What’s the difference between a bartender and a mixologist? A bartender is a pop-topper; a drink-recipe-follower; the guy or gal who smiles and shoots the… breeze as (s)he shaves the head off your draught beer, someone who measures their professional worth in terms of how well they serve up old standards like the margarita or the Bloody Mary…
A mixologist, though, is something else entirely. A mixologist is one part mad scientist and one part artiste; a concoctor of potions and a Doctor of Drink; a chef and a painter and a lab chemist and a sorcerer all rolled into one potent package…
Okay, so maybe that’s laying it on a little thick. Except that’s it’s all true, mostly, in the case of Preservation Pub/Scruffy City Hall/Uncorked Master Mixologist “Aloha” Erica Casey, the lovely raven-haired Anglo-Japanese-Hawaiian lass who also serves as bar manager at Uncorked.
“I’d like our all venues to be recognized as among the places to go to get a drink in Knoxville,” says Casey, who has accumulated far more drink savvy than her 20-something years would seem to rightly permit. “That’s what we’re striving for.”
As quick with her broad smile as she is with a drink pour, Casey paid her rent through college working her way up the bartending food chain. Now she says, “I’m done with school. I was going to earn a doctorate, but I decided that I like what I’m doing so much, I’m going to stick with this. And there’s so much to learn about making cocktails.”
Says Casey of her craft: “Mixology is a science. And it’s not something you can learn in school; it’s an experience trade.”
She says her own expertise accumulated over time, through working innumerable late-night shifts; trial and error; and now, heavy reading and other extra-curricular studies. “I was a philosophy major, but I do almost as much homework now as I did in school,” Casey laughs.
“I try to stay on top of what’s popular, the current trends. For instance, whatever is popular in Europe now will usually be popular here in about a year.”
But no amount of reading can substitute for hands-on experience, and Casey has plenty of that, too—probably more than she’d like certain elder family members to know about. “You have to acquire a palate for things,” she says. “In my first year of bartending, there’s no way I could have distinguished between rye whiskey and regular whiskey, or crappy vodka and good vodka. They were all the same to me.”
So what does Casey see on the horizon of mixology? Lots of gin, for one, and also Japanese whiskey. “Both of those are popular in Europe; Japanese whiskey has made it now to the West Coast,” she says. “The way bourbon is popular here, that’s the way gin is in Europe.”
Also trending are blue cocktails—that’s right, blue, as in “a primary color that isn’t red or yellow”. “Because it’s not just about what tastes good,” Casey says. “It’s also about what looks good, and what smells good.”
Casey plans to gradually introduce more of her own creative cocktailery into regular service at the aforementioned West family venues. She already creates various custom drink menus for special events at each.
But even for a talented mixologist, Casey says culinary cocktail process involves plenty of missteps. “There’s lots of experimenting,” she says. “I had in mind a special for Valentine’s Day, a ‘sweetheart martini,’ with grapefruit and pomegranate. But when I tried it, it was terrible, just way too tart. That’s why we taste before we serve.”
You can taste some of Casey’s more successful ventures, though, at Scruffy City Hall, where several of her infusions—a pear-honeycomb tequila, carefully aged for the better part of a year; or a pecan-swirl bourbon—are currently part of the drink menu.
Casey tells one of the secrets for making a good infusion: “You want to use a basic brand of liquor, because a really good liquor already has its own distinct flavor. So you want something as basic as possible, yet not something shitty.”
And maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll see her autumnal take on the classic Old Fashioned again next year, a mixture that includes muddled apples, Cardamom, sassafrass bitters and apple bitters in Bulleit bourbon.
So where does it come from, this weird instinct to #$% up a perfectly good snort of booze? Casey explains it in terms of a fierce personal ambition. “I’m very competitive,” she says. “There was a natural progression once I got into bartending, and once I got in, I just kept wanting everything I did to be better and better.
“Really, I don’t know where my ideas come from. I just do it. If it turns out good, I keep it. If it’s bad, I forget I ever tried it.”