Jonathan Calo - Cocktails from Creation to Consumption
It’s almost funny how one of Charleston’s best-kept secrets is hidden in plain sight. But then again, that was always the motif of the speakeasy. Illegitimate parlors behind/above/outback of legitimate businesses that provided what the American people wanted and what the American government told them they couldn’t have. And Charleston has had a long, torrid and creative relationship with circumventing alcohol law. From the Blind Tigers ofthe State Dispensaryera to the hundreds of operating speakeasies during prohibition--come hell or high water, Charleston was never going to be separated from strong drink. However, in 1933 when prohibition was repealed, the clandestine drinking spots were allowed to come out of their shadows and the speakeasy was relegated to the historical lore of America’s love affair with alcohol.
Fast-forward to the present and it seems the aforementioned love affair is giving a contemporary nod to the illegitimate parlors of old. Period décor,off-the-beaten-path locations and bow-tied barkeeps are fashionable. But more so than anything else “ago”is the renewed interest in the cocktail. Within the past few years, the alcohol landscape has changed in Charleston. We (finally) turned our backs on the archaic and outdated use of the mini-bottle. We saw the beer market flood with previously unattainable craft beers with higher alcohol and we have also seen the proliferation of the art of the classic cocktail. With insight, musings and a slight history lesson from Speakeasy’s resident front man, Jonathan Calo, we traveled to the bottom of the glass together.“ I guess it started for me about a year and a half ago,” Calo said of his delving into the art of cocktails. “I cook a lot in my time off and you know, that’s all about flavor profiles and I was really into wine for a longtime. Well, the thing about wine is it’s all terroir-driven. The thing about cocktails is you’re the guy behind each creation. ” For Calo, it began as small meetings with a smaller cadre of mixologists who would come together to bounce ideas and recipes off each other. “We would come get together and we would have these things tucked away especially for each other… mixes, tonics,bitters and we would make off-menu drinks and talk about them. ” For what began as a humble group of guys with a passion, that passion grew into providence and cocktail-centric establishments like The Gin Joint, The Belmont, Husk and Speakeasy found a home and a clientele amongst the myriad of mixed drink bars on the peninsula.
“Once these places started opening-people started opening their minds to the concept of a personal creation,” he said. “You’re starting to see people come out that don’t mind paying $10 for a craft cocktail rather than seeking out happy hour deals on a vodka tonic. ” Much like the introduction of craft beers to the Charleston market and the interest they have garnered, so too have the emergence of specialty liquors. And while older generations of Charlestonians have long enjoyed a proper Manhattan or Old Fashioned,it’s the addition of things like Falernum, Crème Yvette and St. Germaine to bar arsenals that have opened the proverbial floodgates of cocktail creation. “There were a bunch of us that approached our reps and asked for these things. We literally had to petition them to bring in the things we needed and wanted,” Calo said.“ There are still things we don’t have yet,but new stuff is coming into the market all the time. The distributors have to keep up because we (mixologists) are going full steam ahead into this movement.” But Calo doesn’t just rely on others when crafting his creations; his own palette and imagination are driving forces behind recipe building. From making freshly brewed ginger honey tea to infusing liquors of his own, it seems the sky is the limit when it comes to cocktails. “You know that liquor Fireball (a cinnamon-infused whiskey)that came out a while back?” Calo asked. “Well, I made my own. Sugar, cinnamon and Red Hots and let it all infuse.” You did read that right, folks … Red Hots,as in the little red candies. And while Calo admits there is a method to the madness of making cocktails, he adheres to a very basic recipe and relies on his memory of flavors to make his imagination come to fruition. “Basically you need four elements: sweet, bitter, a citrus component and your basic spirit.”
While this article is a base representation of what Calo has up his sleeves (and behind his bar), the best way to walk the path into the world of cocktails is to simply plod ahead. Just know that when you do, Calo will be there serving as your guide. “I like the interaction with people. I enjoy the relationship that can be built around something like making drinks for someone. I enjoy going through a person’s like and dislikes and crafting something specifically for them. I like the fact that cocktails can be very, very personal,” he said. “Back when I worked at (bar name omitted) it was so busy and hectic and I couldn’t talk to people about what they were drinking. Speak easy is different in that it gives me the environment to make those personalized drinks and make sure my patrons are going to get what they like. "Calo is at Speakeasy most nights, metering and measuring, shaking and stirring, talking and tasting. If you want to broaden your horizons and try something new, go in with an open mind and order the Bartender’s choice. Whatever that happens to be and whatever happens to get put in front of you… make sure it has St. Germaine in it. You can thank me later. Happy drinking!
by Chris West