Kinmont, the sustainable fish + seafood restaurant from Chicago’s Element Collective team, has a fascinating menu that offers lesser known, sustainably fished products sourced from both coast: triggerfish, cobia, and amberjack,to name a few. Yet, it’s the cocktail menu that catches your eye.
Kinmont’s head bartender Jason Brown began his career working the Sunday shift at a hotel bar because no one else would take it. Within a few weeks, he was working Saturday nights and closing the place.
“Throughout the course of my career, I was hired at various places where I ended up with more responsibility than I was hired on to take,” said Brown. “When I started, I had no idea what I was doing but made some positive strides.”
Since his accidental beginning behind the bar, Brown, who has had stints in Boston and San Francisco, has developed a beverage program that expertly complements executive chef Duncan Biddulph’s menu. The beverage list skews classic with an abundance of gin, Aquavit, Genever and Pisco in starring roles.
We recently stopped by Kinmont to chat with Brown, sample some of his cocktails, and learn a thing or two about running the cocktail program at one of Chicago’s hottest seafood spots.
IGT: Tell us what it’s like to build a cocktail program from scratch at a new restaurant.
JB: It’s been great to have creative control of the menu, which is focused around local and sustainable ingredients. It can be tricky in the winter in Chicago, because I come from the Bay Area of San Francisco, where it’s easy to get most ingredients year-round. I keep the menu authentic to what we’re doing in the kitchen here. For example, we have a cocktail called the Rifle Express, which is named for a fly fishing lure. The restaurant, Kinmont, is named for a fly fishing flag, so it all connects.
IGT: Your cocktails blend classic and traditional with unique twists. How did you design this menu?
JB: Initially, I looked at what the food is all about. I am not trying to pair cocktails with it per se, but I am tailoring the beverage program to what’s coming out of the kitchen. My cocktails are made with very boozy ingredients, but some have more delicate or lighter profiles and are well balanced between acidic and dry. I want all of our cocktails to be approachable in terms of their balance, and I thought through ratios very carefully.
IGT: What else is involved in creating a cocktail program besides creating recipes?
JB: Creating a cocktail program isn’t as simple as plotting an inventory, mixing some drinks and then going home. It’s also not as glamorous as people might think; there is a lot of scheduling, creating spreadsheets and looking at numbers. The fun thing is the service: executing your cocktails and putting your work in front of people.
IGT: How do you conceive your cocktail recipes?
JB: Usually what I’ll do is take an idea and then really run with it, turn it inside out and run a little further. I’ve had few failures along the way that have still yet to come to fruition, but ideally I’ll take a historical figure or someone lesser known but still with historical significance.
For example: I’ll name a cocktail after a Japanese dignitary and all use Japanese ingredients. At my last program in San Francisco, I created a cocktail called the Fatty Arbuckle, named for a movie star during the silent film error whose career was turned upside down by a major Hollywood scandal. The downside of this is that it can be limiting, because you can paint yourself into a corner. When it works out, it’s a fun and playful way to give a historical figure or someone who may have been overshadowed in history some well-deserved props.
IGT: You’ve lived on the East and West coasts and now, in the Midwest. How do cocktail trends differ across the country?
JB: It’s been amazingly eye-opening. In San Francisco, eating locally and seasonally was mesmerizing, it’s how I evolved from simple bar tending to making craft cocktails. [Having worked in] the east, west and center of the country, it’s interesting to see the differentiation of what guests are drinking and how they drink it. The cocktail programs of the West coast are very ingredient driven, and pretty near and dear to me. In the middle of the country, cocktails are more spirit driven, especially in the middle of winter when people want boozy cocktails. In Boston, the cocktail programs weren’t as progressive, and palates tended to lean toward the sweeter side being such a young, college centric city.
IGT: You make amazing drinks at Kinmont. What do you make when you’re drinking at home?
JB: I make craft cocktails at home for my wife, but I don’t drink a lot at home. We have a bar and it isn’t nearly as well stocked as the one [at Kinmont]. I do play around though and it’ expected of me when people come over. It’s funny, when you’re a pastry chef, people don’t expect you to make them warm cookies fresh from the oven, but when you come to a cocktail maker’s home, you expect fancy cocktails.
Usually when I’m mixing drinks at home, I make something totally off the cuff. Last week I did a cocktail with egg white, violet syrup from the South of France and apricot brandy. The one classic cocktail we always have the ingredients to make at home is a sazerac.
IGT: What advice do you give people who want to start making craft cocktails at home?
JB: It can be hard to make great cocktails at home. At bars, there are special syrups and fancy ice. It’s even hard to make simple syrup in a home kitchen. Everyone should keep a really good cocktail book on hand and have an understanding of how to use certain ingredients, as well as technique. Some people don’t understand why something should be shaken or stirred. To knock out cocktails at home, you need to establish the basis rather than trial by fire.
IGT: Do people need to invest in any special tools or equipment to make craft cocktails at home?
JB: Tools are important but I’ve also made great cocktails with chopsticks and tupperware. You don’t really need a $70 cocktail shaker to make an excellent martini, much like a professional chef can prepare a great meal with a paring knife.
IGT: Speaking of chefs, do you cook at home? Or are you just whipping up fabulous cocktails?
JB: My wife and I really likes to cook at home. Depending on our schedules, we each usually cook a dish for the week. The last thing I want is to eat at a bar or diner at the end of a long day. I’d much rather have a nutritious and delicious meal waiting for me to eat while I melt into my couch. Last night I got home and she had made a really wonderful chicken tikka masala so I had that instead of the italian sausage lasagna that I had made. My days of eating the 7Eleven hot dog and a six pack after work are over.
IGT: We’re nosy here about food! What are three ingredients that you always have in the kitchen?
JB: Brown rice, assorted hot sauces and bacon. And beer — there’s always beer.
- 1 cube or ½ teaspoon sugar
- 4 dashes Peychaud Bitters
- Splash water, about ½ teaspoon
- 2 ounces rye whiskey
- Splash Pernod, about ½ teaspoon
- Lemon peel for garnish
- Place ice in an old fashioned glass and set aside. In another glass, combine sugar, bitters, and water. Muddle until sugar is completely dissolved.
- Add rye whiskey, fill with ice, and stir well until ingredients are combined. Remove ice from first glass and then add Pernod.
- Holding glass horizontally, turn it so that Pernod completely coats the interior. Discard any excess.
- Strain contents of second glass into chilled glass. Twist lemon peel directly over drink to release essential oils, and serve.