A one-on-one interview with the mastermind behind one of Manhattan's premier bars and the preferred spirits of bartenders.
Industry insiders and cocktail fanatics will be familiar with The 86 Co. and its founders Simon Ford, Jason Kosmas, and Dushan Zaric - three bartenders on a mission to improve the domain of drinking one pour at a time. Since 2012 The 86 Co. has been answering the prayers of bartenders everywhere by providing quality spirits that serve multiple purposes. Not only do the selections reflect a commitment to time honored traditions of quality, consistency, versatility, and flavor but the packaging itself was designed to make serving simple and efficient.
For the uninitiated a visit to the newly opened Sanctuari, the bar inside Triniti,should be in order where mistresses of mixology Laurie Sheddan Harvey and Leslie Ross present a multitude of masterfully crafted cocktails featuring 86's full line of offerings as their House spirits. Here flavor, function, and flair come perfectly proportioned in a package of ergonomically designed bottles of traditional-yet-original spirits including Caña Brava Rum, Fords Gin, Tequila Cabeza, and Aylesbury Duck Vodka. Kosmas, along with The 86 Co. Brand Ambassador Omar YeeFoon, visited the one-week-old cocktail bar this week to help kickoff the celebrations with friends and supporters. While they were there, Eater Houston asked the mixologists to elaborate a bit on their cocktail philosophy and just how that vodka got its name.
The perfect cocktail to me is not just what's in the glass, it's the experience.
Part of the excitement in bringing The 86 Co. to Houston is giving Laurie and Leslie additional ammo in their arsenal. Long-time friends of Laurie and Leslie, Kosmas explains, "It's all about personal relationships. I'm a huge fan of what they're doing here - there's always something interesting. I feel like they're definitely pushing the limits of what you can do. And I think probably the biggest thing that is if you have heart, I am the biggest cheerleader. And they have the biggest heart here without a doubt." YeeFoon adds, "The perfect cocktail to me is not just what's in the glass, it's the experience." And in that regard, he says, Ross and Harvey, deliver.
The 86 Co line up of spirits allows the passion and creativity of the Ladies of Libation to really shine, says Kosmas, "in the easiest way possible because they're quintessential and they are quality products that deliver a lot of flavor. So what that allows you to do is to then play with lots of other flavors and bring a lot of things to the party. And as you've noticed on the menu they like to party. It gives them a lot of freedom to take ingredients that are coming out of the kitchen whether it be produce or things that are a little bit more exotic and be able to transform them, those ingredients, into things that are going to work in the cocktail. So again, in terms of what I see them doing here is they are really creating flavor experiences. There are lots of flavors in these [spirits] too, which are very inspiring. Sometimes the spirit inspires you and sometimes the other way around - you're inspired and you want to find a spirit that works well with it. And that's the easy way to talk about it. The spirits are versatile enough that it allows them the freedom to play with other ingredients and still deliver a quality product."
Kosmas knows cocktails but perhaps more importantly he knows and understands the simple yet intimate relationship industry professionals have not only with their guests but also with the spirits themselves. "The way we approached it [development] was to create a premium well," says Kosmas. "So they are all-purpose spirits. We wanted them to be versatile and usable but top quality and flavor-driven. Not by having a special flavor but really having intensity of flavor." Each spirit was specifically crafted utilizing the skillset of individual producers: "It's all about how it works together and how it works in the cocktail. We went to the distillers individually to create what we wanted."
As such he and his team worked closely with the Vivanco family in the Los Altos region of Jalisco to develop Tequila Cabeza drawing on 5 generations of experience cultivating agave in the highlands of Mexico. A commitment to quality from sprout to bottle culminates at the El Ranchito Distillery where the tequila is fermented at cooler temperatures. Typically tequila will ferment for 3-4 days but Tequila Cabeza receives an 8-10 day treatment, resulting in extra flavor and depth that Kosmas compares to the "low and slow" method when cooking meat. "It's a really beautiful tequila that celebrates agave and that's something you don't see a lot out there," he says. "[It has] lots of minerality, lots of citrus, and fruity components, too."
