A wise bartender once said that certain drinks are like chocolate-chip cookies, familiar and satisfying enough to keep the average person from trying anything new. Not that every occasion calls for a coupe glass and exotic bitters, but a taste for the basics can be elevated by something fresh.
Bringing the freshness is J.R. Starkus, master mixologist and spirits educator for Southern Wine & Spirits. He’s been an innovator behind some serious Las Vegas bars, from Chinois to the Eiffel Tower Restaurant to RM Seafood. Add the long stint as brand ambassador for St-Germain and the pile of mixology awards, and the picture comes together—of a guy who really loves and understands booze.
We hit him with four cocktail standards, asking for upgrades that honor their crowd-pleasing essence.
Standard: Whiskey & Coke
Upgrade: Smoked Whiskey & Cola, $15, Rx Boiler Room
Ingredients: George Dickel Tennessee Whisky, Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla Bitters, house-made cola syrup, Fever-Tree soda water
Rationale: Coke’s sweetness overwhelms spirits. Rx’s “cola” is actually a mix of zest from lemons, limes and oranges, lavender buds, fresh ginger, vanilla bean, cinnamon and nutmeg, star anise and sugar. The whiskey is smoked to order, deepening the foil for so much complexity. “The process is a bit lengthy, but worth the wait for sure. Take your first sip and you’re hit with a beautiful whiskey and the roundness of the smoke.”
Standard: Chocolate Martini
Upgrade: Cinnful Finish, $12, Elements Kitchen & Martini Bar
Ingredients: Sobieski cinnamon and orange vodkas, Cruzan Velvet Cinn Rum Cream, chocolate syrup, orange-infused chocolate whipped cream, sea salt
Rationale: The quintessential girly drink tends to smack of melted dessert in both flavor and mouth feel. So Starkus just came up with this recipe for Elements—and its menu of more than 500 martinis!—to lighten the texture and balance the taste. The whimsy is maintained with whipped cream smoothed “like ganache” on top and a wedge of floated orange candy.
Standard: Vodka Cranberry/Vodka Red Bull
Upgrade: Killing Two Birds, DIY in your kitchen
Ingredients: Vodka of choice, cranberry Red Bull, fresh cranberries, orange zest
Rationale: If vodka really is about easy drinking, you might as well opt for one good gulp instead of cupfuls of sad. “You have your vodka cranberry and vodka Red Bull all in a shot. I’d pick Absolut Elyx for it. Elyx is a gorgeous, well-crafted vodka that is the perfect elegance to pair with this twist on a ‘Vegas classic.’” Foam the Red Bull with a hand mixer or a blender, and throw orange zest on top so you can cover the Screwdriver, too.
Upgrade: Monks in Mexico, $17, Milos
Ingredients: Peligroso Reposado Tequila, Green Chartreuse, St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur, grapefruit juice, agave nectar
Rationale: Good tequila deserves not to be drowned out. Instead of the metallic bite of silver with lime juice, this drink favors reposado’s cooked agave and spice sharpened by the sweet-citrus burst of grapefruit. “I love the fact it combines the complexity of Chartreuse and tequila with the approachability of grapefruit and agave. It’s a refreshing cocktail with lingering complexity. A beautiful thing in the cocktail world.”