The spring cocktail menu at Olana, a recently opened restaurant on Madison Avenue in Manhattan with an upscale American menu with Italian influences, provides guests with a choice of nine new libations, many of which feature fresh twists on classics – such as the Hudson Sidecar and the Vanilla Lemon Drop. These new drinks are the creations of Tom Lavin, mixologist at Olana. He uses rich ingredients and liquors in his cocktails, which he says matches the elegant and yet rustic ambiance of Olana. The place is named after American painter Frederic Edwin Church and decorated in the Hudson River School style. Lavin’s cocktails contain fresh ingredients, and he’s currently concocting fruit-infused brandies for his cocktails, such as apricot and pear, which sit in large glass vessels behind the bar. Lavin also works closely with Southern Wine & Spirits, which supplies many of the spirits on his eclectic menu.
Lavin started his career as a bartender in 1992 at the bustling Edward Moran’s in Manhattan’s financial district, but says it was at the fine dining establishment Amanda’s in Hoboken, NJ, where he become creative with cocktails. Later, he spiced things up southwestern-style at the Shoreline Grill in Austin, TX, where he fashioned drinks such as the Gin Ginger Martini, using habanero pepper syrup. But through it all, Lavin maintains that the classic cocktails have the most staying power and are still the best. But he loves to give his classics a modern twist. His Corpse Riviver No. 2, for example, changes up the New Orleans classic with the recently launched Lucid Absinthe, instead of herbsaint; along with Plymouth Gin, Cointreau, the French aperitif wine Blond Lillet, and fresh lemon. His greatest influences have been mixologists Dale DeGroff and Audrey Saunders.
The Beverage Information Group (BIG): Please give me a brief synopsis of your background as a mixologist – where you’ve worked and how you honed your craft. Also, were there any mixologists that inspired you along the way?
Tom Lavin: I started working full time in the restaurant business in 1992, after college, at Edward Moran's in the financial center in New York. That's where I met Bill Resk, one of the managing partners here at Olana. From Moran’s, I moved on to help Eugene Flinn open the expansion of Amanda’s Restaurant in Hoboken, NJ. It was there, in that fine dining atmosphere and with Eugene's help, that I started to become more creative with cocktails.
After that I moved to Austin, TX, where I spent a little over two years at the Shoreline Grill creating drinks with a southwestern heat, such the Gin Ginger Martini with habanero syrup. However, Flinn called on me again after he purchased and agreed to restore the old classic, Cafe Elysian in Hoboken. I am still there on Friday nights because I love the place, in addition to my work at Olana. I am a big follower of Dale DeGroff and Audrey Saunders, two pioneers in mixology.
BIG: How would you describe the new spring cocktail menu at Olana?
Lavin: Since the opening was delayed a bit, the winter drink menu became a little outdated since we've moved quickly into spring. Allen Katz of Southern Wine & Spirits came aboard to help with the new spring menu and he brought along some of Southern's product such as Absolut Vanilia and Lucid Absinthe. The Absolut Vanilia is used in our Brooklyn Railyard, which also has pear liqueur, fresh lime, and Peychaud’s bitters. Pear flavor is also used in my Hudson Sidecar, which combines infused pear brandy with Cointreau, fresh lemon, Pernod and egg white.
Another drink on our new menu, quite appropriate for spring and very on-trend, is the Strawberry Caipirinha, which shakes fresh strawberry with Agua Luca Cachaca and fresh lime. And our Baja Daisy is a mix of Sauza Hornitos Plata Tequila, fresh lime and oregat syrup. For something different, I did the Frizante Mojito, which adds Prosecco to the 7 year-aged Flor de Cana Rum, fresh mint and fresh lime.
BIG: Food and cocktail pairings are becoming increasingly popular at restaurants these days. Can you recommend a pairing of one of the cocktails with a menu item at Olana?
Lavin: When we did the cocktail menu we definitely wanted to compliment chef Al Dimeglio's menu. I wanted to use rich ingredients and dark liquors to match the feel of the restaurant: elegant and rustic at once. However, I don't think the trend of pairing cocktails with food will ever truly happen but matching each menu is still very important. Someone might enjoy an Apricot Cobbler -- made with homemade infused apricot brandy, Cointreau, fresh lemon juice and a dash of egg white -- before their meal and then see on the menu a Roasted Rabbit stuffed with almonds, apricots, and foie gras.
BIG: You have an interesting drink on your menu, called Corpse Riviver No. 2, which is prepared with Lucid Absinthe. What was your inspiration in creating this drink? Now that absinthe is back, after being banned for nearly 100 years – what do you think the demand for it will be – is it the next big thing in cocktails or will it’s popularity be short-lived?
Lavin: I believe in using the old classic recipes in mixology -- ones that have been around the longest are usually the best. You try and put a modern twist on them, as well. When Absinthe became legal last summer I wanted to do something with it at Olana. The Corpse Reviver No. 2 is a classic recipe from Arnaud's in New Orleans that I thought should be acknowledged again for its complexity. It used to be made with herbsaint but since Absinthe is now legal again, we've gone back to using that in the drink.
The resurgence of Absinthe has leveled off a bit since it was first released but I think the demand for it will be steady as people learn that it is real and is now back on the market and it is an incredibly complex and delicious experience -- and it is a great ingredient to use with cocktails.
BIG: Several of the drinks on your cocktail menu are prepared with infused spirits, for example, apricot-infused brandy. Please indicate what fruit infusions you’re currently working with. Also, there’s a trend today with infusions and fresh ingredients – What is the demand for then and are consumers generally willing to pay more for them?
Lavin: Making your own infusions like a pear brandy for Olana’s Hudson Sidecar is a great way to custom create a flavorful complex cocktail. I've noticed in the past few years that the liquor companies have caught onto this and are marketing their own "infusions" like Absolut Pears Vodka. There is definitely a demand for cocktails with fresh ingredients. My cocktails all use fresh lemon or lime, where it’s called for. They bring about a uniqueness to a cocktail that consumers are absolutely willing to pay more for. One fresh drink for spring is the Pomegranate Sour, made with pomegranate juice, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup and Absolut Citron.
BIG: What trends are you seeing today in mixology, and what are the most popular cocktails overall? There seems to be a vodka craze going on; is vodka the most asked for spirit?
Lavin: Vodka has been the craze for awhile now and I don't see it waning. The biggest trend going is the continuing growth of flavored vodkas which provide something different for the vast array of people's taste.
BIG: What is it that you enjoy most about bartending, and what is its greatest challenge?
Lavin: The best thing about being a bartender is all the different people you encounter in a typical evening...the most challenging thing as a bartender is exactly the same as the best. The only way to survive and become a great bartender is you must have patience. The best ones all do.