Rising Star Mixology Award presented by:
Whether or not Jason Littrell really can do it all is almost moot. He thinks he can, he acts like he can, and he certainly mixes like he can. And it's no doubt bar patrons and fellow mixologists will continue to reap the benefits of this ultra-enthusiastic approach to mixology for years to come. This is even more astounding considering Littrell’s first bartending gig was at the dubiously named Shooter’s Cocktails, where “the shooters were the clients, and there were no cocktails to be found.” Hardly an auspicious beginning; the guy Littrell was replacing had been stabbed by a customer.
But if there’s one thing Littrell has in spades, it’s enthusiasm, the kind that even a stabbing can’t deter. He left Shooter’s Cocktails and many a similar establishment in his wake on his path to becoming the consummate mixology multi-tasker. And he came up in the ranks in some of New York’s best cocktail bars, working under the likes of Sasha Petraske of Milk & Honey, White Star, and Little Branch fame before joining the cocktail dream team at Death & Co. He’s mixed everything from esoteric drinks to timeless classics and modern innovations, all the while refining his own style and execution.
Beyond the bar, Littrell has apprenticed at the controlled chaos of Tales of the Cocktail and sat on three panels at the 2010 Manhattan Cocktail Classic in addition to freelance writing and brand consultation. Most recent among his roster of projects was the opening of Dram, a Williamsburg-based cocktail bar where the mixologist plies his craft with a deep appreciation for the special architecture of a great cocktail. To top it off, Littrell has a natural flair for the kind of breezy service and meticulous execution New Yorkers expect of their bartenders. Meanwhile, Littrell is constantly learning from his colleagues all over the country and expanding the known boundaries of cocktail potential, whether he’s using a glass, a pen, or a video demonstration.
Interview with Mixologist Jason Littrell of Dram – Brooklyn, NY
Emily Bell: What drew you to restaurants and, in particular, to mixology?
Jason Littrell: My mom always told me I was going to be a bartender. Or a therapist. I started off a little bit late. I started off washing dishes when I was 18 or 19. I was a tour manager for a band for a couple of years, but the band moved on to do something else, they lost the record deal and I was left with nothing to do. I had to start a new career. I always wanted to make drinks. I went to bars by my house and said “I want to be a bartender.” They said “Okay, here’s your apron, you’re going to start with washing dishes.” I eventually became a busboy, then a waiter, a barback, and finally a bartender.
EB: Why bartending?
JL: There’s definitely the social aspect of it. I haven’t been making real drinks for nearly as long as a lot of people I know. Getting into the cocktail world is a relatively new thing for me. But once the surface was scratched, I bought every book I could find and read them all and really started to fool around with different things. It just kind of happened.
EB: Did you train formally in mixology or learn on the job?
JL: A large amount of credit would go to the people at The Randolph, because they brought in Sasha Petraske. The Randolph used to be a regular vodka-soda bar, serving just really crappy drinks that people seem to love—and really expensive. But then the concept really changed when they brought in Sasha Petraske to teach us how to make drinks. I found it to be just fascinating. You can put effort into these things and make something that’s really delicious! I like to think I picked up the ball and ran with it a little bit. Now all my friends are bartenders. Feeding from the community is definitely one of my number one resources. Books are great, but you learn more from your friends I think.
EB: Is there any sense of competition?
JL: In a world that’s as subjective as making cocktails, when your job is the pursuit of deliciousness, it’s all very subjective. I don’t really like to do officially sanctioned competitions anymore per se. But in the community, no, there’s no competition. I don’t know if you’ve seen my Facebook page recently but there’s a lot of, “congratulations!” and, “you deserve it!” [for the Rising Stars award.] Nobody’s muttering under their breath, “it should have been me!” When you’re a committed professional it’ll happen eventually, as far as receiving honors. And of course when friends that your respect as drink-makers come back to your bar, that’s a big honor in itself.
EB: What inspires you when creating a new cocktail?
