We sat down with Robert Sickler to chat about his work, his travels, some very unique cocktail recipes, and his drink for December’s Pleased as Punch Box, the Mediterranean Sunset!
S&S: Your Mediterranean Sunset punch draws from geography and a sense of environment for inspiration. Is that a common way for you to conceive of a recipe?
RS: I believe in the power of place, and therefore when creating a cocktail, I will often contemplate the region from where the base distillate originates and try to accent it with flavors and aromas indigenous to its origin, whether they be liqueurs, fruit juices or syrups, teas, bitters, etc.
S&S: Aside from this great punch, obviously—if you’re in the Mediterranean, what are you drinking?
RS: If in France, I’d be partaking in a crisp, dry Normandy cider, a glass of Pineau des Charantes, or a hefty pour of a rich, rustic Armagnac. While in Spain, I’d be sampling Basque cider or savoring a flight of sherries while seeking out an intriguing bottle of wine to follow. In Greece, I’d be sipping on a frappe with a chilled mastiha on the side. If in Italy, I’d be savoring several amaro-based spritzers and likely a glass or two of wine tucked in the mix. If in the eastern Mediterranean—Croatia, Slovenia, Albania, etc.—I’d most likely be sipping a combination of ice-cold local beer along with an assortment of local wine varietals.
S&S: Our mouths are watering! What are some tips or points to keep in mind when concocting shareable, large-format drinks, or scaling up a recipe for groups?
RS: When creating large-format drinks, I try to concoct combinations that are refreshing and appealing to a broad spectrum of palates and preferences. Nothing too spirit-forward, too bitter, or too sweet. Rather, I try to integrate a broad array of flavors (sour, sweet, acidic, fruity, floral, etc.) united in a harmonious manner, often topped off with sparkling wine or carbonated craft sodas that unites the assemblage of flavors effectively.
S&S: Are there any memorable punch experiences in your past?
RS: I was always delighted by the punches that Joshua Peter Smith, former bar manager at Justice Snow’s in Aspen, Colorado, used to create back when he still resided in Colorado. He remains one of the most talented bartenders I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.
S&S: Is there an ingredient or technique you’re currently fascinated with?
RS: I am in love with hibiscus, tamarind, lemongrass, passion fruit, ginger, chocolate, coffee, and chili, and consistently seek ways to integrate these into cocktails and punches I create.
S&S: Yum. There go our mouths watering again! Is there any specific food you would recommend pairing with the Mediterranean Sunset?
RS: There’s tomato and basil bruschetta, grapefruit, mint and pomegranate salad, caprese empanadas, pomegranate hummus, warm lemon rosemary olives, Greek salad, saganaki . . .
S&S: Yum, you’re killing us! What music do you hope people are listening to as they mix and enjoy the Mediterranean Sunset at home?
RS: A combination of Cesária Évora, Sa-Ra Collective, Brazilian Girls, Mar Seck, Lila Downs, Os Mutantes, and Madeleine Peyroux. Also, Thievery Corporation’s Saudade album would be a fine accompaniment.
S&S: Tell us more about Finn’s Manor! How did your journey lead there?
RS: Finn’s Manor is a den of delights for anyone who embraces casual cocktails, quality spirits, unique beer, and Old World wine styles. We are a food truck pod and cocktail bar with over 800 spirits, all carefully curated by myself.
The outside of the bar has a very warm, casual Caribbean shantytown vibe and the inside bar has a dark, cozy, magical vibe, immersed in candlelight with a giant altar behind the bar devoted to Erzulie, the goddess of love and beauty in voudou. I grew up in south Florida and lived in New Orleans and felt compelled to transport some Floribbean and New Orleanean flavor to the Mile High City.
I also wanted to open a bar that showcased world-class boutique and artisanal spirits, but in an environment that is thoroughly unpretentious and closer to a dive bar atmosphere than a stuffy, snooty setting. I loathe arrogant pomp and circumstance when it comes to imbibing and feel that people who drink a particular brand or category of spirit in order to impress someone are ridiculous specimens of humanity. After working as a whisky ambassador for almost ten years, I was eager to go out on my own and open a venue that welcomed a broad spectrum of people under one roof equally, whether in jeans and t-shirts or suits and ties.
I am fortunate to have two phenomenal business partners who share my vision and bring their own unique backgrounds to the table. Thomas is an avid beer nerd and homebrewer with a barista background who handles our extraordinary beer program, and Noah, a lifelong veteran of the restaurant industry, owner of Crema Coffee House, and co-owner of The Populist, executes our unique wine selections.
