Micah Melton has a lot on his plate, no pun intended. The Beverage Director for The Aviary in Chicago, he’s gearing up for the summer 2017 opening of the cocktail bar’s first Manhattan location inside in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental (on the 35th floor).
Known for his extensive knowledge of food and beverage — he’s a culinary graduate of Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and worked almost every station at The Aviary — his culinary-style cocktails have become something folks go out of their way to sample. He got his break, so to speak, as the subterranean “Ice Chef” where he created more than 30 varieties for The Aviary’s cerebral beverage program including forging hollow cubes that contain cocktails and perfect, hand-carved spheres. Melton credits Grant Achatz — one of the masterminds behind Alinea, Next, the Aviary, and Roister — for giving him a chance working as a line cook at Alinea before he took over the ice chef duties at Aviary when the chef before him quit. A year later, he became sous chef under Chef Craig Schoettler and then Charles Joly before moving to this present position.
His rules for making the ideal blends includes finding balance — “you don’t want it too spicy or too sweet or too savory or too tart or too boozy” — and making cocktails people want to drink. And while he’s known for his unique flavor combinations — using ingredients such as Serrano, bell pepper, tea, bourbon and burnt corn husk — he says a lot of thought goes behind each concoction to keep the customer, not the bartender, happy. A cocktail with bleu cheese, for example, was fashioned after a fruit and cheese plate and includes pear brandy, a tiny amount of bleu cheese, and sauternes for the wine that usually accompanies it.
Here, he shares some of his thoughts on method, inspiration and bringing Aviary to other cities.
On His Cocktail Process: “A lot of it comes from my food background. A lot comes from the team around me. A lot comes from travel, and experiencing culture, new flavors, bars and restaurants. Expect a New York touch to our bar program there.”
Favorite Cocktail: “I have a couple depending on time and place. Aged Rum Daiquiri, Dark 'n' Stormy and a Negroni.”
Favorite Food to Cook: “Red meat, pasta or Thai food -- only at home though!”
Favorite Ingredients: “Collaboration ingredients! Single barrel whiskey, special barrel aged spirits, strawberry brandy from our favorite brandy producer Rhine Hall, etc.”
Favorite Guilty Pleasure: “Amaretto Sour -- with black truffle.”
Go-To-Recipe For Family and Friends: “Daiquiris; 2oz Botran Reserva Rum, 1oz Fresh Lime Juice, 3/4oz Simple Syrup.”
Favorite Place to Eat and Drink When Off-Duty: “Boeufhaus [in Chicago] for Food, Sportsman's Club [also in Chicago] for Drinks.”
Biggest Inspiration: “My family... food was a big part of our gatherings. Cocktails started when I needed to pay my rent so I got a bar job.”
Most Looking Forward To With Expansion: “Being able to have outposts in other places to expose more people to a different style of bar. I think it's fun! We will definitely do a couple more; it’s a very transportable concept and great for big cities with good tourist attractions.”
The Aviary Philosophy: “We like to never do things because ‘That's the way it's always been done.’ Why put that drink in a coupe? Why that dish on a plate? Why do we need tablecloths... etc. etc. It helps drive creativity when you don't limit yourself to other people’s boundaries. Also, if it's possible to do once, it's possible to serve on a menu. No limitations should be placed on delivering an experience.”
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