The Indy caught up with New York cocktail guru Karin Stanley by phone at the annual "Tales of the Cocktail" conference in Louisiana. Stanley is designing the drink menu at Ashley Christensen's Fox Liquor Bar in downtown Raleigh and will reside half-time in the Triangle through Fox's first season.
Independent Weekly: Have you had a good time in New Orleans? What's a drinks conference like?
Karin Stanley: It's the biggest thing to happen in the spirits world all year. I've been doing competitions. There are lots of tasting rooms, tasting dinners. It's madness.
Do you spit, like with wine?
Yes! Everything starts around 9 in the morning, so you if you don't act judiciously in the beginning you aren't going to make it till the evening.
Any particular buzz on the spirits front?
I tried the new Lillet yesterday. They're changing their formula. It's a bit more of an herbal profile. There's something called Cocchi Americano that's supposed to be the original recipe that Lillet used to use. Lillet probably took a big hit from that.
In photos from Time Out New York, your bars [Dutch Kills in Queens and Little Branch in Manhattan] seem to have a great vintage style. What era do you most identify with?
Dutch Kills [channels] an 1890s-style saloon, and Little Branch harkens back to the speakeasy, pre-Prohibition era. That was the peak of our industry for sure. Bar-wise, we do what we do because drinks used to be made well pre-Prohibition: before sour mix, before the soda gun, when ice cubes were big and clear, juice was fresh, and bartending was a career. People ordered cocktails because they liked them; there wasn't vodka-Red Bull to get you drunk and wake you up.
My friends who live in Manhattan tell me that boutique bitters are super-hot there. That's trickled down to the Triangle a little. Thoughts?
The world of bitters has really exploded recently. Bitter liquors, amaros, tinctures, all these little craft companies. [Earlier this week] I was making a drink with chili chocolate spiced bitters. Amaro, Campari, Aperol, Cynar: The Italian bitters are my favorites. It's a real palate widener. Eventually you get around to appreciating all the tastes, from bitter to sweet to sour to rich to creamy. I like that idea, of taking people down a road of bitter liquors that they would never think that they would like.
What's new behind the bar, technique-wise?
One of my plans for Fox is to put cocktails in kegs, to carbonate [and] premix large batches of cocktails and have things on tap, like Dark and Stormys or Americanos, sort of [an alcoholic] soda fountain. It makes a large difference to have something entirely carbonated rather than putting soda to it, particularly if the recipe doesn't allow enough room [for soda] to make it bubbly and alive.
What do you want to teach your clients?
Be open to being comfortable. If we don't have a Jack Daniels and Diet Coke, maybe you'll allow us to make you something that's just as pleasing.
What will you do if someone orders a Cosmo?
We [simply] won't be equipped to make it, it's not because we don't want to. From the fresh juice angle, cranberry juice cocktail doesn't fit in there.
One of the things that's very important to Ashley and to me is local sustainability. We want to use fruits in season. There's a whole field-to-glass movement that's really cool: preserving fruits, making cordials, making punch that can sit on a shelf for six months using fruit that was ripe six months ago. Ashley is definitely the right person to work with to make that happen.
What price point will you hit at Fox?
The price point for all cocktails will be $10. We're not looking to make the regular ... 1,000 percent markup.
Will we see you behind the bar at Fox?
Have you started hiring?
I'm working on menus and glassware and liquor. I can't train a bar staff until I have the equipment back there. One of the things I really like about hiring staff is that people without experience in the world are so open to learning. It seems really daunting at first, but then you see the moment that they just they get it.
Have you finalized the drink menu?
The way we'll break the menu down will be Classic cocktails and Contemporary cocktails. ... Hopefully the best [classic] you've ever had, even if you've had a million Old Fashioneds. And then some contemporary cocktails—some from me, some from my peers in New York. I've got a few ideas on drinks I'd like to steal from other bars.
I hear Ashley's planning a cold fried chicken and bourbon pairing.
That's news to me and very exciting!
What's something unexpected we'll taste at Fox?
One of the things I'm definitely going to do and see how it flies is fat-washing some whiskey, some bacon-flavored bourbon, make a little Bacon Old Fashioned.
Excuse me, did you say "fat-washing"??
Yeah! Fat-washing is a technique where you can take any fatty substance—butter, lard, bacon grease—and infuse it very easily into any liquor. You add the fat hot ... shake it up, mix it, freeze it in an open container and skim the fat off the top. Give it a run through a chinois [strainer] so it's nice and clean. You get a bourbon with a delicious bacon essence.
Every single Christmas Eve, my in-laws insist on making hot buttered rum, and it's so revolting.
Well, it would be great if they knew what they were doing! They just don't know what they're doing.
[laughs] Well, come winter I'll make you a really good hot buttered rum.
What do you drink for pleasure?
A Negroni. It's refreshing, it's light, and the alcohol content isn't too crazy. Plus it's hard to screw it up. You can have a bad Negroni in a dive bar and it's still a good Negroni.