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Bar Bet: Derek Reno

It’s easy to become jaded when you create or drink cocktails for a living. Ingredients and flavor combinations spread slowly throughout the country, or around the world, until every cocktail menu you see has some amalgamation of the same drinks that seemed cutting edge just a few short months, or years ago. The Moscow Mule might still be hitting some menus for the first time in small-town America, but has gone the way of the mojito or cosmo in any place with a decent drink scene. None of them are any less pleasing to the palate than they were five, 10 or 15 years ago, they just aren’t current, or interesting, to someone who goes to a bar more than once every five years. Sherry is just about ready to hit every cocktail-focused bar in Columbus (or at least the ones it hasn’t already landed on in the last year or two) but soon, it will be replaced by the next ingredient and those drinks will languish in a notebook behind the bar until a bartender decides to flip the pages to their “sherry phase” and order another bottle of Fino.

This isn’t news, of course. This whole column is dedicated to the idea of new ingredients, albeit in a more fun challenging way, but in the world of cocktails, there’s a big difference between being surprised, and being pleasantly surprised. “Oh, a gulf shrimp-infused rum, with fresh lemon, and a Fruit by the Foot tincture? That’s surprising.” That’s not something I ever hope to say when I read a cocktail menu, but there’s no doubt it would, in fact, surprise me. Maybe you think would be a pleasant surprise, but I’d bet money against that notion.

Luckily, there are still pleasant surprises to be had, in the hands of a good bartender, and this column is a testament to that. We haven’t had a bad drink yet, and we’ve had several that, were it not for the obscurity of their ingredients, or their intense preparations, could perhaps find themselves with the coveted “New Classic” title. There is a joy and wonder in being surprised that cannot be replicated by a cocktail with all the usual ingredients, whether or not that cocktail is the best one you’ve had all week. Last weekend in Pittsburgh, I had a bourbon mescal Old Fashioned riff that was absolutely perfect, but you don’t see me writing about it. Or wait…uh…I sort of am (shout out to Michael and Butcher and The Rye for the great drinks and food). As a writer, or a bartender, you are constantly looking for what’s new, what’s coming next, and what could surprise your audience or the person sitting across the bar from you. Surprise is fun, and thrilling, and exciting, but only when that surprise turns out to be pleasant. When I stepped into Derek Reno’s Short North apartment, I began to notice immediately that I was in for a surprise. “This is probably going to be your first cocktail salad,” Reno said.

That is affirmative.

After spending around five years with CMR restaurants, including a lead role behind the bar at The Pearl, Reno began a journey to the one man bartender show that is today known as The Reno Reserve, a consultancy specializing in cocktail-focused events, menu development, and more (as evidenced later when he gifted us a bottle of his handmade cocktail honey, and a beer he recently brewed, both slapped with a Reno Reserve label.) Not even a year into the business, Reno is pretty busy, averaging around 8-12 events a month as The Reno Reserve but even with the pressure of a busy schedule Reno is enjoying his foray into the consulting business, and out of the restaurant world. “I don’t have to usher a guy out that’s too drunk,” he laughed, “and I don’t have an entire bar to clean up at the end of the night.”

You would be forgiven for thinking that Reno’s apartment is a bar, and a well decorated one at that. With bottles taking up most of the shelf space, and bar tools stashed in every conceivable drawer, or nook, all it would take is a liquor license, and a health inspector to get it up and running tomorrow. “I don’t get many excuses to be as weird as I can, so this was a fun opportunity,” he said as he began laying out redbor kale in a fan pattern on a large cutting board. It was going to be weird indeed.

Redbor Kale with its deep red tightly curled leaves, is most often used as an ornamental plant to decorate flower beds, and so Reno had a tough time finding it, going to over 14 (call back to last month’s column!) different places before finding it at recently restocked at Whole Foods. As he meticulously laid out the ingredients around and on top of the kale, without touching a cocktail shaker, or a bottle, I wondered if he was just making a decorative salad to be paired with a shot of whiskey. I was relieved to discover that the edible display piece would be topped with what he referred to as a cocktail sorbet, which was stashed in his freezer. The Sorbet, a mixture of juiced kale, Watershed Bourbon Barrel Gin, Crème de Violette, Saler’s aperitif, Vueve Clicquot Yellow Label Champagne, and a dazzling array of berries, and other fruits, was frozen into deep purple cubes, which almost blended in with the kale beneath it, and was offset by bright red currant and berry garnishes, a sprinkling of lemon zest and edible flowers. To say I was surprised would be an understatement, and my thoughts were leaning towards something along the lines of “this thing better be good, you weirdo.”

Surprise! It was very, very good. The kale came through right off the bat with an earthy vegetal flavor balanced by a hit of citrus from the lemon juice and kumquats (surprise!), with a delicate floral note from the Crème de Violette that lingered for a bit before being being overtaken with dark red berry and bitter complexity that emerged as it melted on the tongue. While it looked and tasted like a popsicle, there was no forgetting that this was a grown up treat, as the Champagne, and gin shined throughout, and the bitter aperitif remained mostly under the radar providing a bit of complexity to the sweeter fruit flavors.

Surprise can be a dangerous game, but to be pleasantly surprised is perhaps the only reason to continue trying new things, and I’m happy to say, The Reno Reserve provided that in spades.

Make it at home:

6-8 Whole Blueberries

7-8 Whole Blackberries

1-2 Whole Strawberries, Quartered

12-13 Red Currants; De-Stemmed

3-4 Whole Kumquats; Halved, Squeezed, Dropped

1.5 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice

.75 oz. Simple Syrup

1.5 oz. Redbor Kale Juice

4.5 oz. Crème De Violette

3 oz. Champagne

1.5 oz. Watershed Bourbon Barrel Gin

.75 oz. Salers Aperitif

4-5 Dashes Lavender Bitters

Juice Redbor Kale in a juicer or press. Combine the kale juice and all other ingredients in a blender and blend thoroughly. Carefully fill into ice molds and freeze for a full 24 hours. Upon serving display in a fresh, garden setting of your choice. Include a spoon.

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