Redbull | Raising the Bar
Raising the Bar
In San Diego, Snake Oil Cocktail Co. is elevating what’s on tap at crowded events. Goodbye cheap wine. Hello mindfully curated drinks with organic ingredients.
Corporate events are big business. At some point in your career, you might find yourself at an industry conference or a “global summit” — a fancier term that’s code for “Al Gore is most definitely the keynote speaker.” There’s typically a mixer or an afterparty where high-profile attendees are rubbing elbows. Nerdgasms ensue. Is that Elon Musk chatting with Christopher Nolan? Wow, that Eddie Vedder impersonator is really good. Oh wait, that is Eddie Vedder! It’s sensory overload. The production value is obscene.
You need a drink. The journey to the front of the bar is like a salmon run, where you must fight your way upstream and dodge grizzly-bear-like businessmen in bespoke suits. You lean heavily on the temporary bar, raise a weary index finger and the frazzled bartender miraculously acknowledges your existence. And then your heart sinks. Because even at first- rate events, the alcohol budget almost always gets the shaft. Do you want a glass of red wine that’s the same swill that’s carried on the bottom shelf of your local grocery store? Or if you’re lucky, a haphazardly prepared Old-Fashioned with a muddled cherry that’s drowning in crushed ice? Why do the drinks always suck? There has to be a better way, right?
Enter Snake Oil Cocktail Company, a beverage catering and consultation outfit that develops creative, high-quality menus for special events, bars and restaurants. Since launching in 2010 in San Diego, its mission has been to elevate the bar experience with culinary-inspired, produce-driven drinks that use only the freshest organic ingredients. Snake Oil’s CEO, Michael Esposito, is very familiar with the disappointing bar scene at events. Even at bashes with incredible budgets, Esposito explains, the bar component is typically run by the hotel or event space, so you’re getting the bare minimum. “Your options are just beer and wine, a deluxe bar or a super-deluxe bar,” he says. “And the only difference is they swap out the levels of alcohol.”
While the farm-to-table movement has exploded in the past 20 years, the “garden-to-glass” approach of using local produce in cocktails is a more recent trend that continues to spread across the country. Frankie Thaheld, Snake Oil’s director of mixology, was an early adopter of the idea back in 2006, a time when Prohibition-era cocktails and speakeasies were all the rage. “I was like, ‘That’s great, but it’s just regurgitating history,’” Thaheld says of the rejuvenation of classic drinks like an Old-Fashioned, Sidecar or Sazerac. “It was cool, but it didn’t speak to me.”
Instead, techniques like infusing gin with cilantro excited Thaheld, and he began developing his own garden-to-glass bar program at George’s at the Cove, a three-story restaurant behemoth in La Jolla with show-stopping ocean views. When he eventually joined Snake Oil in 2012, Thaheld was a master of transforming seasonal produce into refreshing libations, but he was still making one drink at a time. “I had never thought about doing things in large batch,” he says. “There’s something completely unique and different to preparing five, 10, 15 gallons of a single cocktail mix.”
“You have to be nimble and creative” – Michael Esposito, Snake Oil CEO
The biggest challenge for the mass production of chef-driven cocktails is sourcing ingredients from a responsible produce partner. “You don’t just need a couple twigs of mint,” Thaheld says. “Now you need two pounds of it.” By partnering with a regional distributor that gathers organic produce from a variety of local farms, Snake Oil has been able to buy in bulk and maintain a consistent quality.
The second challenge is streamlining preparation. There’s a reason why most events use shelf-stable ingredients and limit the menu to beer, wine and liquor on the rocks — because it’s easy and efficient. At an event with hundreds of attendees, there’s no time to carefully pour half a dozen specialty ingredients into a shaker and garnish the glass with a citrus peel. Which is why Snake Oil whips up massive batches of cocktail mix ahead of an event and keeps things simple for the bartenders by requiring them to pour only two ingredients: the prepared mix and the alcohol. The chances of the bartender screwing up your drink are practically eliminated.
The final challenge is making a very wide range of people happy. “If you look around at a trendy bar in L.A., everyone is either 10 years older than you or 10 years younger than you,” Esposito says. “But at a big event, it’s sometimes like a 40-year spread. You have to be really nimble and creative. We want to introduce people to something new without scaring them away.” Appealing to the masses sometimes means using spirits that other mixologists might snub. “We’re not afraid to work with vodka,” Esposito explains. While a spirit like mezcal is currently trending, its distinctive smokiness could be a turnoff to a crowd.
“Vodka is a blank canvas,” Thaheld adds. “You can create a flavor palette on top of vodka.” Maybe the key ingredient is dragon fruit, he says. “That’s where we’ll start, and we’ll produce a mix that has dragon fruit and all these other fun ingredients that almost stand on their own. And sometimes we find out that the mix will work with three different spirits.”
