Garden to Glass Cocktails

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Cambridge Center for Adult Education's picture

An Interview with Meaghan Sinclair of Booze Époque

Meaghan Sinclair of Booze Epoque at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education

By Paul Sayed

Meaghan Sinclair, co-founder of the travelling cocktail duo Booze Époque, has received many accolades from publication such as Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, and Boston.com. With Booze Époque, she has garnered a reputation of creating inventive cocktails with fresh local ingredients. Outside of Booze Époque, Meaghan has been active in the advancement of cocktail culture in the Cambridge and Boston area.  Currently Meaghan serves as the the vice president of the Boston chapter of the U.S. Bartender's Guild, a organization committed to education and the promotion of quality cocktails. Additionally, Meaghan and Harmony work for the international gin company Bombay Sapphire. As an active instructor, Meaghan has taught many original classes with Booze Époque ranging from Tequila & Mezcal to Cocktail & Literature. This August, Meaghan will teach a class called "Garden to Glass Cocktails." As a fellow bartender, meeting Meaghan and talking to her about her class at CCAE and cocktails was a pleasure and an honor. The following is a transcription of our conversation, edited for grammar and length.

You have a class coming up called Garden to Glass Cocktails. What should students expect from that class?

A part of our ethos at Booze Époque is to make fresh cocktails.  For the class at CCAE, we are going to the farmer’s market in Harvard Square. I’ll have the students grab some raspberries, cucumbers, peppers, or even corn. Then we’ll bring it back to CCAE and make drinks.

So, the students are the ones picking the ingredients? Corn seems to be an unusual ingredient for cocktails. If a student picks corn are you prepared to turn that into a drink?

Yes, I want them to be in creative control!

I haven’t seen many cocktails that use corn but I hope that somebody will pick it. I know why corn is an unusual ingredient; it can be a pain to use. You can’t shake it and you have to muddle a lot of it to get some juice. But corn cocktails can be delicious. I made one with my friend that, I think has the best name ever – “Hard Pour Corn.” That is genius! This drink used corn and other local New England ingredients like maple syrup and a local whiskey.

If a student picks an unusual ingredient we can find a way to create a cocktail. I would love to see what students will come up with. I wanted to do this class in August because it is one of the best months for produce in New England. Tomatoes will be ready, the berries will still be in season, there will be melons and apples, and we’ll start to get some stone fruit. It’s a perfect time of year.

Which spirits will you provide for your students to use?

I’ll bring a good selection of spirits to class. I’ll have the basics such as bourbon, vodka, tequila, gin, and rum. I’ll probably also have something like pisco or cachaça, maybe some mezcal – something a little bit different. I’ll also have a few modifiers such as Aperol, Campari, or Fernet.  I think that will give students a nice selection to work with. I’m going to encourage my students to share ingredients so that if someone wants to combine cucumber with some hot pepper, I would love that.

What is your favorite spirit to work with?

If I have to pick one spirit, I’d pick tequila. I love tequila. I think it’s delicious, it has so much character, and there are so many variations.  I think it’s really more versatile than just the margarita. There is so much you can do with it. I like that it often has some salinity to it. I know that tequila is a polarizing spirit because some people have had some bad experiences with it but, I love it. It can be a powerful flavor.

Do you have a favorite tequila cocktail?

My favorite cocktail is super simple. There is a gentleman named Julio Bermejo who owns a place called Tommy’s in San Francisco – it’s a tequila bar.  His standard recipe margarita is 2 parts tequila, 1 part agave syrup (1 part agave nectar and 1 part water), and 1 part freshly squeezed lime juice. It’s just three ingredients, but I think it’s one of the best margaritas that you can make. I think it showcases all of those really interesting flavors. It’s probably my favorite drink, honestly.

Do you have any combinations that you’ve tried, that for some reason, do not work regardless of how many times you tried to adjust the recipe?

I really tried one time to make a matcha green tea, sake, plum, and cherry cocktail. It sounds good right? But, it wasn’t. It was terrible, it was bad, it was disgusting, and probably the worst. I tried to do it so many times and I just couldn’t nail it. The concept was great but for some reason the execution wasn’t right. It just didn’t come together.  It might be the worst drink I’ve ever made and it tasted like fish. So terrible! I’ve made some other stinkers along the way with Booze Époque but we don’t roll those out to our customers. We only roll out cocktails that we feel are going to be great.

I will say though, of all the classes that I’ve every taught, I have never had a student make an undrinkable cocktail. I’ve only had a couple of students that made drinks that needed some tweaks but nothing terrible. Some of them have made really incredible drinks. I’m always impressed.  It’s inspiring to me!

What do you do if a student is apprehensive about creating drinks or too afraid that they might make a bad drink?

