Bartenders Discuss Aviary and a World Without Bartenders

Photo: courtesy of Facebook.

Not a whole lot is known about Aviary, Grant Achatz’s new drinking establishment, which opens simultaneously with Next. But the details that have trickled out are kind of surprising: It’ll be “a bar without a bar or bartenders” where chefs will be in “a kitchen producing drinks.” Some YouTube videos have been released, showcasing perfectly clear liquid, drinks served in ice, and cocktails aged in wood barrels. Though it’s still not open, we wondered what some of the best bartenders in the city — including Paul McGee (The Whistler), Mike Ryan (Sable), and Ben Schiller (Boka) — had to say about mixing drinks in a kitchen, whether the cocktails are that revolutionary, and what issues may come up. So we asked them to address some of the topics posed on Aviary’s FAQ.

“It is a bar without a bar or bartenders.”

Since at least the times of Jerry Thomas in the mid 19th century, bartenders have been showmen as well as mixologists. While the drinks have changed over time, they’ve always been a presence at the bar. So what happens when you hide that person in a kitchen?

Paul McGee told us that this might actually be a blessing. “In one aspect, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. You can have people who are great mixologists, but who aren’t very good at the front of the house. I’ve had some great drinks where I’ve been kind of turned off by the bartender.”

Ben Schiller actually thinks that this might help with the “unfair double standard” that bars are held to. “I’m perfectly fine with the absence of bartenders and a complete departure from the standard style of service… Why should every bar carry the same products, serve the same way, or offer the same overall experience?”

But all wondered how the servers would interact with the customers. Mike Ryan pointed out that while “you don’t walk into a sushi restaurant and demand spaghetti and meatballs,” the bar is much different place: “When you walk into a bar the expectation is that regardless of the concept you can always order your standard drink; whether that is a Grey Goose and soda or a Jägerbomb.”

McGee thinks that even if the cocktail menu features 30 different drinks, some people will “look at the menu for a few seconds, and then simply set it aside and say ‘I like vodka’ and ‘like this ingredient,’ and that’s where the bartender comes in. Hopefully it’s a mix at Aviary between what’s on the list and what the customer wants.”

According to Ryan, that’s why bartenders are still needed: “At a great cocktail bar the bartender has hundreds of drink recipes memorized, and hopefully enough of an understanding of the relationship various spirits have to each other to be able to riff and create on the spot.”

“The drinks will be innovative, beautiful, and consistent.”

A series of YouTube videos have showcased Grant Achatz and Craig Schoettler experimenting with ice, balance, and texture. Though we’ve been floored by some of the techniques presented, we wondered whether the drinks were actually that new.

McGee notes that aging cocktails actually started with Tony Conigliaro, who works at London’s 69 Colebrooke Row. “ He was aging drinks for a year or more,” said McGee, “just to see how the flavors melded together in a bowl. How would mild oxidation work with vermouth?” Then Jeffrey Morgenthaler took that concept back to Portland, and started aging mixed drinks in barrels.

Ryan agrees, noting that “as far as specific techniques go there is not much new here. Using a rotary evaporator to create a perfectly clear cocktail isn’t new. Alginate spheres aren’t new, and in fact could potentially be deemed somewhat passé. A frozen hollow sphere has been done before.”

What would be different is the consistency. “What is new about Aviary,” writes Schiller, “is the scale and expertise of technique they are bringing to this part of the cocktail world. So in that regard, I think they will execute on higher level then we have ever seen.”

“Aviary is neither a bar nor a lounge exactly.”

Though everyone we asked had a few questions about how they’d pull it off, all were excited by the opening. “We have to remember that we are talking about Grant Achatz and his very highly skilled team,” said Ryan. “I can’t imagine them creating a restaurant/bar concept that is a house of cards.” McGee actually hopes to be “one of the first people in line.”

“There is a creepy homogeneity in the craft cocktail world,” says Schiller, “Let’s support those who aren’t trying to follow, but lead.”

Bartenders Discuss Aviary and a World Without Bartenders