"The first cocktail I tried to create had avocado in it," says Kate Bolton, the mixologist and bar manager at San Francisco's Maven restaurant. "I blended it with cilantro, vodka, and some lime. It was pretty thick," she says with a smile, "but it tasted good!"
Kate, who was recently recognized as one of the San Francisco Chronicle's 2012 Bar Stars, started her bartending career wanting to use "the most obscure ingredients I could find." Eventually, she says, she learned "that crafting a well-balanced drink with good composition was what I really wanted to achieve."
A Southern California native, Kate started working in restaurants when she was 15 years old, first as a hostess and later as a server. She moved into other restaurant roles, but never thought she'd make a career of crafting culinary cocktails. Restaurant work was always "something I was doing while I figured out what I was doing with my life," she says. She attended Chico State University and traveled in the U.S. and Costa Rica before landing her first serious bartending job in San Francisco. During stints at the celebrated San Francisco restaurants Wexler's and Michael Mina she worked alongside colleagues who introduced her to the culinary side of mixology, with an emphasis on using fresh, local ingredients.
As a result, Kate describes her style as "farmers'-market driven" rather than "classic." "I approach every drink by balancing sweet, bitter, and salty tastes," she says. Her creative cocktails might include cantaloupe, fresh basil, tomato water, strawberries, apricots, or chilies—singly or in combination. She also mixes in simple syrups with intriguing flavors, made in advance for convenience. Her "Nauti's Mermaid" cocktail, for example, showcases an earthy hazelnut orgeat syrup along with rum, orange juice, and coconut. Other signature creations include the "Global Warming" (absinthe sorbet combined with sake, lemon, and aged gin) and the most popular drink on the menu, the rum-based "5 Spot" whose flavors include lime, maple, and Chinese five-spice mixture.
One constant for Kate: C&H Pure Cane Granulated Sugar. "It's a key ingredient for me," she says. "I use it in my syrups and shrubs [vinegar-based flavorings] and in macerating fruit." For her nut-based syrups, she prefers the slightly stronger flavor of C&H Pure Cane Washed Raw Sugar.
How does a mixologist mix? Kate says she first reviews the food menu and writes down all the ingredients in a matrix format. Then she begins making connections. For instance, if crab is on the menu she looks at ingredients that naturally complement shellfish, such as orange, tarragon, and butter.
Kate says mixology is still a male-dominated field, although "there are far more women mixologists now than just five years ago." She adds that she feels lucky to be doing what she loves.
To try your own hand at mixology, here's Kate's refined take on Irish Coffee, which she calls "Beach and Hyde" after the corner where San Francisco's Buena Vista Cafe is located. It's there, it's said, that the famous beverage was invented.
Beach and Hyde
2 oz. Bourbon whiskey
1 oz. coffee syrup (see recipe)
1/2 oz. egg white
grated orange peel (for garnish)
In a shaker tin, dry shake (without ice) the whiskey, syrup, and egg white very vigorously. (Or use a whisk.) This allows the egg white to froth without diluting the cocktail too much. Then fill the shaker with ice and shake again vigorously. Fine-strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with grated orange zest.
1/4 cup whole unroasted coffee beans
1/4 cup cocoa nibs
1 cup C&H Pure Cane Organic Sugar
1 1/4 cups water
1 whole vanilla bean
Roast coffee beans in an oven and transfer them in a saucepan while still hot. Add all the other ingredients and bring to a simmer. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Allow to lightly simmer at approximately 180°F for about 1 hour. Yields approximately 12 ounces.