The crew reached across our northern border to a Canadian whiskey distiller to produce their Aylesbury Duck Vodka, named after the "noble woodland bird" in England (what, you didn't know that?). This is the vodka for people who say they don't like vodka: the non-GMO white winter wheat used in whiskey creates a high starch mash that in turn imparts an unexpected richness and creaminess not expected in typical vodkas. Specific decisions throughout each phase of the process, says Kosmas, enabled them to provide a different experience than the ultra-filtered products from most vodka producers. "If you take a raw ingredient and you don't mess with it too much, and you treat it properly, you don't have to mess with it more," he says. Try it in Sanctuari's La Bichon, a fruity production of vodka, Quinta de la Rosa Ruby Port, lemon, and fresh strawberry or the Dirty Kangaroo which blends the daughty ducky with Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth infused with olives, capers, and orange bitters
Award-winning Fords Gin (of the same Simon Ford namesake) was a collaboration with an 8th generation gin distiller in London - and it has earned them numerous accolades including "Best New Product" at Tales of the Cocktail, the highest score to date at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge in New York, and beating out over 40 gins to earn a perfect score at a an independent gin and tonic taste-off. Found in Ross's Gimlet, Hanoi High Five, and the super refreshing No. 7, among others, the gin is very dry with a lot of flavor and a softer entry. "We put juniper on a pedestal," says Kosmas, "But we tried to pick botanicals that would support the juniper and would allow it to have credibility in gin and tonics, [the] Tom Collins, etc. but also have enough oil content so it will stand up in a martini or those drinks where it needs to stand more on its own."
As Kosmas and YeeFoon talk about their product line, it's impossible to miss the particular affection they have towards their Cuban-style Caña Brava Rum, which provides bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts with a virtually extinct form of the liquor. The creation of this particular product began behind the bar at the famed Savoy Hotel in London where Kosmas, et al played with old rums fro the 20s and 30s, developing cocktails, and further absorbing the flavor profiles no longer found in the majority of today's rums. They wanted to create aged rum that was still crisp and clean and would honor the classics cocktails like daiquiris and Cuba libres. Working with Master Distiller and former Cuban Minister of Rum, Francisco "Don Pancho" J. Fernandez, the resulting finished product "has sugarcane, citrus, coconut, vanilla, [and] lots of aromatics. Just about everything in the drink that you want to make is celebrating what's in the bottle at the same time," says Kosmas.
We use stuff that is really good, wholesome, [and] well made. We were selective about what we use.
Meeting the needs of bartenders is the ultimate goal of 86, and the driving force behind every decision from bottle design to label content and flavor profiles. Now those decisions can influence the home bar too. "We don't use big brands that are heavily marketed," says Kosmas. "We use stuff that is really good, wholesome, [and] well made. We were selective about what we use. So in terms of retail we've actually created a ‘start your own home bar.' They're all quintessential like any classic recipe that you have and many modern ones, they're going to plug and play into it because they're not trying to be something new they're just trying to be the best of something that's timeless."
Once you get those bottles home, peel off the information-packed labels and discover another layer of art and intrigue. Behind each one is an extended visual surprise from the Manchester-based design firm United Creatives such as photos of the duck that inspired one designer to accept the vodka assignment, in addition to personal nods towards the background of each spirit.
While new products might eventually find themselves on the market, for now Kosmas and his team are focusing on getting their name out and educating bartenders and cocktail drinkers alike on their products. They are currently found in 26 states (plus England, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Sweden), and locals can purchase the liquor at Houston Wine Merchant, Ralston, and Specs Downtown. Look for eventual sets of all four products in one convenient package - starting your party never got easier - and in the meantime visit Laurie and Leslie for some unforgettable introductory tastes.