NCB's Bartender of the Year Jackson Cannon Speaks!March 8, 2011 By: Jack Robertiello
Jackson Cannon's work is in the spotlight this week, as recipient of the Nightclub and Bar 2011 Bartender of the Year Award. As the man in charge of both award-winning Eastern Standard -- named NCB 2011 Hotel Bar of the Year -- and the newly-opened Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston, Cannon's juggling two very different and changeable menus. What does it involve? Let's see...
Mix: For a while now, you've rotated your drink menu at Eastern Standard with a mind toward seasonal culinary changes, and now you're doing it for two operations - how different are the two menus?
Jackson Cannon: The Eastern Standard menu didn't just happen over night – it took time and lots of collaboration to build it into a 60-drink mini-opus including classics, house-made infusions, eggs, mocktails and, of course, seasonal selections like hot drinks, coolers, tiki and other specialties. When ES opened and the menu was smaller, I needed to make a great effort to sell a true cocktail and move people into wine or beer with food and straight spirit after dinner. At this point, we’ve found the parity we always hoped. Back in 2007, crazed cocktailians were insistent that we do pairings with food and I reluctantly got in to it. Do you remember that bumper sticker from the '70s that read, "I believe in UFOs, the air force doesn't exist"? I was like, "I believe in wine with food, cocktail pairing doesn't exist!" But then I realized you could do a lot with vermouth, Champagne and bitters to carry the aperitif through into the meal with some great results.
As we opened ICOB, I wanted a small eight-drink menu to begin, with a variety of styles of presentation but a "lopsided" affection for the aperitif. ICOB’s ethos of “sea to table” had to be echoed in the beverage program. Although it was late fall, I preserved what I could of pear, apple, juniper, autumn olive and stevia for cocktails that translate the provenance of the ingredients right through to the imbiber. To stay true to aperitif in the cocktail, I used a lot of vermouth, sparkling and still wine; this way we could naturally pivot from that palate-opening sipper into a distinctive wine by the main course. I have since expanded the ICOB menu to 16 drinks in four sections - winter aperitif, sensational citrus, classics and home spun.
To really answer the question - both menus need balance, but the influence of the differing elements of the restaurants leads to them being distinctive. ES is rooted in the classics, and a very broad set of offerings and, when served with food, designed to hold up to bigger flavors and richer textures. ICOB’s mixology is dedicated to creating that "opening" moment for palate and other senses, with an emphasis on things like organic and farmer-distilled, and a "coastal" state of mind.
Mix: What changes during the seasons?
Cannon: Fall is the most challenging time to express seasonality, for me personally. Late summer items that are fabulous (tomatoes, corn, etc.) have a limited impact on beverage. While one might have preserved end of harvest berries, guests are thinking of apples, quince and pears before they really come in. Winter is great with the multitude of citrus, blood orange, oro blanco, grapefruit, cara cara, persimmon, etc. Spring has fresh herbs and berries, while summer's bounty is a muddler’s dream from watermelon to all kinds of berries and a full supply of herbs through the season.
Mix: Does the presumably lighter fare at ICOB have an impact on what you'll incorporate there?
Cannon: Definitely. Beyond the raw bar, the main menu emphasizes the freshest fish prepared with careful technique. Chef Sewall often uses a delicate hand with the accompaniments so as not to overwhelm a dish; if I do find myself pairing with food I need to be very careful to complement and enhance.
Mix: How have you established the identity of ICOB, given that ES is so well known for its cocktail range?
Cannon: Identity goes beyond just the flavors and provenance of the spirits. It’s in the naming of these cocktails that another level of the narrative is introduced and reinforced. For example, the Whiskey Smash has been one of our number one drinks at ES, and I knew we would need something like it to offer at ICOB. Choosing a blend of rums and lime (instead of lemon) we arrived at a drink that fit the restaurant in many ways, and named it the Snug Harbor Smash for the affectionate term of part of the inner harbor at the ICO farm in Duxbury. Three or four of the drinks have names that relate to the farm. With the aperitifs, I've been using one word names to set a more delicate vibe, for instance Avignon (quince, spiced gin, lemon and Champagne); Scarlet (fresh blood orange, Small's organic spirit and sparkling wine); and Adriatique (Amaro Montenegro, orange, Aperol).
Mix: We've all seen bacon and other cured meats as cocktail infusions or ingredients, but you've worked with the Bloody Caesar, one of the few seafood enhanced cocktails.
Cannon: You haven't had a Bloody Caesar until you have done it with raw clams!
Mix: Now that you're establishing the ICOB menu, are there certain things that make more sense for that operation that pushes you in another direction with ES?
Cannon: The ICOB menu has required even more kitchen time for the bar than the ES menu does, and the results have proven to be so worth it that I'm trying to find ways that the ES crew can adopt some of what we have put in place at ICOB, where the pace is a little more reasonable. ES, still very much the flagship of my world in a cocktail sense, enjoys the full-time attention of some serious veterans on my crew, most notably Kevin Martin, the assistant bar manager. A good example of how this works is that while everyone was talking the last few weeks about the coverage of barrel-aged cocktails, Kevin heard me express my lack of interest in the results and how much more interested I am in barrel aging rum blends and house-made vermouth, among other things. A few days later he had the barrels set up and was like, "Boss, what do you want to try first?" ES will always push the envelope that way and ICOB, if I nurture the staff and program correctly, will continue to refine and express the iterations of the cocktail that make the most sense in that climate.
Mix: In rotating so many drinks on and off the menus, have you found some that are too popular to remove, despite the seasonal influences?
Cannon: At ES the blueberry gin we make is something that our guests who drink it want on demand! Last year we were able for the first time to correctly calculate how much we would need to get through the winter, and since we are blessed with a decent amount of storage, we were able to keep a popular cocktail through the winter that would otherwise seem highly seasonal.
Mix: What's your favorite drink (or, befitting the theme, two drinks) right now?
Cannon: The only drink on both menus is the Jack Rose, that should tell you something. At ES, Kevin has done a drink called the Danube - which flips the rye, vermouth, bitters equation on its head by doing 2 ounces vermouth with 1/2 ounce rye and 1/2 ounce Zwack. It was fun to coach him a little on this breakthrough. At ICOB, Bob McCoy, my head tender there, accomplished a bit of sleight of hand with his drink, the Snap Point, which has a 50/50 of Ransom Old Tom and Bonal Quina with orange bitters and lemon oil and is fully flavored but very lightly textured. Also, as part of my response to the rye shortage, when I have a tipple of straight spirits, I'm shooting Smith and Cross Navy Strength rum!