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Craft cocktail culture takes hold in Little Rock

On the heels of the local food and craft beer movements, it's now all the rage.

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PEACE OFFERING: 109 & Co.'s bar manager George Thompson skillfully assembles "cool" cocktails.
  • PEACE OFFERING: 109 & Co.'s bar manager George Thompson skillfully assembles "cool" cocktails.

These days it's not uncommon to find a cocktail chilled by a racquet ball-sized, sculpted ice cube at a Little Rock bar. Nor is it unusual to see lists on cocktail menus that highlight local ingredients or syrups or bitters made in-house. On the heels of the local food and craft beer movements booming in Central Arkansas, the craft cocktail scene has become the latest rage. It's now rare for a mid- to high-end local restaurant to open without a cocktail menu that suggests a fair amount of artistry.

But at the root of the trend is something an earlier generation would appreciate: classic cocktails made properly. That's the formula at 109 & Co., a nearly 1-year-old downtown bar.

"Without sounding too corny, we try to make classic cocktails cool again," owner Michael Peace says. What's that mean? "Using really good ingredients," Peace says. "If you're using citrus, have it fresh; not using sweet and sour; not using the cranberry mixer stuff you'd buy in Kroger; knowing when to shake versus stir; paying attention to presentation; not filling a cocktail glass up with a bunch of little ice cubes; using good whiskey; making sure sweet vermouth is cold."

Yellow Rocket Concepts, the restaurant group behind Big Orange, Heights Taco & Tamale, Local Lime, Lost Forty and ZAZA, follows a similar philosophy. It recently rolled out new cocktail menus, or soon will, at Big Orange, HT&T and Local Lime. All of the syrups the restaurants use to mix cocktails are made in-house. The ice machines they use were chosen because they make larger ice cubes — one-and-a-quarter-inch squared — than most, which are thought to dilute cocktails more slowly. And at Big Orange Midtown, there is always at least one cocktail that has been aged up to a year in a 5-liter barrel.

"Since so many spirits are barrel- aged, why not throw in a whole cocktail?" Yellow Rocket Concepts beverage director Brett Bassett said. "You put anything in a barrel for a period of time, it's going to change color, flavor and tannins. We've now started layering barrels, putting a Negroni [gin, vermouth and Campari] in one and then a Vieux Carre [rye whiskey, Cognac, vermouth, Benedictine liqueur and bitters] in the same barrel after the Negroni comes out."

Many of Yellow Rocket's cocktails came from old cocktail books, but now that its customers have embraced craft cocktails, there's room for experimentation, Bassett said.

"People are so comfortable, it's a trust thing. Not just us, it's everywhere — South on Main, 109 & Co., The Pantry and others. People know what to expect. Even if they've never heard of the ingredients. People trust that you're going to make something delicious."

Bassett's new menus, especially the one for Big Orange, incorporate ingredients that are newly available in this market. "Distributors are taking notice" of the craft cocktail scene taking hold, "and are giving us stuff that other, bigger markets have had," he said. For example, one of his new creations, Big Orange's Old Brothers cocktail, includes Byrrh Quinquina, a French aperitif made from bark from the South American cinchona tree.

Of course, as with any new cultural movement that involves somewhat esoteric elements and relatively high prices, the craft cocktail scene has its dissenters.

"If you're pushing boundaries in a market that's not used to it, you're going to have people who make fun of passion in any sense," Bassett acknowledged. "We completely embrace the nerddom or weirdness that's associated with craft cocktails." To wit, he said he was working on putting citrus or spirits in ice and making craft Jello shots.

As for the price point, Peace had a ready answer:

"A cocktail at 109 might cost you $10 or $11. Of course, 33 percent of that is tax. But I think most of our customers know that a cocktail here equals about three if you go to other bars. It's priced higher, but you get bang for the buck."

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