We sat down with Watson Barry of Oakland’s Le Cheval to chat about his work, his inspirations, and his drink for December’s Applejack of My Eye Box, the Black Gold!
S&S: What’s it like to work at Le Cheval?
WB: Oakland is really tight-knit, and Le Cheval has been a member of that community for over thirty years now. So it’s pretty cool to have regulars who came in for their birthdays as a kid, and have now brought their own kids in for their birthdays. I really enjoy working in a spot that has been such a strong thread in the neighborhood over the years. Also, working in a Vietnamese restaurant means that the kitchen is loaded with a lot of really fun ingredients. So it’s nice to have flexibility in playing around with them in my drinks, and finding new and exciting ways to incorporate and pair the cocktail menu with the existing food menu.
S&S: Do you have a particular specialty?
WB: Ah, that’s a tough one to answer, I’d guess I’d have to say it depends on who is sitting across from me. I encounter a lot of guests who do bartender’s choice and will then tell me a bit of what their preferences are. So my specialty is whatever it needs to be for that specific guest.
S&S: Is there an ingredient or technique you’re currently fascinated with?
WB: Sherry, all day every day.
S&S: How would you say your visual arts background affects your current work?
WB: It plays a big role in how I present the drink. I consider color and contrast quite a bit when workshopping a drink. Granted, even if the color is perfect, the garnish still has to make sense with everything else that is going on in the drink.
S&S: We read on your blog that your favorite aspect of your work is the connections you make with others. How has that mindset has affected the way you create drinks?
WB: I think training as a storyboard artist comes into play when I’m coming up with a drink, but not so much during actual service. I always try to think about the mood that guest will be in while drinking it and what kind of story or evening would go along with it. There are drinks for high-energy and celebratory nights, and then there are drinks for when you’re tired and just want to unwind after work. So I think connecting to people and trying to anticipate what mood they’re going to be in on any given night, and what drink I would serve to them draws upon that sensibility of storytelling and mood. The drink I’m going to serve someone who just went through a break-up is going to be very different from the drink I’d serve someone who is our partying after getting paid on a Friday.
S&S: What’s the strangest drink request you’ve ever gotten?
WB: A soy sauce martini.
S&S: What would you say has been your biggest hit?
WB: Probably the Lotus Eater, it’s a real crowd pleaser. It’s vodka, a blend of a floral liqueur, and a bitter aperitif that is then washed with coconut oil, lime juice, and just a touch of sugar.
S&S: What’s the best drink you’ve ever had?
WB: I think it’d be Kevin Diedrich’s “Chamomile,” which is bourbon, lemon, Amaro Foro, and chamomile-infused honey. It is so good that I got a bottle of Amaro Foro so that I could make it at home.
S&S: What do want to be when you grow up?
WB: An astronaut.
S&S: What inspired you to make the Black Gold?
WB: When I heard that the applejack box would be shipping out in December, I thought about my favorite memories from winters past and found they all were rooted in the same thing. My fondest memories are of playing board games with my family and eating good food. So I wanted to create a drink that would embody the relaxed feeling of hanging out on a December afternoon, after a big lunch of leftovers, and sparring with my siblings and relatives in Apples to Apples and Settlers of Catan. To me, this is a festive cocktail that warms from within thanks to the 49% ABV of the Arkansas Black Applejack, perfect for those cold winter nights.
S&S: Is there any specific food you would recommend pairing with your cocktail?
WB: It is a drink of bold flavors that pair well with French, Italian, and American cuisine. The old fashioned would be excellent with a nice cut of red meat.
S&S: What music do you hope people are listening to as they mix and enjoy your cocktail at home?
WB: Anything that makes them feel happy and cozy. I created the drink with staying inside with family and friends over the holidays in mind.
S&S: What do you do when you’re not working?
WB: Read, surf, go on adventures with my fiancé.
S&S: What’s your go-to drink order when trying out at a new place?
WB: Something like a daiquiri or an old fashioned. I think you can tell a lot about a bartender’s tastes by how they balance those two drinks.
S&S: Any personal hangover remedies?
WB: Drinking water over the course of the night, and then Pedialyte before going to bed.