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Bartender or mix-master

The Soho House has always been a refuge for me.  It’s a comfortable spot that feels like a home away from home. I joke that I couldn’t really consider a city home if they didn’t have a Soho House, and when traveling breathe a sigh of relief going through the doors and seeing the familiar wallpaper and lighting fixtures. When I arrived in Miami last December – still a temporary resident – the Soho Beach House Miami branch had just opened. I quickly became a frequent guest and met Chris, the endearing head bartender. When I told him I had only one friend in Miami, he replied, “Now you have two.”

Charming but not a charmer, Chris Hundall has been behind a bar for over ten years. His knowledge, attention to detail and use of pure, real ingredients is inspiring. He’s fascinating to watch. As he thinks about a drink you can actually see him mixing the flavors and tastes in his head. I’m not one for cocktails but Chris’ concoctions are just about the only ones I will drink. After spending time with him, sipping a few of his potions, I understand why Soho House sends him around the world training its other bartenders.

Chris, the humble mix-master

LK: Chris, you are one of the most creative bartenders I have ever met. But is that what you call yourself, a bartender? Or are you a mixologist?

Chris: Oh I’m a bartender for sure. Dale DeGroff – The godfather of bartending – came up with the name “mixologist.” It’s a word for people who excel over and beyond at bartending. But most good bartenders still call themselves bartender, and that’s what I am.

LK: Mixologist is slightly pretentious, isn’t it?

CH: Yah, it is. I’m sure the term will disappear at some point. At least I hope it does.

LK: How did you get into bartending?

CH: At about 19 or 20 I was serving food at a fondue restaurant in Arizona. Just after Memorial Day weekend none of the bartenders showed – they’d clearly been partying all night – and the owners asked me to get behind the bar. I didn’t even know how to make a Cosmopolitan but I said yes. I took the cocktail book and just learned very fast. They ended up firing everyone and hiring me.

I got into handcrafted cocktails when I was working at the Morgan’s group in Arizona, and then they transferred me to their SB location, which is the Mondrian. Angelo Veira, a Portuguese-British guy in charge over there, was very into mixing different types of Casaca and making Caperinas. I learned a lot from him.

LK: That’s a dangerous drink!

CH: Yes, I’ve watched it bring out the devil in people. But anyway, from there I read a lot of cookery books and cocktail books and brought the culinary side into bartending. I meshed the two together and that’s how I got here.

LK: You cook?

CH: Yes, when I have time. I make all the syrups and mixers like the Lemoncellos or the Oregat syrups that we use at Soho House, and most of the ingredients that we can’t purchase I make. I mean, we can buy them but they’re not nearly as good and I don’t really know what’s in them.

LK: You make all of them yourself?

CH: Yes. I need them to taste a certain way. For example, there’s a new punch we’re serving by the pool called British Pirates Punch. It’s homemade lemoncello, homemade orangatte syrup, Martin Millers gin, lemon and lime juice, simple syrup. If the base ingredients are off, the whole drink will be off.

LK: That’s a very passionate approach but I understand. You can’t compromise flavor.

CH: Well, the way I see it is that there are two ways you can go about it. You can buy pasteurized commercial orangatte or lemoncello, for example, and it’s going to be sitting in the back of a truck for who knows how long. Or you can take a bit of extra time and make a pure organic form that you’ve handcrafted yourself. Its just easier for me to do it, and it tastes better and ultimately is more cost effective.

LK: Interesting. That’s how I work with my clients – I encourage them to learn to make things for themselves. Why buy boxed almond milk when you can make it yourself in about 5 minutes and you know exactly what’s in it.

CH: Exactly.

LK: See, I knew you were brilliant! Do you think this is a trend right now in drinks or cocktails?

CH: Well, maybe in a small community this type of fresh handcrafted cocktails is a trend.

I know it’s popular in London but it’s a lot easier for them to get local, fresh ingredients. Same in NY. Actually, LA is booming a bit in this type of drink. Miami is pretty specialized in that it’s Miami – it’s a party culture – so I would have to say that Soho House is very specialized in our type of drink. You really won’t find them too many places. But I like to keep everything locally grown and as in-season as possible. For example, strawberries that are out of season make a cocktail taste horrible.

