“Is it too early to drink?” My sister Stephanie and I were waiting for the doors to open, and I looked up to see her nervous, skeptical face as she glanced at the time. A cocktail-making class at 10am felt unreal for the two of us. “Well, there’s only one way to find out!,” I replied. The Aspen Art Museum was packed on that Saturday morning, with priority guests given first choice at seating because they were shut out of the previous day’s completely full program. We were led up the steps to the top floor and got settled into our seats. Introduced by Food & Wine’s Senior Editorial Director Sean P. Flynn, award-winning bartender Alba Huerta took the stage and we dove right into the lesson.
As the crowd gazed at the expansive line of tools and ingredients set across each table for two, Huerta gave us a rapid-fire rundown of what we had before us. She pointed out the herbs and garnishes, including lemon, sage, mint, and cucumber, then she defined shakers, muddlers, jiggers, and juicers, and explained their basic functions. She went left to right as she identified the liquids that glistened in their glass bottles, including Bombay Sapphire Gin, Angel’s Envy Bourbon, rosemary-infused tequila, simple syrup, lemon juice, lemon cordial, and a non-alcoholic base substitute for those who wished to make non-alcoholic versions of the drinks.
Huerta, who has been bartending since 1998, stated that while every establishment loves the classics, utilizing herbs is an effective way to elevate a drink. She said that herbs can be incorporated into a drink via several methods. On this day, we would be making three cocktails, the Eastside, which muddled the herbs then removed them, Herb Garden Julep, which activated the herbs as the drink warmed, and Rosemary Margarita, which contained 24-hour rosemary-infused tequila.
Huerta walked everyone through making a single serving of each drink twice, first as a thorough step-by-step demonstration, then a second, speedier time, to flex some bartending skills and make an additional drink for the other half of each pair. The crowd was lively, getting up to shake the shakers and grab a photo or video to capture the action. The room filled with the rumble of chairs sliding out and shakers rattling in unison. Some groups had competitions on speed, others on flavor. Parties laughed as they played around with the herb, citrus, alcohol ratios. Understandably, as the hour progressed, the crowd became more boisterous. Huerta was sure to demonstrate proper form in shaking, imploring people to take care of their bodies, especially their arms and backs. As the participants heeded her advice to varying degrees, it was clear that hands-on-learning was a refreshing change for a seminar. I looked over at my sister, who was liberally pouring excess tequila into the shaker and laughing at her own lack of subtlety.
I was able to ask Huerta a bit about her creative approach to cocktail-making. When speaking on incorporating seasonality into the creative process, Huerta said “Cherries are huge (in the summer). I’m a huge fan. We do something called a Cherry Valance, which we do yearly. If you’re unfamiliar with valance, we basically create a fresh cherry liquor. The best time to get cherries is the summer, because that’s when they’re growing, when it gets warmer. In Houston, it might be late spring for us. So we really look forward to cherry season.”
Huerta elaborated that there is benefit to creating cocktails that can stay on the menu year-round, regardless of season. She said, “When we’re talking about herbs and we’re talking about a Mint Julep, for example, you can get mint year round. With the staple drinks we’re making, we’re looking for the element of infusion so that we can always add a little bit more rosemary or mint if we felt like it didn’t have enough. The herbs might be different throughout the year (depending on the season), but we can still get them.”
Huerta also gave some insight into the trial and error nature of flavor-building. She explained, “Maybe 12-13 years ago, I tried to infuse vodka and coffee, and it was very potent very fast." Huerta gave sage advice to those eager to experiment with infusions and flavored liquors, stating, “Knowing your raw material and knowing how it’s going to react is super important. With coffee, it didn’t need to sit longer than like an hour. With teas, like hibiscus, [infusion] is also super fast, like 20-30 minutes.” Huerta continued, “You can go in and taste [infusions] once an hour! And then maybe you’re like ‘hour three was when I liked it the best, even though we infused it to hour four.”
Cocktail-making is a time-honored craft that allows for endless possibilities to create, subvert, innovate, and reinvent. It is storytelling at its finest. Cocktail-making can also be a bit of a social experiment, with each sip of a libation eliciting something new from the participants as they laugh, joke, and create memories. It’s a science, but there’s a warmth to it, a joy, a refreshing reassurance that the drink placed in front of someone was made with care, with love, and a regard for true hospitality. After this seminar, it was no surprise to the crowd that Alba Huerta was fresh off of a win last week, the James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program for Julep, in Houston, Texas. Huerta encouraged the crowd to not be intimidated by creative exploration, stating, “If using an ingredient for the first time, remember that it’s a learning experience. It’s really a space for you to assess which infusions you’re going to like and enjoy the most.” Alba’s cocktail recipe book, Julep:Southern Cocktails Refashioned is now available. Grab a copy and shake things up!