Unlike baking where if you screw up you won’t know until two hours later after it comes out of the oven, a drink is ephemeral. If I screwed up a drink, I can easily dump it down the sink and start over. One thing that I try to impart to my students is to not be afraid.

There are plenty of drinks that I have made that suck. I just don’t roll those out to people.  I start over. Like anything else, it’s all about practice. I want my students to feel free to be creative because I think that’s important. There is an art to making cocktails.

I saw on the Booze Époque website that you and your business partner Harmony Dawn have a nice menu of cocktails.  Your customers also have the option of requesting new drinks for their events. What is the process like when you create custom cocktails?

The process is really different with every client that we come across. But, ultimately it comes down to a client saying, “I have a theme that I’d like to portray at my party” or “these are the flavors or spirits that I like.”  Based on those categories, we’ll put things together.

Recently we did a wedding where the bride said she loves gin, wants something refreshing, and loves floral flavors. Something like that will guide us in the right direction. So, what we ended up doing for her was a gin and tonic but with a twist of adding fresh lemon juice, lavender bitters, and crème de violette.  Essentially it was a gin and tonic lemonade with flowers in it and we garnished it with more lavender.  The drink was simple but it was really what she was looking for. We listen to what our clients want and then go with that to create the best experience possible.

What would you say are some good traits for a bartender?

As a bartender you are probably going to hear the same requests, questions, or problem over and over again. Having a good attitude about it and acting as if it was the first time you’ve heard the question is important. Sometimes bartenders can get frustrated with the millionth time they hear “is there sugar in this?” You need to accept that this is the customer’s first experience. Don’t worry about the hundred other people who asked you the same question. Keeping everything as fresh as you can and looking at every situation and every interaction as something unique is important and will not make it a frustrating experience for you or the customer.

I think the interpersonal skills are more important than the technical skills. If you give your customer warmth, attention, and make them a great drink, they will have a beautiful experience. If you are a bartender who is working with your head down and scowling at your customers, you can make them a good drink but it sours the experience.

It’s called the hospitality industry for a reason.  The ethos at Booze Époque is to create a full experience where the client is getting great service from Harmony and me. They are also getting wonderful drinks and having a wonderful time. If you are too cool for school, then don’t do it. This isn’t about your ego. Of course you shouldn’t take crap from people who are being rude to you. But, I think it’s important to try and create a beautiful experience.

During my Basic Mixology class at CCAE, I teach my students how to order martinis such as dry vs. wet. I think sometimes my students, especially if they are new to cocktails, are not sure what kinds of requests are acceptable to make at a bar.  Do you have some advice on making requests at a bar?

At this point, a lot of bars are craft-oriented so bartenders are certainly willing to listen to requests. If you order a drink and make the request that you want half as much sugar for example, most bartenders will be amenable to your request. Don’t be nervous to ask questions, bartenders talk to people all day long and their job is to create a drink that makes you happy.

If a bartender can’t make your request, they’ll tell you. There may be instances where you order a drink from the menu and you ask for half of this or half of that.  Sometimes that might not make sense.  The bartender may let you know they can make the changes but the drink might not taste good. You need to be willing to accept that. Be mindful and thoughtful that someone put some time and effort to create a balanced drink recipe and a beautiful sensory experience. Your request might throw that drink off balance.

In no particular order, what are the top five bars you would recommend in the Cambridge/Boston area for cocktails?

Go to Alden and Harlow which is just around the corner from CCAE. They have excellent food and excellent cocktails. Their drinks are always on point. I’ve had some delicious tiki drinks there. They’ve done some cocktails on tap which is always exciting when places can go into that realm.

One place that’s close to my heart is the Independent in Union Square, Somerville. That’s my Cheers. It’s like my home bar. They always have a solid cocktail menu. I think they do a beautiful job.

I was just at Estragon in the South End and it was so good. It’s a little tapas place. They have an amazing bartender there named Sahil Mehta and he is a genius. He has an incredible palette and mixes all these interesting spices, flavors, juices, and spirits to create top-notch, amazing drinks.

Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square has a great cocktail menu that never disappoints. Recently they had a wheat grass cocktail there which was really interesting. The cocktail was made with wheat grass and Mad River Rum and they were able to balance those flavors wonderfully.

One of my favorites just closed but I want to give them a shout out in memoriam; River Gods in Cambridge. I loved the vibe there.  It was cool, spooky, and had a goth-vibe. I would go there and drink French Martinis, which is totally not my normal drink but I loved going there and ordering that. There was something very nice about that whole experience. So, RIP River Gods.

Cocktail photos courtesy of Meaghan Sinclair
All other photos by Paul Sayed