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PASSION OF THE PALATE: Down the Hatch | Raising the Bar | The art and craft of cocktail culture

Opposite: Chris Romero, general manager and beverage director at Opuntia Café, pours his hi-Bliss-cus, a tart, blush-pink concoction with hibiscus tea–infused Altar gin, fresh lemon juice, rosewater, honey, and whipped egg white.


English playwright Noël Coward once quipped, “A perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy.” The current trend in craft cocktails is a distinct departure from that attitude.

It’s not hard to splash gin and vermouth in a glass and call it a martini, but true craft cocktails are much more complex. They are made with skill, care, the finest ingredients, and considerable attention to presentation.

It can be cost-prohibitive to invest in the number of base spirits, specialty liqueurs, syrups, and fresh ingredients needed for a fully stocked home bar. Instead, let the experts at your favorite bar or restaurant do the mixing. It’s not only more economical, but also a fun and communal way to try new concoctions, sip leisurely, and appreciate the nuances of your drink.

Laurel Hunziker is the beverage manager at Altar Spirits Distillery, but the title “spirited alchemist” might better describe her role. She finds inspiration in just about everything, including books, colors, and the feelings evoked by the seasons. Even friends and family members have sparked her imagination. Intrigued by the transformation of simple grains and botanicals into spirits, she describes the process as a “conduit bridging the ethereal world with purely physical pleasures.” She views her creations as alchemical “medicine” and strives to make them as great a delight to the eye as they are to the palate.

Anna Marie Apodaca, bar manager at the Secreto Lounge at Hotel St. Francis, says we eat and drink with our eyes first. That’s why she loves observing her customers’ reactions when they take their first sip of one of her cocktails. Her skills grew exponentially during the pandemic, when she moved back home to Stanley, New Mexico, where she grew up. Once again on the family farm, she embarked on a daily ritual of creating a new signature craft cocktail at sundown. Experimenting with herbs and flowers from the garden and fruit from the orchards, she made strawberry-mint syrups for mojitos, cherry-based cocktails, and apple-infused drinks garnished with dehydrated, cinnamon-dusted apple pieces. Apodaca’s mother sampled every creation, offering constructive criticism and protesting only slightly about the garden’s slowly dwindling bounty.

At Opuntia Café, general manager and bar director Chris Romero—with his three-week-old son an arm’s length away—politely obliged our photo shoot by whipping up the hi-Bliss-cus, a gin-based cocktail of his own creation that is infused with hibiscus leaf and served in a stemmed glass known as a Nick & Nora.

Part of the delight of ordering a craft cocktail is the showmanship involved in the preparation, and Romero doesn’t disappoint. In his skilled hands, zesting a lemon, foaming an egg white, performing a “triple shake” and then pouring the mixture into the glass are as beautiful and precise as well-executed gymnastic moves.

Romero extensively researches the history of traditional cocktails and then creates riffs on those classics depending on the season. In winter he incorporates spices such as cinnamon and cloves into whiskey, cognac, and other warm spirits. Agave forms the basis for his summer cocktails. Since Opuntia is known for specialty drinks that draw on a curated selection of loose-leaf teas and infused teas, Romero also intends to develop more tea-infused craft cocktails for the bar menu. Exploring new flavor profiles is just one reason to belly up to the bar. Social contact, especially welcome as we emerge from pandemic isolation, is another. “The culture of craft cocktails encourages camaraderie and conviviality,” Romero says.

Sure, we can all mix a cocktail at home, but we miss out on seeing what the table next to us has ordered or on striking up a conversation with the person sitting beside us at the bar. Ultimately, cocktail culture connects us to the most important spirit of all—the human spirit.

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