Anxiety and self-doubt… Me on a good day. But during the challenge of creating my first cocktail menu for Maray, these feelings were off the scale. Alongside excitement and a massive flow of creativity of course, but loads of the first two. As I’m sure many bartenders would confess to, it’s incredibly easy to fall into the trap of completely over-thinking drinks. If I’ve learnt anything from the experience though, it’s to know your audience from the outset, and if you deliver with personality, guests will be very receptive and the drinks will sell. Ultimately, it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever been part of.

Working at a restaurant, the food is obviously focal, but this isn’t to say the drinks aren’t just as important for the guest. Both need to complement one another to offer an all-round experience. So, tailoring drinks to the theme and style of the food coming out the kitchen is something I find in-credibly interesting. It can sound like a cliché, but I am a big believer in simple and honest drinks. A couple of primary flavours in a cocktail is enough for me, every ingredient needs to play its role and be distinguished and I don’t like to over complicate a drink by adding some obscure liqueur that doesn’t bring anything to the table.

The food at Maray is super eclectic and our kitchen team take influence from many different parts of the world when developing their menus. Combining flavours to compliment food can be very tricky, but a good start is to use ingredients the kitchen already uses. Seasonal produce is also key. I’ve always found it best beginning with my base spirit and a base flavour I’d like to build around, and from that create and balance a drink with a rounded profile and then add depth and complexity if needed, or keep it sharp and simple. I also make a keen habit of relentlessly questioning our talented chefs for ideas or advice about flavour combinations and techniques when working with fresh produce.

We are fortunate at Maray that our guests are very open minded and we’re often able to offer people spirits or styles of drinks they perhaps aren’t familiar with by presenting them in an accessible way. This makes the creative part of my job exciting. For example, Pisco is not a spirit a lot of people had heard of prior to 2016, however in our ‘Pisco Violette’ cocktail we used the reminiscent childhood flavour of palma violet to draw people who also aren’t familiar with the Peruvian spirit to give it a whirl.

Infusions have proven very successful for us, they are great way of bringing flavour into a drink without the unwanted volume or sweetness of say, a juice or liqueur. Our ‘Chai Old Fashioned’ is a simple fast infusion of bourbon and green chai tea bags, infuses in tw0 hours, stirred down with some honey syrup and bitters results in a quaffable winter sipper.

First taste is with the eye as they say, so the correct ice and garnishes are very important. Garnish should not only make the drink look aesthetically amazing, but also provide a sense of fragrance that should complement the other ingredients. Dehydrating fruit, big ice cubes, striking glassware, or even just cutting fruit in different ways are some methods we use to make our drinks distinguished. But first and foremost our job is to make the drink we send out looks as perfect as the last.

With our Spring menu launch just around the corner, sleepless nights are in full swing and waking up thinking about what goes with rhubarb…here we go again. Nevertheless, presenting one of your own creations to a guest and watching them appreciate your labour of love makes it all worthwhile. EJ

words by MARK JACKSON Head Bartender at Maray
photography by HANNAH CASSIDY