At the Mercy of the Mixologist

Engage your bartender in conversation, and you just might get the best cocktail of your life.

Britta Byrd and Evan Edwards in action.

Photography by Jennifer Chase

Sweet. Sour. Bitter. Booze. Those are the four basic components of a cocktail. But when you’re throwing aside the menu and looking to the bartender to mix you something you’ll love, a fifth ingredient comes into play—trust. Ordering “bartender’s choice”-style, customers can try something new, based on what they already know they like, but also open to the bartender’s discretion. 

At Magnolia’s on King in Old Town Alexandria, bar manager Evan Edwards says the first course of action is determining the liquor—clear or dark. From there, he probes for other flavor descriptors such as boozy, sweet, or sour. Then, he delivers the cocktail—and this is key—full of confidence. “You’re going to love this,” he tells them. 

Sometimes he’ll take a favorite and tweak it, such as with the New York Sour—a whiskey sour with a red wine float. Or, he’ll focus on a preferred spirit and add elements to enhance its notes. If a customer has no idea what they want? (Edwards recalls the customer whose only request was, “Make me a cocktail.”) He makes them a Sidecar. “Because they’re delicious,” he grins.

General manager Britta Byrd recounts the time a customer asked for a Mudslide. Without a blender, the bar was unequipped to make the drink. Instead, Byrd made a vodka-based chocolate martini with a gelato float, warning her, “It’s not going to be what you’re thinking it is.” The customer loved it. 

Byrd, who has been in the restaurant business for 18 years and whose husband is a chef, also brings a culinary perspective to her craft. Often, when trying to determine what cocktail to make, she will ask the customer what they are eating. She fashions her drinks on a “palate level,” layering the flavors, she says. And the entire bar follows suit, collaborating with the kitchen when creating their menus and bouncing ideas off each other. When Edwards can’t quite get a cocktail to work, he consults Chef Anthony Salvato, who much of the time tells him, “Add salt.” It usually works, Edwards admits. 

All of the bar’s shrubs and syrups are made in house, and the pair experiments with unique ingredients. Byrd has recently worked with bitter kumquats, lemongrass, and sassafras root. Edwards also likes to play with wine, sometimes replacing the vermouth of a Manhattan with Pinot Noir. For the fall, the menu incorporates ingredients like tea, cider, rhubarb, and cardamom.

It’s not just about the cocktail though—it’s about creating an experience. Edwards describes the relationship between a team of bartenders like a dance. He may not see the other, but he knows where they are. They are a well-oiled team. “A good bar staff will make it feel like the time of your life,” he says. And customers leaving their order up the bartender opens up a chance for conversation and facilitates a connection.

The best customers, he says, are open-minded and willing to step outside the box, but ultimately, “have faith.” MagnoliasOnKing.com

Magnolia’s Favorites
Chai Sazerac

1 ounce Kopper Kettle chai spiced rum

1 ounce Fillibuster bourbon

2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

absinthe

lemon peel

Stir together rum, bourbon, and bitters. Rinse a rocks glass with absinthe and add a large rock. Strain the rum mixture into the rocks glass and garnish with a flamed lemon peel.

Springtime

1 ½ ounces Barr Hill gin

½ ounce lemon juice

1 ounce cucumber juice

½ ounce mint syrup

lemon peel

Add first four ingredients into a shaker with ice, shake for 15 seconds, and double strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.


This article originally appeared in our Drink 2018 issue.

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