Over the years, Snake Oil has created more than 40 beverage programs for bars and restaurants, and each year, they serve around 800 events, striving to bring a unique spin to each one. Since 2013, the Snake Oil team has run the concessions for the San Diego Symphony, just one example of a venue they serve that draws an eclectic crowd. The balance between broad appeal and distinctiveness starts with what’s in season, and from there a theme is built based on a particular show.
“If it’s the ‘Cinderella’ ballet,” Thaheld gives as an example, “then we’re going to make a Glass Slipper cocktail and we’ll bring in flavors that emphasize those things. We’re trying to create an immersive experience. If that drink was just on the menu with another name, it might not get ordered half as much, but because it’s called the Glass Slipper and it’s ‘Cinderella’ and the ingredients are enticing, then sales hopefully are going to boom.”
Recently, Snake Oil collaborated with Red Bull to develop recipes using its new line of certified organic sodas, currently available in limited release in four different flavors: Simply Cola, Bitter Lemon, Ginger Ale and Tonic Water. (With the exception of Simply Cola, the sodas are caffeine free.) Using a mixer as the centerpiece, Thaheld says, was an interesting challenge. “I was trying to accentuate the natural flavors of the mixers and showcase them without overwhelming them,” he says. “With Urban Lights [see sidebar for recipe], I felt the light bitterness of the Tonic Water needed some subtle fruit flavor to balance it out. Watermelon is a great complement, as it is a mild but recognizable fruit.”
Of the nine recipes he created, four of them are 100 percent organic when using spirits made by Greenbar, an organic craft distillery in downtown Los Angeles. Every time a consumer buys a bottle of Greenbar, Thaheld notes, the company plants a tree.
Although Thaheld and Esposito wish there were more organic liquor options from the bigger distributors on the market, they strive to make conscious decisions in other ways. When they juice citrus, for example, nothing gets discarded. They use a device that can squeeze the citrus and remove all the zest in five seconds. The zest is stored for future use, but what’s left is the pith — the white, stringy material that always gets stuck in your teeth. Rather than throw the strands away, Snake Oil cleverly braids them around cocktail glasses. “People are like, ‘What is that?’ ” Esposito says. “And then they take the drink and smell all of the freshness that’s coming off of it.”
For Snake Oil, it’s all about the little things adding up to be more sustainable. Instead of giving everyone a straw or a napkin, put a few out on the bar and let the consumer ask for one. (The majority of people won’t take them.) At an event, store your ice properly and it can last three days in a closed cooler. Get rid of plastic water bottles and instead offer filtered water in jugs at a self-service station. And all those opened bottles of wine that are left over? Make it into sangria or mulled wine. “Just think about it and be logical,” Esposito says.
Whether it’s their logical choices or the quality of the final product, Thaheld and Esposito want to create something memorable the next time you order a drink at a big event. “You might not have an interaction with the organizer of the event, but you’re almost 100 percent going to have an interaction with the bartender,” Esposito says. “That hospitality and general passion is what you’re going to remember.”
Redbull Organics Snake Oil Cocktail Recipes
1. Spiced and Stormy
1.5 oz. Greenbar Crusoe Spiced Rum
.5 oz. Greenbar Fruitlab Hibiscus
3 oz. Organics by Red Bull Ginger Ale
1⁄2 tsp. fresh lime juice
Pour all ingredients over ice in a Collins glass. Stir and garnish with a lime wheel and dried hibiscus flowers.
2. Urban Lights
1.5 oz. Greenbar City Bright Gin
1.5 oz. fresh watermelon juice
2 oz. Organics by Red Bull Tonic
.25 oz. fresh lime juice
8 mint leaves
Muddle mint in a mixing tin. Add remaining ingredients, save Tonic. Shake with ice and fine strain into a Collins glass. Add tonic and stir. Garnish with a mint sprig.
3. Rosarium on Fire
1.5 oz. Greenbar Tru Garden Vodka
2 oz. fresh cucumber juice (skins on for color)
2 oz. Organics by Red Bull Bitter Lemon
1 heaping bar spoon rose-hip jam (Podravka, Euro Gourmet or Schwartau)
1-2 rings deseeded jalapeño
Muddle jalapeño in a mixing tin. Add remaining ingredients, save Bitter Lemon. Shake with ice and fine strain over fresh ice in a Collins glass. Add Bitter Lemon and stir to mix. Garnish with organic rose petals.
1.5 oz. Greenbar Ixá Silver Tequila
1 oz. fresh ruby-red grapefruit juice
1 oz. Organics by Red Bull Bitter Lemon
.5 oz. rosemary-infused simple syrup
Pour all ingredients over ice in a double Old-Fashioned glass. Stir and garnish with a rosemary branch anda small grapefruit wedge.