LK: Strawberries are not in season right now so what do you do?

CH: They are not on my menu right now.

LK: You don’t have any strawberry cocktails right now?

CH: Yes, I do, but it’s hard to find one on the menu. (Chris snickers) Coconuts are easy to find in Miami so I use a lot of them on the menu. We have a guy who delivers them to us and he even trained our staff how to open them.

LK: What other liquors do you make, because it seems you are quite the chemist.

CH:  I make Brandy, Kailua, coffee-brandy, lots of stuff actually.

LK: Is that what excites you the most – making things from scratch and sourcing your ingredients?

CH: Yah, I get excited about it but I love being around the bar more.  I have horrid ADD and could never be trapped inside a kitchen. It’s about meeting the people and being surrounded by new people all the time. Talking to them, learning who they are. I also love the teaching aspect of my job. Teaching the other bartenders the trends, what is homemade, how to break everything down and how you can make it yourself. If you can make it in a factory, you can make it at home! That’s fun for me. And I do like drinking. So that’s fun for me too!

LK: What are your favorite drinks?

CH:  I like American whisky, tequila, anything but vodka really. It’s the tofu of bartending. You can pretty much put anything in it. (We both snicker)

LK: Has the rise in food allergies or intolerances affected drinking or bartending at all?

CH: No, not at all. The alcohol would kill anything in the drink and the only real allergy I’ve seen is an allergy to alcohol and those people don’t drink. We will sometimes use egg whites for texture or for foam, mostly in sour drinks.  That will often frighten people but the reality is, once it’s dropped in gin or vodka any possibility of salmonella is gone.

LK: Do you use un-refined sugar?

CH:  As much as possible. I will use caster sugar and raw sugar to make a simple sugar but it really depends on the drink. Each drink calls for a different flavor and will require a different sugar. If someone asks for a sweet and low Mojito I will normally say no (Chris laughs) but I am as unrefined as I can be.

LK: Have you tried date sugar or coconut sugar?

CH: No, but I make date syrup and pineapple syrup. Does that count? I sweat them out of the fruits. I use a lot of different salts though – Himalayan salt, smoked sea salt, kosher salt. My favorite is a smoked sea salt from London – it tastes like a grill. Salt is a flavor amplifier; each salt changes the flavor of the drink. I also use a lot of peppers too. It’s a balancing act. I like to buy peppers at the raw foods market in Coconut Grove. Serrano Chills give a nice flavor as do the Habaneros. I will often black peppercorn as well.  I have a drink called the “Spicy Orchid” It’s black peppercorn, pear brandy, house made fennel syrup, gin and mint.  Anyway, I’m always on a quest for new ingredients. Always.

LK: I want to taste that drink!  So what is the thing with ice lately? It seems there are so many new shapes and sizes.

CH: Good question. It’s an art form and the trend really started in Japan. It’s a big thing. The shape of the ice determines how it will melt into the drink. For example, you can get a large cube and shave it so the ice will melt quicker, or cut it into a sphere so it won’t melt as quickly. Its truly an art form and an interesting trend. There are so many different types of ice, like shaved ice, cubes, crushed ice – I could go on and on! It sounds silly but it’s not. It makes a huge difference in the drink with the dilution of the cocktail. You would never put crushed ice in a Whisky on the rocks but it wouldn’t be a problem for Mojito.

LK: so what do you want to do when you grow up? Hahaha.

CH: Eventually open my own place with handcrafted cocktails. I would like it to be a comfortable bar that feels like a dive, with pre-prohibition cocktails, good music and bartenders with bowties. Correction, bartenders with bow-ties who know how to make a great drink and don’t give you attitude.

LK: Any last thoughts?

CH: Drink responsibly. (He says with a wink.)

Chris’ favorite drink, The  Classic old fashioned 

Ingredients
1 raw sugar cube – brown
3-4 dashes angostura bitters
1 bar spoon soda water
3-4 oz. buffalo trace bourbon
Finish with an orange zest

Process:
Stir in an old fashion glass for 10 seconds (timing is EVERYTHING)
You do not want to add too much dilution to it.

Note: The glass is called an old fashioned glass or a rocks glass –  it’s the small short glass. The way the glass is built changes the aromatics – it makes a difference. Try it.

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