Alex Ott: A Cocktail MagicianAugust 3, 2012 By: Steve Lewis
If Merlin was alive today he might manifest himself as Alex Ott. Alex is truly a magician when it comes to cocktails. He is a master alchemist, author, nutritionist, Mixologist of the Year, Best Mixologist in America, mountain climber, surfer and explorer. He played himself on HBO's Sex in the City. He may have been the first in Manhattan to use the muddle stick. He invented space travel beverages for NASA. He has pretty much done it all.
Photo By Madeline Wolf
Alex has worked and consulted with scientists, flavor houses such as Givaudan and more than fifty major spirits brands, including Svedka Vodka, Gallo Wines, and Möet Hennessy. He has a book coming out called DR. COCKTAIL 50 Spirited Infusions for the Mind and Body in which he "shares his knowledge of food science of botanicals, juices, herbs, and spices to awaken and stimulate the world to the effects and benefits of earth’s finest offerings." He has created over 300 cocktail menus worldwide and cocktails for high-end events like the Oscars. H ehas produced Tom Ford fragrances. He survived a plane crash in Thailand that killed over 100 people. He has a degree in Organic Chemistry and he's not hard to look at. I'd tell you more about it but I think he's better suited to.
Nightclub Confidential (NCC): You were on the tip of the creative cocktail surge - the mixology craze. What brought that on?
Alex Ott: The mixology craze started for me in 1999 when I moved to New York for good. I had been traveling prior and after returning from Thailand, where I created the cocktail menu for the famed SUSHI SAMBA and also started the trend of the ever so popular muddler, I saw that Manhattan had close to nothing to offer in the mixology scene. It was all about the Cosmo - due to Sex in the City - and in my opinion, a decent cocktail but mangled and mis-constructed by many.
My goal was to educate and indulge in real fruit, real juice, and exotic drinks at that time. I was later incorporating my phytochemicals into these libations to stimulate the body and the mind - i.e. naturally picking my customers up instead of having them consume unhealthy energy drinks and take anxiety and work stress from them by using natural sedatives such as chamomile or damiana, in short, using natural scents and flavors to stimulate neurotransmitters in our body to lead them into any direction they wished to be in!
Others quickly followed and before you knew it, everybody had a muddle stick to extract these essential oils out of fresh fruits and infused their cocktails. The only difference was, I had a biochemistry/microbiology degree and I knew what I was doing. Shortly after, I started consulting and built a client base that recognized the new trend/talent.
NCC: Tell me about your background and your mixology career.
Ott: I used to specialize in cocktails, for the past 10 years I became an independent consultant on homeopathic elixirs, fragrance development and reverse engineering, as well as creating edible fragrances, cocktails, and nutraceutical health beverages.
My previous flavor job was flavoring Svedka Vodka, now the biggest vodka company in the US as well as consulting for 65 spirits companies. I still host/provide drinks for four events that are cocktail related, the Academy Awards, the EMMYs, and two high profile charity ball galas, one for Charity: Water and the other is Petra Nemcova's Happy Hearts Fund.
I am currently working with NASA, ESA, and many more commercial space agencies on beverage projects for future and current space travel, and I am constantly traveling, educating, and extracting new substances for food science and health.
My latest work lies in all natural antimicrobials for cosmetics and food/beverage. Most clients that use my drinks services use me to provide premixed alcohol/non-alcohol elixirs and cocktails. The cocktails are mood drinks that can be custom designed and most importantly are developed to stimulate the output of neurotransmitters, in short, one upper, one anti-anxiety, and one refresher. The most important aspect to my premixes is the hangover prevention technology in the drinks. I have recently launched a nutraceutical health beverage, supplement and hangover prevention beverage called MERCY which is already a phenomenon in the beverage industry. I also conduct tastings, underground safaris, and seminars on a regular basis.
NCC: How did this experience evolve onto MERCY?
Ott: I was introduced to Dave Shor, founder of MERCY - through Lori Levin - who started VIRGIN with Richard Branson as his right hand. Levin is an excellent match maker and decided we should meet. Dave and I hit it off and we knew we had great synergy. He needed a professional who specialized in flavor and food science, and I loved being part of a startup, just like SVEDKA and the flavors I had designed for them seven years earlier.
I was skeptical at first, but after doing the research and after trying the older version, I was fully convinced that this product not only works, but created an entirely new category of nutraceutical health beverages. It was a very difficult process, taking six month. But after the new flavor (light crisp natural lemon with supporting flavor notes of lemongrass, jasmine, and ginger) development, we knew we did it and now are constantly improving and growing.
NCC: How is the brand being developed and who are your "out if the starting gate" clientele?
Ott: Right from the start, we started gaining a lot of interest from people who believed in the future of this new category. It wasn't a hangover or recovery drink, nor was it an energy drink! It was a prevention drink. Therefore, a brand new category and most importantly it is healthy.