JL: A lot of it for me comes from the new products on the market, like newer, rarer things. Chinatown really blows my mind. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to stroll through Chinatown, but you can go into a store there’ll be wacky shaped bags and cool products. There are lots of sources of inspiration in New York—there are so many ethnic neighborhoods. Sometimes I incorporate that stuff. Largely it’s academic for me.
EB: Do you like to try new flavor combinations?
JL: It’s like the concept of Jurassic Park. Yes, you can make a drink with some of these exotic ingredients. But should you? As far as flavor combinations go, seasonality is absolutely imperative. And you can never go wrong with variations of tried and true classics. I made this one drink called the Bootsy Collins, after the bassist. It was a Collins variation with gin, Crème Yvette, lemon juice, soda, and a bunch of other stuff. It’s very light and refreshing, a very simple variation of a Tom Collins, which is greatest summer drink ever invented. They’re incredible, so simple. I try to keep it relatively simple. These drinks are supposed to be reproducible and good. That’s why I measure them—so we can make them again for you so they’re good.
EB: So do you always start with a name or a specific flavor in mind?
JL: Sometimes the name will come first. Behind God’s Back, for instance, is a phrase from St. Lucia, it means something that’s really far away; something across the island would be “behind god’s back.” That’s why I use the Chairman’s Reserve rum because it’s a St. Lucian rum, and I kind of built the cocktail around that spirit. And then I wanted it to be a tropical theme, so I used pineapple and lime juice, some orgeat, etc.
EB: What is your favorite drink to make?
JL: I like to think I put the same intensity into everything, whether it’s a vodka soda or a more complex drink like Behind God’ Back. What I find interesting to make are drinks that work out when you wouldn’t think they would. Like how I use three sugars in Behind God’s Back. There’s no rule against it, but it’s hard to make it work. But each sugar has a function; two are for flavors and one is for a textural element. But really I like making them all. Otherwise I’d be a plumber.
EB: How would you characterize the New York cocktail culture?
JL: The cool thing about New York is we’re not actors waiting for callbacks, we’re professional bartenders, we’re professional mixologists. I definitely prefer the term bartender. We’re highly social animals, and you don’t necessarily have to do that to be what I would consider to be a mixologist. Bartending is not just about drinks. Bartending itself is about community, creating a community and being a part of a community. We have a symbiotic relationship with our customers. Without them there is no us.
EB: Is the same true among bartenders?
JL: It’s like last year when Maxwell [Britten] received his [Rising Stars] award. When it came time to receive his award he was like “Hey Jason, can you make drinks while I do this?” I can’t imagine anyone in our community who would have said no to that. It was a no-brainer. Anyone of us would do that for each other. We are very, very close. I live with two bartenders.
EB: That must be fun. Is it like a little mixology laboratory?
JL: You should see how much booze we have in our house. I only brought all the stuff I thought was really cool, bottles signed by master distillers. It’s an enormous amount of booze. My old place was kind of a dump. When I had ideas I would conceptualize and write them down and then go to work and do it. My place now is really nice, so I’m looking forward to experimenting at home.
EB: If you weren’t a mixologist, what would you be doing?
JL: I’ve been involved with Lush Life for a while now, and I’m looking forward to getting more involved in TV productions. I’ve been writing a lot of treatments, not necessarily being on camera, but creating a show that’s relevant. That would be a nice little chunk of history to be a part of.
EB: What does success mean for you?
JL: It’s nice to have your family proud of you. I consider that a fair degree of success.
EB: Where will we find you in five years?
JL: I don’t really need a lot of money. Hopefully it’ll get here someday. Obviously it would be very cool. I’m working on a project in Portland, OR, where we’re trying to organize a march that would bring about real change. They’re bonkers about mezcal in Oregon, but they can’t get it because it’s a control state. I’m trying to organize a march, with Lush Life and Tippling Point, organizing distillers, bartenders, and aficionados to march from the state-run liquor store. We’re shooting for November.
Right now I want to make drinks and travel as much as possible.