Chad Solomon and Christy Pope are two-thirds of the brain trust (along with barman extraordinaire Sasha Petraske) behind Cuffs & Buttons, the New York City-based craft-cocktail consultancy that mixes classic sensibility with technological advances to create drinks for demanding events. A few recent efforts caught our eye, so we queried the pair about what it takes to serve infused cocktails to 300 people:
Mix: What are the challenges to making customized cocktails with a high level of complexity for events, as you did recently for the introduction of a premium ice-cream bar?
Chad Solomon and Christy Pope: The challenges involved in making highly complex customized cocktails for events really aren’t that much different from doing simple three- to four-ingredient classic cocktails. When our company caters hand-crafted cocktails for events — whether classic, neo-classical or the more whimsical gonzo-classical we created for Magnum Ice Cream bars — it boils down to good old-fashioned organization, preparedness and planning. Seventy-five percent of the work is done in the planning and prep phase before the event: product and ingredient sourcing, event-space walk-throughs, appropriate man-power and getting everything from prep space to event space without forgetting anything. With Magnum, the actual ingredient prep started several days prior to the event because of the complexity and volume needed for the infusions and toasted-almond orgeat and essence blending. On the day of the event, it was really not very different than if we’d shown up to shake Daiquiris.
Mix: Is this what's needed to set a cocktail firm apart, now that so many bartenders are competing in this event space?
Solomon and Pope: At this point, organization, professionalism and good problem-solving skills are what set a firm apart… that and insurance and a liquor license. Most of the work is sourcing and prepping juices, syrups, spirits, wines, bar tools, labor, transportation, etc. while managing your costs. None of which is particularly difficult, but there are a lot of moving parts in catering hand-crafted cocktails so being organized with attention to details and not letting anything fall through the cracks is imperative. Also, in contrast to managing a craft-cocktail program in a bar, every event is different, and each comes with a new set of problems. Any decent bartender can make drinks for 20 people at an apartment party, but doing it for 300, 500, 1,000 people and some of the most demanding and high-profile clients is what separates the pros from the Joes. For the Magnum event, the launch party was for 300 during the Tribeca Film Festival and featured the premier of three short films directed by fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld. We brought a bar staff of 11 to execute the three specialty cocktails we created as well as full bar offerings. When we started Cuffs & Buttons five years ago, we wouldn’t have felt comfortable trying to make cocktails as complex for an event of this scale.
Mix: Tell me about lactart and how you use it.
Solomon and Pope: Lactart is a recently revived ingredient from the 19th century and gaining popularity behind the soda fountain in its own category of drink. Lactart is basically acid of milk, a solution that includes water, lactic acid and calcium lactate. It’s drier and milder when compared to lemon or lime juice. We procured it and acid phosphate from Darcy O’Neil (who is responsible for reviving and manufacturing both) after reading about them in his book, “Fix the Pumps.” Magnum wanted us to create three specialty cocktails that reflected indulgence and luxury. The recurring flavors across their variety of ice-cream bars are Belgian chocolate, almond and vanilla bean, all delicious flavors to play on but also coming with the potential to be overly sweet or cloying if not properly handled. We had the ideas for a chocolate soda and started to look at what other flavors would work, and mint was the obvious choice. Instead of going with the standard lemon or lime juice as the primary acid to balance the drink, we decided to go with lactart, as it has a subtler flavor in comparison, allowing the chocolate, mint, VSOP cognac and Scotch to really come through.
Mix: Two of the drinks employ rapid nitrogen infusion. How does that work; is it infused to order, or what?
Solomon and Pope: Actually, only the mint-chocolate lactart employs (nitrous oxide [N2O]) infusions with the cacao-nib-infused cognac/Scotch. For the Toasted Almond (Japanese) Cocktail, we slow-roasted almond slivers and then let them macerate in a Cambro for a couple of hours. The rapid infusion technique was developed by our buddy, Dave Arnold, the director of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute. The items needed are an iSi Whipper (we used the 0.5 liter), N2O cream chargers, spirits — in this case a 3-1 blend of Louis Royer VSOP and Highland Park 12 Year Old — and a porous infusing botanical, in this case cacao nibs. The technique works this way: Take any porous product — spice, herb, produce — and combine with a liquid, like spirit or oil, to be infused in a iSi Whipper. Charge the whipper with N2O, forcing the liquid and gas into the product to be infused; the actual time under pressure varies from one minute to several hours, depending on the product. Rapidly vent the N2O from the whipper. We don’t infuse to order; we do it in advance. In this case, we gently dry-roasted the cacao nibs over low heat to “wake up” the oils, then let the nib/cognac/Scotch mixture rest under pressure for two hours before venting, then went through a three-step straining process: first through a chinois, then through a cheesecloth and finally through a coffee filter.
75 g cacao nibs
500 ml blend of Louis Royer VSOP Cognac and Highland Park 12 Year Old Scotch (3 parts Cognac: 1 part Scotch)
In an oven, gently dry-roast cacao nibs for 10 minutes at 275EF. Remove from oven and let cool. Add cacao nibs and spirt blend to a 0.5 liter iSi Whipper. Seal whipper and charge with two 8 g N2O cream chargers. Let sit for two hours, then vent and strain. Store in a labeled bottle in refrigerator.
Mix: You incorporate what you call scented aromatics in a number of your drinks. How are these different from using standard aromatics and how do you employ them?
Solomon and Pope: We feel aroma is an incredibly important element to a cocktail, and we try to enhance or manipulate a cocktail’s aroma whenever possible. We employ essential oils in a number of different ways to this end, different in that we are building the aromas by blending them ourselves. With the Magnum event, and Karl Lagerfeld’s participation, we knew many New York fashionistas would attend, meaning we needed at least one sparkling cocktail. We decided to do an aromatic Prosecco drink by scenting with our chocolate/vanilla essence, using a pipette to add drops onto a sugar cube before placing it in the Champagne flute. Our friend Tony Conigliaro in London did something similar where he constructed an edible essence of the iconic Chanel No. 5 and created a scented No. 5 Champagne cocktail. Also, using an atomizer, we’ve scented in the following ways: the inside of glasses before a drink is strained into them, over the top of a cocktail, in a beverage coaster and in paper straws.
Mix: Do you get many requests for out-of-the-box cocktails for events, now that the level of what's offered is so much better than, say, five years ago?
Solomon and Pope: When we started in 2006, we were one of the first beverage-only catering outfits in New York with a focus on handcrafted cocktails. We’ve grown in a very thoughtful way, but the reality is that even five years on, the greater event world is just now getting a grip on what the crafty cocktail world is and what we are able to do for events. Overall, it really depends on the event and the client’s needs. Recently, we’ve been doing more out-of-the-box work, which keeps things interesting. For instance, at the recent Manhattan Cocktail Classic, we were tasked with creating a variation on the Negroni using Padma Lakshmi’s book, “Tangy, Tart, Hot and Sweet” as inspiration. We also just did an event commemorating the 125th anniversary of Coca-Cola where we were asked to create three “Coke-tails” that went beyond the norm. Each of these events presented the perfect platform to explore aromatic manipulation, alternative acidulents, rapid infusion, vacuum infusion and carbonation
Mix: What’s your favorite cocktail right now?
Solomon and Pope: We don’t have a favorite, we're equal opportunity. It depends on where and when.