Packed with a very careful daisy chain of amino acid compounds, enzymes, vitamins, anti-oxidants, chamomile extract and many other carefully chosen ingredients along with a great flavor, it is one of a kind. It can also be used as an everyday supplement to boost and protect your immune system. It alleviates the (asian) alcohol flush, and can be mixed into drinks as well.
NCC: Over the years the Mojito’s replaced the Cosmo, especially with women, and now it Whiskey over the Mojito. Where do you see the trends moving for men and women?
Ott: The taste of men vs. women has always been clearly separated and since the big classic cocktail resurgence, taste buds have changed, habits have taken turns, and the hangover has become bigger than ever. The reason for this lies mostly in (and now please don't get me wrong!) the way cocktails are being prepared. You see more and more experimental mixology bars evolve. Is that a good thing? Don't forget: mixology is the art of mixing cocktails, not the art of giving you a migraine or hives.
Most women used to drink fruity drinks, sweet libations such as Midori sours and cosmos - not all of them, but most. Men stuck to manly type cocktails such as Whiskey sours, bourbon, single malts, and Bacardi and coke. The past 10 years have shown a slight tilt in the balance. Because people are experimenting with new flavor infusions, classic spirits, etc., things are different.
Here is my point and observation: Most employ bartenders who like to experiment and try out new things, spices, herbs, all of them contain bioflavonoids, powerful antioxidants, and phytochemicals that in the smallest amounts create havoc in your body. Thyme, rosemary, spice such as peppers and enzymes that interact with prescription drugs and your body chemistry in many adverse ways. People underestimate the power of essential oils and many of the ingredients and chemicals that these libations hold. Making your own bitters, infusions takes a great knowledge of chemistry which, and I mean no harm by saying this, a lot of these converted bartenders don't have.
In my New York Times pieces from March, many people misunderstood me, partly because I was misquoted in the worst way, but most of all, because they didn't understand that my profession is not being a bartender or mixologist. I am a biochemist who specializes in hangover prevention, alcohol health, and homeopathic ingredients. I apply that knowledge into the drinks I create, and having created over 300 menus worldwide, I think I made my point.
NCC: The other day I ordered a drink at a fancy place. It took three minutes to make it with all the muddling and ingredients. It took me 30 seconds to decide to dump it in the trash. What are the most common mistakes of a mixologist?
Ott: When you walk into a restaurant, you expect the chef to be a professional, no? Wouldn't you want your bartender to be one as well? Most of the time, the staff behind the bar does not even know how to answer the simplest questions about spirits, their origin and application! When you encounter such a bartender stick to what YOU know.
This is a profession that deals with alcohol, so make sure your bartenders knows what they’re doing...and I say this with love for my former fellow bartenders; learn about ingredients before you tinker with them, and your customers will return and thank you for it.
In addition to this, there is always the over- saturated scene of new products that consists of artificially flavored high fructose corn syrups. Why not use ground ginger from your spice rack, that by the way still contains all the vitamins and natural compounds. Just use the fresh ingredients you already have in your kitchen.
It all comes back to one thing: if it tastes good and makes you feel good, if it's natural and not artificial, drinks, spirits, and their positive effect should be for everybody.
NCC: Can mixology and all its flair replace the boredom of bottle service? Is table mixology seen only as a revenue stream?
Ott: Don't even get me started on bottle service. I am a guy who enjoys going out as much as the next one, but with the ridiculous amount that is being charged for a bottle I see absolutely no reason for it other than making money.
On top of that you get a few plastic pitchers that are filled with artificially flavored corn syrup such as cranberry and tonic. Some places have bottles and real juice, but it's been a while since I've seen that. There are, however, a few places that started serving premixed libations. Makes sense, again, if you know what you are doing.
As a restaurant or bar owner, I would suggest hiring a pro and spending a bit more money on your drink menu to assure the creation of a cocktail culture around your establishment. After all, the drinks are what brings in the lions share, not the food!
NCC: Precise measurements seem to be increasingly important. Is technology providing answers or are traditional jiggers and such still relevant?
Ott: Jiggers are a great measuring tool. For those who perfected the free pour, even better. But with classic cocktails, jiggers are important, not only for educational purposes, but also to show the customer that you care and respect the recipe. For modern mixologists, first learn then serve.
One last thing I feel is necessary to mention: I am in no way against bartenders, I was one myself, in no way do I put myself on a pedestal. I have evolved and simply never strayed from my passion. I have invented new things that will change the way we consume alcohol. It is very important to go back and ask ourselves why spirits have been invented, what they were used for and still are used for , and how ingredients, flavor, and scent affect every one of us. It is essential to our life, health, habits and our relations to others. I can assure you, there are many ingredients out there that will blow your mind. Drink responsibly and respect your body. If you don't take time to live healthy now, you eventually have to find time to be sick!