01.25.10 by Stacy
Conservative Cocktailing? Not in Charleston.
Low-country fresh ingredients meet a crafty mixologist and his bag of tricks. Let’s just say, no one is Charlotte is drinking sweet tea if Michael Ward has anything to do with it.
FIG mixologist Michael Ward’s nod to traditional is more like a brush off — the only thing classic about his cocktails are the names. From there, it’s anything goes. He creates his own recipes, plus riffs on old-school stand-bys made from spirits infused with whatever’s growing in the low country. His philosophy on perfecting each sip: Keep the ingredients simple, fresh and in perfect balance. From his mouth to our shakers.
your drinks have been called “crafty” …
Michael Ward: Probably because the bar, at times, can look like a science lab! We also put a lot of care and commitment into each cocktail we make at FIG. Regardless of the cocktail, we strive to be creative and crafty with each drink.
what are some new or unusual mixing techniques in your bag of tricks?
I would have to say using different ingredients and tools for our cocktails. For example, on any given night, you can see one of the bartenders using a bruleé torch, fresh egg whites, nutmeg shavings, or flaming an orange peel over a drink.
what inspires you to create new concoctions?
Honestly, going to different places and trying cocktails. Whether it be New York or Charleston, inspiration can be found anywhere. I also like looking through cocktail magazines. Probably the biggest inspiration lately has been Brooks Reitz, who is a well-known mixologist from Louisville. He and I have become good friends and he brings a wealth of cocktail knowledge to the relationship.
how are you using seasonal fresh produce to create cutting-edge cocktails?
Several items we use in drinks are local and fresh. We use all kinds of seasonal berries. Locals love when we get blackberries in — they make killer mojitos. It’s a great variant on a classic drink. We take fruit, like pears, peaches, cherries, and infuse brandy for several different cocktails. We also use cucumbers, and now we’re working on a few savory cocktails that feature seasonal vegetables.
when someone asks you to riff a cocktail on the fly, what’s your creative process?
I always ask the customer what they are in the mood for — sweet or savory, fruity or not-so-fruity, etc. The base ingredients begin the cocktail and then I work on balancing the drink. To me, balance is the most important part of creating a cocktail. I see too many bartenders just throw things together without being attentive to what they’re doing when making a drink. I try to make the extra effort to make a good cocktail great.
given your geographic location, what ingredients inspire you most?
There are so many options locally with regards to ingredients. I would have to say the spring and summer are obviously wonderful times of the year in Charleston, because we have access to so many delicious fresh fruits and vegetables. We have a great relationship with local farmers and have access to everything from heirloom tomatoes, figs and blackberries to cucumbers and peaches. Just like our food, we strive to make the FIG cocktail menu seasonal and local while paying homage to the classics.
what’s a good trick that will help home mixologists up their game and impress guests?
If you want to impress your friends with your cocktails, read everything you can about making cocktails, research drinks online, and then practice at home and remember that balance is the key to a great cocktail. If a cocktail has three ingredients, you should be able to taste all three without one overwhelming the other. Making a great cocktail is very similar to cooking a great meal — start with the basic ingredients and work on balancing the drink, and remember to taste as you go!
everyone’s using infusions and syrups — we suspect that yours are the real deal given your location and access to amazing ingredients. can you let us in a secret to mastering these and perhaps one that’s your signature.
Right now I’ve house-made infused brandy for the fall/winter season, which I use along with fresh peaches, pears and cherries to put a twist on a classic cocktail, the Brandy Alexander.
Making the infused brandy is fairly simple. I use the fresh fruit, brown sugar, and brandy and cook it down slowly until the sugar dissolves. Place a bouquet of aromatics (wintery things like vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks, cloves and star anise work well) inside a cheesecloth, then drop into a container with the brandy reduction. Leave the bouquet in for 2 to 4 weeks, and taste and stir occasionally until it’s ready to drink.
Our Brandy Alexander consists of 2 parts infused brandy, 1 part dark Creme de Cacao, 1 scoop of our house-made vanilla ice cream and grated nutmeg. Serve.