Coffee mix masters don’t need booze to make it happy hour!
This summer, we’ve been serving up mouthwatering cocktails and mocktails courtesy of our Summer Sips series. These often unexpected, occasionally involved, and always delicious coffee-based drinks are perfected by the curious and creative minds of coffee mixologists. Part mad scientists, part baristas, this passionate crew is dedicated to elevating their mixology to the level you may find at your favorite bar.
We spoke with one innovator leading the charge, Taylor Giroux, Signature Drink Curator at George Howell, to find out just what goes into mastering the art of coffee mixology!
"I started drinking coffee in my home state of Vermont, I had been a screen printer out of high school for about three years. It was my first real job and my press partner drank it every morning to get started. I decided to go for it one day — I hated the taste, but really loved the act of going to get coffee at shops in the area and the feeling of them, even though I wasn't really into what was being served.
When I turned 21, I moved to Austin, Texas with the promise of a printing position. Turns out I was completely misinformed and no job existed. For a few months I tried for other positions, before my only friend in Austin (whom I barely knew) got me a job at a coffee spot inside a college campus — the rest is history! I had my first espresso drink ever, and in classic Taylor fashion, I just never stopped being into it from there.
My first job in coffee mixology was actually my second job in Austin, I worked at a place I had frequented that did a mix of junk food, ridiculous coffee drinks, and house-infused liquor. My second day was the first day of one of the biggest music festivals, SXSW, and I was tasked with making pour overs. Also, it’s probably what got me drinking about five cups a day, because I could finally make decent drip coffee. My boss made this drink called the “Crystal Galaxy,” it was a mocha, but the ganache was infused with roasted garlic. The drink was very weird, just really sweet. But the idea behind it was garlic has similar acidity levels to coffee, so you didn't really taste the garlic, instead it added to the depth to the drink. It made me think, and really brought to light 'How do I explain this to a customer and have them still want to drink it?'
By two months in, everyone had quit and I was left with the most experience and in charge of running their program. I had a lot of fun, but it all was very challenging, with a lot of demand from the owners. This job was how I made so many connections in a new city as well as why I started making mixed coffee drinks.
Mixology is defined as the skill of mixing cocktails as well as other drinks. So, I suppose coffee mixology falls into the “other drinks” category. People always seem to associate mixology with just cocktails and alcoholic drinks, in reality it's a skill in the end. You are skillfully using your palate and your mind to combine ingredients just like anything else. As deep-rooted in meaning and usage as alcohol is, just up until the third wave no one really focused on coffee beyond your traditional milk and espresso drinks. Incorporating coffee in mixology more often can definitely start a conversation about the future of specialty coffee and the future of the amazing people who grow it for us to enjoy.
... spicy flavors just kill the vibe of the drink — it’s too overpowering to really understand the balance
One of my first drinks I made was a mock version of a popular drink served at my bar. It was essentially a spicy Arnold Palmer with basil. I used homemade lemonade, cold brew coffee, a basil simple syrup, and Sriracha. I didn't know how to use shaker tins at the time, so I literally built the drink in the glass and did a really thorough job of mixing in the hot sauce. It was popular, but Texans just hate Sriracha and I have never really made another spicy drink since. I love spicy food, but think spicy flavors just kill the vibe of the drink — it’s too overpowering to really understand the balance.
Food is the number one inspiration for the drinks I make. When I eat, I think the most about flavor combinations for drinks. Peruvian, Cuban, Szechuan, and Mexican are all hits on my list of perfect coffee foods. They all have bright, fresh ingredients, often involving flavors that just bounce off each other constantly and that’s exactly how I build drinks. With every ingredient in my drinks, I add in an ingredient to assure that first ingredient will not overpower the drink. Ironically, some famously known mocktails come from Central and South America, I take huge inspiration from those cultures when creating new drinks.
I am forever stuck on the way pineapple and iced coffee taste together.
I think any ingredient has a place with coffee, I say that with confidence that I know many ways to manipulate coffee than just serving it by itself, hot or cold. Still, I think fresh, savory herbs in excess can really ruin a coffee drink, it ends up almost always tasting like a holiday dinner. Mostly because people always try to pair savory herbs with a type of berry and it just reminds me of bread stuffing and cranberry sauce. Even though I have a huge love for blending new flavors and textures into coffee, I am forever stuck on the way pineapple and iced coffee taste together. There's not many fruits that have that balanced acidity and sweetness. I always recommend next time you brew your favorite iced coffee, try tossing in some pineapple juice, it's hard to place the exact taste until you just have it. If you live near a beach, more power to you, but it's also a perfect combo for frigid winters, because it reminds you that summer is approaching — sooner or later!
Today, coffee mixology is all over the place, and there are many levels to it as well. Many shops are pushing the one or two ingredient latte, lavender lattes are a great example. I see it everywhere and it’s good! It works for the places I have seen it and it's a touch above traditional. Then you get into the folks mixing coffee and non-coffee, a coffee version of a traditional cocktail or mocktail, if you will. Then I feel like it starts getting closer to where I am: creating drinks from no base, maybe pulling inspiration from a known cocktail, but serving it in a new way.
I’m lucky to be a part of a community of super-supportive bar folks who challenge me when I see them making something that they don't believe I can. I don't believe coffee mixology ends at the café, mocktails are becoming more and more the norm. There are a lot of people out there developing non-alcoholic distilled spirits, very flavorful bitters, and new ways to incorporate aromatics like atomizers. They want better mocktails and coffee is surely an in. I really want to see more successful combined coffee and bartending programs — which often lack structure in one or both realms. There is so much potential for decreasing coffee waste and increasing the price people pay for coffee when bartenders get involved. I have always asked: 'Why is it normal to pay $40 for whiskey, but a coffee picked by hand, processed, and imported in near impossible conditions can’t get sold easily for more than $20 per pound?' — especially when you're likely to use that coffee more often.
If you're just getting into coffee mixology, my best advice is to find your target audience and build from there. If the audience is yourself, have as many other people taste your drinks as often as you can. Always use fresh ingredients and learn about how to properly store and prepare them and their full usage to avoid waste. And if at any point you can use already brewed coffee, do so! The great thing, unless you're competing, is coffee doesn't have to be perfect to be in a drink. You are generally looking to give longevity to the life of the coffee — yes it can oxidize, yes it can start to go off ideal flavor, but from a mixology standpoint, it's the challenge of making that work in the situation that’s the fun. Unlike most alcohols that get better with age, coffee is often made and wasted. Take waste and reinvent it to make cost-effective creations for your friends and customers!"
— Taylor Giroux, Signature Drink Curator at George Howell
— Photo Credit: Juliana Lavita