The name is an homage to Huck Finn, and what type of manor he may opt to reside in after taking a riverboat outside of the Mississippi, sailing to assorted ports throughout the globe, and bringing back his gastronomical encounters and spirited adventures and warmly bestowing them to his guests via food trucks, cocktails, and a vast selection of wine, beer, and international distillates.
S&S: Sounds fantastic. We hope to be in the area soon so that we can see for ourselves! What would you say has been your biggest hit?
RS: The Caloosahatchee and Irie have been two of our most beloved cocktails since opening. Every season we launch a new cocktail list, but due to the popularity of these cocktails, they tend to remain on the list.
The Caloosahatchee is an homage to a river I grew up on in south Florida. Our backyard, which resided on a canal that adjoined the river, had tangerine trees, mango trees, grapefruit trees, lemon trees, banana trees, etc. I loved eating tangerines as a child and wanted to create a drink in honor of the river that featured some of these fruits. The cocktail includes Angel’s Envy Bourbon, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, tangerine, lemon, Vice Smoked Grapefruit Hops Bitters, and an orange twist. We turn a lot of old fashioned lovers on to this drink, and it always goes over well (once we confirm how to properly pronounce Caloosha-hatchee!).
The Irie is super simple yet rather complex. It’s Smith & Cross Jamaican Pot Still Rum, Fruitations Ginger, and St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, shaken and served over a rock with an orange twist. It possesses rather bold flavors, but combined they offer a rather smooth, enticing drinking experience that brings one’s palate straight to the mountains of Jamaica.
S&S: How about the weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted?
RS: When we first opened I created a drink entitled Overpowered by Funk—an homage to an amazing Clash album—which had Jamaican Pot Still Rum, durian, madeira, coconut water, and chocolate bitters, blended with ice and served frozen. As a lover of durian I thought it was a fun little drink, but I was blissfully unaware of just how polarizing durian can be. Apparently there are bizarre specimens of humans who find it to be a revolting food worthy of banning. It didn’t stay on the menu!
We also used to have a cocktail I created called Garcia’s Garden, named after a friend of mine who was a tequila ambassador for Colorado and Arizona. It consisted of añejo tequila, Argus Cidery Sparkling Pineapple Wine (an approach to tepache using sour beer yeast strains, resulting in a super funky sparkling pineapple drink), huitlacoche, and chocolate mole bitters shaken and served over crushed ice in a Brandy snifter. I didn’t personally find it that strange, but people were a bit perplexed by us scooping corn fungus from a jar and putting it into a cocktail shaker—not something you come across often!
S&S: We bet! What’s the best drink you’ve ever had?
RS: One of the best drinks I have had was super basic but was sublime, given the setting and circumstances. I was with my wife on her native island of Puerto Rico, back when I was employed as a Master of Whisky for Diageo. I ordered a Johnnie Walker Black Label on the rocks and asked for a fresh young coconut juice to enjoy alongside it, as it was rather hot out and I wanted something refreshing and hydrating alongside my tasty Scotch on the rocks. The bartender offered to combine both inside the actual coconut, and the result was a very happy Robert. I expanded on the drink back home, creating a rim with turbinado sugar and raw cacao, along with a dash of coffee bitters and a fresh lime squeeze, but the premise remains the same—Scotch and coconut water is a damn fine concoction that I can enjoy year-round.
S&S: We’ll have to try out that combination too! Any other good drink-centric discoveries during your travels lately?
RS: I was recently in Oaxaca and had the pleasure of trying two different mango distillates produced by two different mezcaleros. They were nothing short of magnificent and awe-inspiring. Both were fermented using natural wild yeast strains and distilled in their palenque’s copper pot stills they utilize for their mezcal. From what I can gather they were experimental ventures, but they just might become “a thing” down the road (fingers crossed).
S&S: Besides traveling, what do you do when you’re not working?
RS: I also enjoy reading, cooking, and exploring the Colorado outdoors.
S&S: What’s your go-to drink order when trying out at a new place?
RS: I don’t have a specific drink I order when at a new place. Rather, I inspect their cocktail list and see if something stands out and intrigues me. If I find an interesting cocktail I will start there. Otherwise, I will typically order a mezcal or Scotch whisky neat. I also love to see what type of non-alcoholic libations people put together. Some of the best drinks I’ve had are mocktails, actually.
S&S: How about a go-to for December or the holiday season?
RS: During winter months I enjoy hot Oaxacan chocolate with mezcal or genepy, as well as hot, spiced apple cider with Jamaican pot still rum, Armagnac, cognac or rye whiskey.
S&S: How appropriate. Cheers!