Melissa Carroll is bar manager of Fisk & Co. in Chicago.
What was your first bartending job?
I was given my first opportunity to get behind the stick by Laura Green at Geek Bar Beta in Chicago. She ran a marvelous bar program that was beloved by geeks of all kinds, and I was very lucky to get my start under her tutelage.
You started out as a chef; how has that helped you working behind the bar?
Mise en place. I cannot stress enough how important it is to put everything back in its place. Being aware of your space, keeping it tidy, and noticing how you function in it are all skills I picked up as a chef. I wish everyone had the chance to work a line for a week, I think it would really change how bartenders approach their work.
What is your favorite spirit to work with at the moment?
I’m a little more than obsessed with Cocalero right now. It’s a South American herbal liqueur that is a little sweet, but with heavy, savory botanicals. I can drink it neat, on the rocks, with soda, tonic, use it as a replacement for gin or absinthe in recipes. It’s incredibly dynamic, boldly green, and I can’t stop drinking it!
You frequently work tea into cocktails, both hot and cold, what advice can you give bartenders about working with tea?
When you are approaching tea in a cocktail, it’s primarily about bitter balance. Most tea goes bitter at a certain point in its steeping process, so regardless of how you’re using it, you want to pay close attention to how bitter you want something to be for your finished product.
I always start with deciding if I want under-steeped, properly steeped, or over-steeped flavor. Then it’s just a matter of how to infuse it—into the spirit itself, a syrup, a bitters, simply using tea itself, or into another liquid? The possibilities are endless, just let yourself try them!
Fisk & Co. always offers some mocktails; are you seeing more demand for them?
Our Not-tails have been incredibly popular, to the point I’ve found a need to expand our options. I’m happy to see this trend take off more, because there can be a good deal of pressure put on people to enjoy an alcoholic beverage with their meal, sometimes just by themselves!
Taking the time and care to treat mocktails like a cocktail, putting out a superior product can absolutely curate the same joy of that experience, regardless of the reasons people have for choosing not to drink.
You also have a few beer cocktails, which can be a tough sell for some bars. How do guests respond to them?
It is a tough sell, even for us as a beer bar. People are used to hearing that colloquialism of “liquor before beer” so the idea of liquor in beer is positively mind-blowing to many of our guests.
However, there isn’t anything better than having someone who doesn’t like beer suddenly find themselves reconsidering it because they like a cocktail. I’ve found that sticking with light, approachable flavors definitely helps in the process of winning guests over on this front.
Can you tell us about the cocktail menu focused on love deities in different pantheons that you’re rolling out?
“The Origin of Love” menu is fondly named after Hedwig and The Angry Inch, and plays with themes of mythology as well. I’ve always been a deep lover of mythology and spirituality. Even more so I am avidly interested in how this displays in different cultures and about these lasting stories that are essentially codings for morality.
This particular menu diving into these ideas was a boon asked of me by my team because they wanted to learn more about the classic love stories of the world. Each drink is focused on a deity from a different pantheon in the world, with a focus on ingredients inspired by that deity.
For example, the Aphrodite features pomegranate, and the goddess was said to be the first to create the plant within her pantheon.
What’s your current go-to cocktail or beverage?
After working with a large variety of palates throughout my day, I’m pretty simple by the end of it. You’ll find me drinking Old Forester 100 neat with just a splash of water when I’m out for a beverage. It’s warming, lightly spiced, and with just a touch of vanilla that makes my sweet tooth smile.
Tell us about one of your favorite drink recipes.
I make the Two Monks at home all the time! At any given point in time, only two monks at the Carthusian monastery in Voiron, France, know the exact recipes of any chartreuse—how secret society is that? We pay homage to them in this extremely herbal drink. Basil brings a sweetness to balance the pepper notes from the Sapphire East gin.
1 ½ oz. Green Chartreuse
½ oz. Bombay Sapphire East gin
¾ oz. Lime juice
¾ oz. Basil syrup
3-4 large basil leaves
Muddle basil leaves, add ingredients and shake. Double strain into medium rocks glass and add crushed ice.