In keeping with our current vodka trend we recently discovered the Stoli’s Original Bartender Luke Ashton and asked him some questions about cocktails and originality. Some pretty interesting info in the answers and I know that I now want to head into his bar.
Can you tell us a little bit about your cocktail bar at Duke Bistro?
It’s a small one person bar, with a list of about 15 cocktails at any one time. There are the classics, but there is a definite focus on original cocktails.
I use seasonal ingredients and try to create drinks that suit the weather and what people want to drink. The menu at Duke is a little left of centre, but with a big focus on flavour and technique, I like to think that my drinks list keeps in line with these ideas. There is a definite appreciation for cocktails amongst our diners with about 70% of tables ordering at least 1 cocktail.
What can you tell us about the TOYS collective?
The TOYS Collective group is a group of young, original chefs, sommeliers, bartenders and front of house staff who plan and manage one-off themed degustation dinners with matching wine and cocktails.
I am a big food fan and definitely draw flavours and inspiration from the culinary world as much, if not more so, then the bartending world. I am constantly pestering my chef friends for techniques as to how to bring my ideas to reality, whether it be in turning watermelon juice clear for my ‘water’ inspired cocktail or churning butter from cream that I steeped with banana bread.
I am very fortunate to be able to pursue my passion and constantly grow and improve on a number of different platforms, like the TOYS Collective and of course working with Stoli Vodka.
You began your career in Marketing; can you tell us what made you choose to change direction?
I worked as a bartender whilst at university in my early 20’s and while I enjoyed it, my studies were my priority. After graduating in Marketing, I left bartending and pursued a seven year corporate career which included a 3 year stint at a national advertising agency in Melbourne.
I moved back to Sydney in early 2009 and was at a career crossroads, going back to bartending while I decided what it was I wanted to do next. I then worked at a bartending trade magazine before having to make some crucial career choices. It was being back in the bartending industry that made me fall in love with it again. I soon realised that rather than talking about drinks, it was creating them, being original in doing so and giving people a genuinely unique experience that was what I truly loved doing. It was then that I decided to bartend professionally.
Where did you come across the competition to become the brand ambassador for Stoli?
I was alerted to the competition by an email from ‘Club Suntory’, an exclusive club for bartending professionals, of which I am a member. I had to explain in 300 words or less what made me original enough to win, together with a recipe for an original Stoli Vodka cocktail. The Stoli judging panel put me on their shortlist and then after being interviewed, I was selected!
Have you always used a lot of Stoli in your cocktail creations?
Because of Stoli Vodkas purity and balanced flavour, it makes it ideal to use in all cocktails that call for vodka. It has a creamy palate, nice length and mouth feel and a really interesting peppery/anise aroma that works perfectly in the classics and also my original creations. Stoli Vodka also comes in three flavours, Razberi, Vanil & Ohranj, which gives me some great flavours to play with.
How surprised were you when you found out you had come out on top of all the other entrants?
I thought that I had a reasonable chance to get to the interview process, based on the fact that I did have such a big career change and have got to where I am via an unusual route. The drink that I created for the competition, The Tsarina, had been well received by a couple of different people that I had shown it to, so I figured I had a pretty strong drink, but I was definitely surprised and flattered to win.
You had 300 words to explain what made you original enough to win – can you share with us what you said?
My entry read as follows:
I believe that I am original because of my experience, my journey that has got me to where I am today and my perspective on drinks. Having worked as a bartender whilst at university, I left bartending to work in the corporate world for over 7 years. Following a return to Sydney I got back behind the bar and fell in love with the industry again and decided to work for Bartender Magazine. I realised that making drinks, being creative and giving people a genuinely unique and enjoyable experience was what I truly loved to do and subsequently decided to bartend professionally. I have been extremely fortunate to work on many different projects, with some incredible people, and rapidly increase my skill set and showcase my point of view on cocktails. The bottom line is that drinks should be fun. People have the best experience when they are given something unique, interesting and above all, original – like Stoli Vodka. I have been very fortunate to have a platform to showcase my original take on cocktails, working with the TOYS collective. TOYS is a group of young chefs, sommeliers, front of house and bartenders who put on one off themed degustation dinners with matching wine and cocktails. Listed below are a couple of the drinks I have produced for these events along with the theme of the event.
- Skin & Bones – ‘Scarrbucks’ Hot buttered rum with dark rum, amaro Montenegro ‘banana bread’ butter and coffee syrup
- Water – ‘Water(melon) ice-tea’ a completely clear drink containing cucumber vodka, homemade watermelon syrup, tea syrup and mineral water
- Bubbles – ‘Whisky spider’ Whisky, ramazotti, coke and ice cream spheres
My experience, both in and out of the bar, combined with my passion for drinks, strong communication skills and commitment to giving people an enjoyable and unique experience makes me a truly original bartender who would love to be the Stoli Original Bartender.
Where do you get the inspiration for your cocktails?
My ideas really are quite organic. I get inspiration from everywhere. It sometime starts with an abstract idea, a childhood flavour memory, a smell, a new product or even a new technique. The TOYS events have definitely challenged me to think outside the box and be creative and I think that this has definitely carried through into the way that I think about drinks in general.
How long have you been creating brand new cocktail flavours and combinations?
I would say that I have only been doing it seriously for the last year and a half. I played around making my own drinks when I was first started bartending, but it has only been in the last 18 months that I have been making serious cocktails that are original and balanced drinks.
Are your cocktails creations simple enough that people can make them at home or will they always need to come and see you for their fix?
On the whole most of my original cocktails are easy to make, they have to be for me to be able to make them quickly and get them onto diners tables. They do however usually have ingredients that take quite a bit of preparation, syrups, infusions and garnishes, that I make prior to service.
At the moment I have a drink that has ‘cinnamon toast figs’ in it, which is a syrup that I made using toasted brioche, baby figs and cinnamon steeped in sugar syrup, it takes about a week to make it. It’s worth the effort though, and means that I can create interesting drinks for diners that I can get out to them quickly. You need to come in try most of my drinks, unless you have a lot of time on your hands and can be bothered doing a lot of prep.
What advice would you give to someone looking to experiment with their own cocktails?
Keep it simple. It took me about 6 months being back behind the bar, relearning and catching up on all the things I had missed before I even considered creating my own drinks. Get some good cocktail books and try making some classic drinks first, the better you understand these, the better you will be able to make your own drinks.
The other thing to remember is that less is more, some very important words of wisdom my girlfriend shared with me. If you put 9 ingredients in a drink and you can only taste 3 then the other 6 don’t need to be there.
In your opinion, what is THE single most important ingredient/item that must be ever present at functions and in a home bar?
Good quality ice. It makes all the difference to what the end result of the drink is going to be. In my opinion ice makes the drink, whether it’s in a vodka tonic or used to make a martini.
Have you got a favourite cocktail? What is it and why?
I have got a few regular cocktails that I drink depending on the situation. If I am going to have a pre-dinner drink it is usually an Americano, which I think is a great aperitif. At the moment mandarins are in season and I have been using their skin to make a twist on the classic gimlet, which is vodka stirred down with lime cordial/syrup.
My variation is using fresh mandarin skins lightly pressed to release the oils, a little sugar syrup and a generous dose of Stoli Vodka original stirred down with ice and served straight up with a mandarin twist to garnish. It’s definitely one of my favourite things to drink at the moment, it’s fresh, simple and has big clean flavours.