An Interview with Michael Neff, The Cottonmouth Club, Houston, TX
Borders are blurring as spirits like Pisco, Cachaça, and Aquavit regularly land on drink menus while bartenders seek ingredients for perfect pairings. Through this culinary approach to fusing fresh ingredients with heritage and classic spirits that delight guests and media alike, bartenders are becoming celebrities in their own realm.
Inarguably, Michael Neff is one of the first bartenders focusing his cocktail ingredient search beyond the back bar. Known as the trendsetter bartender, entrepreneur, and spirits professional whose purpose in life is to make great bars and entice people to drink well in them, Neff’s colorful and creative cocktails complement the menu and serve as a great starter or nightcap. These are the hallmarks of his high volume bar programs.
Neff recently moved west to run programs in LA and Houston like the Cottonmouth Club. Back in New York City his breadth of experience stretches from founding partner of Ward III & The Rum House, bars famous for bespoke cocktails and finely curated spirits selections, to helming the revival of the iconic Holiday Cocktail lounge in the East Village. Far from remaining in a curated drinks-den role, Neff recently tackled a more vast, and public, project— cocktails at Madison Square Garden; making fresh, culinary balanced cocktails available to thousands at once.
We sat down with Michael Neff to discuss fresh ingredients’ role in today’s cocktail menus.
Why are bartenders reaching for fresh ingredients one normally would find the chef ordering and storing in the kitchen walk in?
There are a lot of reasons, the first of which is that the public is paying for us to do so. Cocktails are part of both the culinary and popular cultures now, both in the US and around the world. The public is expecting a higher-level quality in more places now than just fancy cocktail bars. Fresh juice has become much more of the norm, for example, and the cost of that is assumed in the price of a drink. It’s much more fun and interesting for bartenders as well, and thoughtful, delicious cocktails have become part of the ineffable internal algorithm the public uses to choose spending their money in one place as opposed to another.
How does this shift to fresh impact a cocktail program?
It makes it more expensive, for sure, both in time and money. But as the expectation becomes more pervasive, the public has shown itself willing to absorb at least some of that cost. It also becomes much more difficult to find qualified staff, and to train new people. Gone are the days when bartenders needed to know a few generic recipes and could fill in the rest on the fly. Training, both for new bartenders and seasoned bartenders in new positions, takes a fair amount of time.
Does it change how you design a menu?
Menu concepting and design is an entirely new game. The public is high-information spenders in a way that would have been almost impossible 20 years ago. New bars and restaurants are expected to have their own take on how their cocktails fit into the wider culture. Some places do that more acrobatically than others, but there is a general expectation that each place has to try something unique. Over time, this builds over the entire culture. What is happening in other cities or countries is publicly available, and one program can have an outsized influence well outside of its orbit.
How can distributors help you be more creative?
Awareness. We at the bar have always been an afterthought to food distributors, but we are using a growing number of techniques to tame the flavors of the world for use in our cocktails. A distributor who knows my intention can bring me new ingredients that fit into what I might be planning for the future. Inviting bar managers to food shows, for example, can create a wonderful collaboration between suppliers, distributors, chefs, and bartenders.
How can distributors better serve you and make your life easy?
Most distributors don’t talk to me as a bar the way they would to a restaurant. I call and ask if they have something, they say yes or no, then tell me what it costs. Few take the time to sit down with me the way they would with a chef to tell me what they have and really get to know the things I want to work with. They almost never meet with me on a regular basis, and I am rarely aware of their entire portfolio. I don’t relish having to comb the world to figure out where I can acquire different ingredients, so an active distributor rep could easily keep me off of Amazon if they made themselves available as a resource for finding new things.
How does the bar maximize using fresh ingredients? Does having them on hand drive prices down?
When do prices ever go down? That said, there are many bar programs that are designed specifically to reduce waste, in both the bar and the kitchen. For example, I once worked with a chef who made fresh ice cream. She separated out her egg yolks and gave the whites to the bar, which we used in a number of house cocktails. Nothing got thrown away or wasted, which is good on a number of levels. If a chef and bar manager work well together, it can at least mitigate the impact of bringing in more expensive ingredients to the bar.
What sorts of ingredients are you reaching for and how are you getting them?
Teas from around the world, different fruits in different applications, house-made replacements for common liqueurs. I try to use seasonal flavors in new and unusual applications, preferably in a way that is as shelf-stable as possible. As for where I get my ingredients, it’s a combination of distributors, traditional and specialty groceries, farmers markets and things we grow ourselves. Online shopping has become much more important, both in my time and my ability to acquire esoteric ingredients in a reasonable amount of time. Amazon is a real thing, as is Instacart.
In a larger environment, whether it’s a big arena or special event situation when you’re batching, can you and how do you make a drink with a culinary twist?
Often times, the “culinary twist” is all in the intention and presentation. But there are many ingredients, like shrubs, that lend themselves to presenting fresh ingredients in a bulk setting.
What haven’t I asked you about bartenders being the new chefs that you think is important to share?
There is a big push to do with bartenders what they did with chefs twenty years ago, namely “elevating” us to the point where we’re on television, in magazines, and generally singled out for media attention. This is creating a culture that can be a driver of business but can sometimes be detrimental to the bar scene in general. Think about a young cook who wants to become the next Top Chef. Gaining the skills for that is admirable, but if your love of cooking is based on your love of wanting to be famous, then you have an inherent disconnect between what is good about food and what is good for your chosen career. Bartenders are starting to experience a similar phenomenon with similar results. As things change, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.