Mixing Craft Cocktails with Matt Allen

Mixing Craft Cocktails with Matt Allen

I don’t drink a lot of cocktails, but when I do, I will order a gin and tonic, a whiskey and ginger ale, or a vodka martini. But a few months ago I got the chance to attend Crafted Cocktails with Matt at The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa. The class was so much fun, and we literally made the drinks with Matt, resident mixologist at The Westin Kierland. Matt has become a friend over the years, and while we normally meet at work functions, it is always fun to pick his brain on the latest and greatest in all things alcohol.

We were so impressed with the cocktail class, I asked if he would be interested in an interview. He was, and we met again to talk about the class, his history with mixing craft cocktails and so much more. Matt is a great bartender (I feel bad calling him that…) and I am honored to know a man that can take such simple ingredients, like lemon zest, basil, or a dash of bitters, and produce such amazing librations. Guys, it is my pleasure to introduce you Matt Allen. Cheers!

You have been mixing drinks for quite some time. Tell me where it all started… When did you realize you wanted to be a bartender?
I’ve been in the restaurant business since I was 16 – it’s where I’ve always enjoyed working. And throughout my career, I’ve worked most the positions from dishwasher to general manager. I’ve always enjoyed bartending the most, so it’s what I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to come back to and build on.

I feel bad calling you a bartender… You’re a mixologist. How do you define a mixologist?
I think mixologist has become a bit of a generic term, but at its core, a mixologist is a bartender plus. There are plenty of times when I am purely a bartender, executing to high volumes of guests and serving quality drinks, and then the mixology part is more about creating sensational drinks and menus to showcase specific spirits and styles of drinks. Some mixologists are not great bartenders, and some bartenders are not interested in being mixologists. But don’t feel bad calling me a bartender – thanks to so many great people in the industry, being a bartender is a proud and respected profession again. Instead of the years when I got asked, “What is your real job going to be?”

There are a lot of great cocktail bars out there. I really enjoy Bitter & Twisted and Blue Hound Kitchen and Cocktails. Past your place, what are some of your favorite cocktail bars?
Bitter & Twisted is a great bar – Ross Simon did a great job putting Phoenix on the map with a bar that was built for cocktails first and supported it with great food and service, and a solid presence in the community.

Counter Intuitive is an amazing bar with some of the best bartenders in town, but my favorite spot is The Gladly. The drinks, the chopped salad, and the best bartender I know (Ella) is a great combination.

I really miss Citizen R+D. Did you ever have the chance to visit before they closed? Also the chopped salad at Citizen Public House might be the best salad on the planet!
I never did get to R+D, but they helped make some serious strides in the cocktail culture in town. And I completely agree about the chopped salad – they serve the same one at The Gladly. I get one every time I go, and take one to go as well when I leave. Or two, if my wife knows I’m there.

I always enjoy watching a bartender shake a cocktail. Tell me how you shake a cocktail, and has your method changed over the years?
Shaking a cocktail is one of those personal touches – a style that is individual to the person, and according to Japanese bartending, should be different based on the style of drink. I have a couple different moves depending on the drink. Or who is standing in my vicinity. So I don’t hit them! They all result in a good drink, which is really all the matters in the long run!

What is the most you’ve ever paid for a single cocktail?
I once had a $35 margarita with a great tequila and Grand Marnier 150 Year. I wouldn’t balk at spending more if the drink was amazing.

Are there any ingredients you don’t like and/or refuse to use when making a drink?
I’m not a huge fan of vodka overall. The entire existence of cocktails is to accent the base spirit, and when that base spirit is, by definition, flavorless, then I personally don’t see the point. People like it, so I’ll certainly make a drink with it.

Let’s say I ask for a whiskey drink. What would you recommend and why?
A Manhattan. A truly classic whiskey cocktail that has withstood the test of time. It is also one of those three ingredient cocktails that when made right, it is fantastic!

You host a lot of cocktail classes at The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa. I just attended Crafted Cocktails. What a cool experience. Tell me about this class, and where the idea came from.
I had the idea a few years ago, but the timing wasn’t right back then. It took off last year for the Christmas season. I modeled the class after a cooking class, where guests can have the hands-on experience of making a few drinks and learning about the drinks and spirits used.

It was fun actually making the drinks with you and strangers that quickly became friends. How did you pick those 3 cocktails?
I wanted a lineup of drinks that showed a range of flavors and combinations, and introduce everyone to some truly unique spirits that they may have not previously met.

One of those cocktails featured egg whites. Is that a common ingredient and do people freak out when they see you crack an egg while making a drink?
It’s been around as a cocktail ingredient since the late 1800s, used often in sours, like the whiskey sour and pisco sour. People occasionally aren’t a fan, and they can certainly get their drink without the egg white if they like.

What makes a good garnish?
A good garnish adds presentation quality first and foremost, and can also add another element to the drink, like an aromatic. Just like food, you begin to decide if you’ll like something long before it ever touches your lips, based on how it looks and smells. Citrus peel, herbs, and flowers are all great garnishes. Garnishes also can serve a useful purpose, like a lime with a gin and tonic or celery with a Bloody Mary.

Craft cocktails are “hot” right now. So is craft beer. Do you see that changing anytime soon?
I don’t see it going away. Like most trends, it will slow down a bit at some point, but the stories and passion behind craft items will continue to drive people to seek out those items as long as they are quality.

What are some popular cocktail trends right now?
Using fresh ingredients isn’t really a trend, but the challenge to find new ingredients and flavor combinations there continues to push the craft. Also, bitter cocktails continue to be a hit as peoples’ tastes evolve and they learn to appreciate different flavor sensations.

What is your “go to” cocktail?
An Old Fashioned. When made correctly, it’s perfection. And being that it’s only three ingredients, it makes for a great barometer of a bartender’s skill and passion.

We take yearly beer trips. Where are some places/cities/countries to visit if we took a cocktail trip?
Really anywhere at this point. Cocktail bars are opening up all over the place, but New York, LA, Portland, and London continue to be at the forefront of great bars. New Orleans for its rich history, and for hosting the annual Tales of the Cocktail.

Do you have any more fun class ideas coming up soon?
Haven’t actually looked ahead at the next one – but I’m sure I can come up with something fun.

What’s next for Matt Allen?
I am passionate about my craft and making a positive impact wherever I am. I plan to continue to assist with the ongoing development of the beverage program at The Westin and make it a great drinking place for locals as well as travelers.

In all of the interviews I do, I always give the artist the last word. Go.
My favorite quote, by the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra.

“I feel sorry for people that don’t drink, because when they wake up in the morning, that is the best they are going to feel all day.”