… I didn’t want to, I mean I really didn’t want to fall for this Cocktail Element thing at Salt.  It’s a silly gimmick.  Create your own drink?  That is just the bartender’s way of being lazy.

After meeting with Evan Faber, Beverage Director, and Adrian Sutevksi, Bar Manager, at Salt I am now a convert.  Shit.

We met Evan and Adrian in the basement of Salt where they took us through the drink program. John Prine (or was it Woody Guthrie, or maybe even James Taylor? ) was playing in the background on the old vinyl record player.

Evan, a classically trained Sommelier, who turned his attention from wine to beer and ultimately to spirits, created the “Cocktail Element” drink menu at Salt.  This guy knows what he is doing – he didn’t get into the service industry out of necessity, it was a true passion and something in which he’s properly educated.

The “Cocktail Element” is the drink list at Salt where you select a spirit, a flavored simple syrup, and style (fizz, rickey, Collins, etc.).  The menu rotates with the seasons, which gives you a chance to try a few new elements.  The purpose is to try to get people who typically drink a gin and tonic, to try something unique that’s beyond their comfort zone.

By using many familiar terms and techniques from a “pick-list” menu, the customer is able to move out of gin and tonic and into gin, blood orange/rosemary simple syrup, lemon, and tonic on the rocks… not a crazy concoction, but out of the norm, right?  Baby steps.

Evan and Adrian

The thought for the drink list originally came to Evan during the “Starbucks revolution”, when people who used to simply make a decision about whether to have room for cream in their coffee were now ordering double-pump, spiced pumpkin macchiatos.  If people have gotten sophisticated enough to progress past basic coffee, why wouldn’t it work with cocktails?

So, how do you create such a menu?  Salt started with what is an essential cookbook, The Flavor Bible, which helps the home cook understand which flavor profiles work well together, and combined it with ideas about the five basic tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami). The spirit in a drink is just another flavor component to a greater dish, so essentially, you can start pulling together different drink ingredients that are familiar to your palate and taste good together, like you would do for a chicken or scallop dish – just with booze. (e.g.: bourbon + chocolate + coffee + my face = awesome).

Another unique part of Salt’s drink program (one of Evan’s personal pet projects) is “BYOV” (V=Vinyl), where customers are encouraged to bring in their own music and play it on the antique record player in the corner. Much like the music on the record player, the “Cocktail Element”, in my mind, is like the leading edge of any transformational music genre.  Led Zeppelin, Cream and others like them took something familiar (American Blues) and turned it into something slightly different and made it their own (Rock and Roll).  That is what I think Salt is doing – I recognize all of the ingredients on the Element list, but I never would have put them together – it’s familiarity with a twist.

Glass Collection at Salt

Overall, I’ve found that there are two main drawbacks to the “Cocktail Element” menu: first, variety.  I have seen blood orange and rosemary on the sheet since day one. It’s kind of similar to if The Beatles had never progressed past “Love Me Do”; Salt needs to give me “Strawberry Fields” because honestly, I have lost interest in most of the elements on the list already.

Second, let’s say I want something a bit less familiar – I want to try something that someone with some expertise has crafted, and is innovative and new. I have to exit Salt and head up and down Pearl to find a place with a cocktail menu that’s appetizing.  Essentially, Salt needs to start adding some deeper cuts to their repertoire to make a good overall album. Just like The Beatles, The Killers, Warren Zevon, The Strokes and John Prine all together would make up a good, well-rounded playlist: it would feature familiar crowd-pleasing tracks mixed in with more obscure, sparks-of-genius tracks…something with familiarity, innovation, and expertise combined into one.

The gents at Salt did say they are in the midst of creating a cocktail menu beyond Element (one that features everything made in-house, from the simple syrups, to fresh squeezed juice, to hand-made tonic water), but I am wary that it may be too cute and overly complicated.  I have seen many places around town go too deep with their drink menu and actually go overboard with the cocktails and descriptions to the point where nothing looks desirable.

Overall, Salt is really hoping to educate customers with their drink program – I think they know the majority of people will leave knowing nothing more about cocktails or spirits than when they arrived, but a few will be interested enough to start a conversation about the liquor, where it was produced, and what makes it different.  After talking with Evan and Adrian, I would call them a trusty, passionate, resource, so ask them a question about your drink…or about music…or better yet, about how notes and rhythm inspire cocktails…they’ll definitely have an answer, and you might leave with a newfound appreciation for what you’re drinking.

Music to my lips.