Frankie Thaheld, Partner and Director of Culinary Mixology for Snake Oil Cocktail Co., recently spoke with Trust Me Vodka about the art of mixology—one of our favorite subjects. It felt like we were sitting right at the bar with him, as he educated us a little about the history of bartending, the origin of mixology, told us amusing anecdotes and gave us some tips on what to mix with premium vodka. The only things missing were the cocktails. How about next time, Frankie? We’ll bring the vodka and celery.
On Mixology v Bartending
There was a time when there wasn’t a difference between the two terms… when essentially being a bartender also meant you were a mixologist, even though the term hadn’t been coined yet. That was just the nature of bars in the late 1800s and early 1900s era…If you were dealing with alcohol, chances were you had to understand your back-bar…the spirits and the liqueurs that you had. There weren’t manufactured products yet, so you had to make your own syrups and your own juices, and so you were definitely more of a mixologist, but you wouldn’t have known it at the time.
We lost something in the [1970s] and 80s and even part of the 60s where we started to have all sorts of pre-manufactured syrups and mixes…you look at the ingredients and many have the same ingredients as soap, for example.
You have…bartenders in the sense that they are making just your classic cocktails, and some who don’t understand what they’re pouring or the origins, histories and stories of their back-bar…there are also bartenders with a level of acumen, whether it’s free pouring and a better understanding of what goes into a basic Manhattan or Martini.
What’s happening now is that people are trying to recraft that [earlier time]. The label mixologist has been traditionally offensive among bartenders but has recently come to mean something…A lot of people in the community are accepting that term and understand that’s who and what we are…educated bartenders. Mixologists are delving deeper and they’re the ones who can tell you the history of absinthe versus pastis and what it means now and what it meant over 100 years ago. They also know how to balance a cocktail based on sweet, savory and bitter.
On Different Styles of Mixology
There’re two different styles in the marketplace right now. One we call Pre-prohibition Mixology. They make cocktails that are sourer, bitterer or drastically sweeter. The sour comes from the citrus they are using to overcompensate what’s happening on the sugar side. Or the drinks will be very sweet and potent because they are using liqueurs.
The style that I’m more obsessed with is what I call Culinary Mixology. It’s using fresh fruits, herbs, vegetables and spices. We start with a vegetable or fruit that we want to harmonize with. For instance, I think, It’s a good season for pears. What goes good with pears? So we often look more at the ingredients for the mix before we look at the alcohol.
How does a drink become a classic?
One of the ways the Tom Collins got spread around is that it was a known drink for bartenders, but not a lot of people knew about it. There was a group of pranksters in in NY and a lot of them would say, “Hey, Tom Collins is looking for you and he’s over at this bar and wants to brawl!” So then this person would get huffy, and honor was a big thing back then. He would go to X bar and open the door and say, “I’m looking for Tom Collins!” And the bartender would say, “I got him right here!” And would make a Tom Collins for him. Also, a bartender would create a drink and other bartenders would drink in that establishment and say, “Hey, I want to make this drink!” And they would swap recipes.
Nowadays it’s harder to create a classic because bartenders or mixologists…don’t often want to share their recipes because they are proprietary. When you have that scenario it’s harder to create a classic. Now they create recipes for venues and it becomes more like a signature cocktail.
Editor's note: Frankie invented the Xolo cocktail at George's at the Cove in La Jolla. Here's a link to the California Modern menu at George's so you can see what's in it.
What’s the strangest ingredient you’ve ever used in a cocktail?
I’ve used tea made with brussels sprouts. The drink was tea based. Tea has natural tannins that accent bitterness very well. I know it sounds strange but I juiced the brussels sprouts and used them as a concentrate to make a tea and whisky based cocktail that just had this beautiful vegetal bitterness to it.
Where do you find cocktail ingredients?
I do some of my own foraging. That basically means going into canyons and things like that locally for fresh raw ingredients, mostly herbs in that situation although on occasion fruit. There’s a fruit called the natal plum, which grows on a jasmine-like shrub. It’s coastal and it’s actually fruiting right now. It’s pretty abundant.
What do you look for in premium vodka?
I look at vodka a little differently than most bartenders. A lot of bartenders will see vodka for making martinis, so they want something dry and crisp. Most people love their vodka martini and I’m not going to argue with that. But then they add an olive or a citrus peel that’s going to enhance the flavor of the vodka.
For making our style of cocktails I’m looking for something with a really clean and crisp flavor because I’m using it as a blank palette. When I’m creating my mixes vodka’s one of the perfect vehicles for it, because I can create whatever flavors I want and not be obstructed by say, a strong gin that’s going to have its own flavor that I have to work around. Whereas with a good vodka on the premium side— I’m not interested necessarily in how many times it’s been charcoal filtered or filtered through diamonds or black marble. I’m more interested in the fact that it’s just made with quality products. And that it has a nice, clean taste and that I don’t taste a lot of the bad ethyl alcohol that sometimes ends up in poor quality vodka.
What’s one thing you should never mix with vodka?
I think vodka usually needs to stand on its own. I also wouldn’t mix other base spirits with vodka. Because at that point all you're doing is watering down [the other spirit] or losing the flavor of the vodka.
Is Vodka a genuine spirit?
There are a lot of mixologists who turn away from vodka because they don’t feel that it is one of the genuine spirits, because it has been changed so much over the years and was not available stateside during the pre-prohibition era.
What’s one thing you should always mix with vodka?
I think fresh juices are a fantastic complement. Personally what I really like, if I was to drink vodka, I love a good a celery-based gimlet. There is something about a nice, clean, vodka with celery and lime and a maybe little bit of cumin. I feel like it brings out some of the natural essence of the vodka, having a little bit of vegetal quality. A good vodka can really be well complemented and actually accentuated by the right herb, like basil.
Check out Frankie’s bio and learn more about Snake Oil Cocktail Co. on their website. We will be partnering with Snake Oil Cocktail Co. at the Peers Network Masquerade in La Jolla Saturday October 29.
Like our Trust Me Vodka Facebook page and get a $25 off promo code for tickets!