During summer breaks from Cornell University, Buffalo native Noah Ellis worked in the kitchen for chef Jim Cohen. His hard work on the line led to an opportunity in Vegas. Cohen wasn’t long for the city, but Ellis stuck around, transitioning to the front of the house for The Light Group. He signed on with star chef Michael Mina. His time at Strip Steak and an earth-shattering drink in New York led to a passion for cocktails. Ellis eventually rose to the position of Beverage Director, developing and managing bar programs at Mina Group restaurants across the country. While working as a front of house manager for Mina Group, he befriended chef Jordan Kahn, who joined him on the road, opening Mina restaurants like Bourbon Steak and Saltwater. Late night talks over steaming bowls of pho eventually led to a Vietnamese restaurant of their own, with Adam Fleischman: Red Medicine. Ellis and I met in the makeshift office at their under-construction restaurant to discuss his background, approach, and plans for the Red Medicine bar program, which might not be what you’d expect.
Would you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?
I don’t like the term mixologist. I think bartender is more important. Mixology is the art of making great drinks, and I think bartending encapsulates that, but at the end of the day we’re here to take care of people…Our job is to take care of the guest, to guide the guests to the correct products that we serve. It’s not substituting out a billion things and making them whatever they want, but understanding what they want and moving them in the right direction without being pretentious. The term I like is bartender.
How did you become so interested in cocktails?
I cooked my way through college, and then the first job I had in the front of the house was working for a nightclub company in Las Vegas called The Light Group. They were more about bar operation and that sort of thing. I worked my way up and got into management and helped manage a couple of their restaurant/bars, really no cocktail development, but ordering product and managing the logistics. I opened Strip Steak for Michael Mina and took the lead on that cocktail program, which is really the first time I’d done it. The scene in Vegas then was certainly not mature.
What year was that?
I started at Strip Steak in September 2006.
What brought you to Las Vegas?
In college, there was a chef I cooked for – I grew up in Buffalo – and he was the chef of The Wildflower in Vail, and before then, The Phoenician, out in Scottsdale. He had taken a partnership position in Buffalo because that was where his family was, and I was a prep cook and then a line cook for him. He was moving back to Las Vegas to take over a restaurant at Caesar’s and do very regional Italian food. He took over, I was in school, it was summer, and I went out there and cooked for him for the summer.
What was the chef’s name?
Do you have a first cocktail memory?
The first cocktail I had that really made me understand where I needed to go was probably the Earl Grey Martini at Pegu Club in New York. I worked for Michael at Strip Steak. We did some cocktails. I was interested, but there wasn’t much for me to drink in Las Vegas, nothing too interesting. And certainly nothing classic. Then I opened another nightclub/lounge in Las Vegas where we didn’t deal with cocktails too frequently. Then I went to New York on a trip. I started working for Michael again in a corporate capacity, opened all these restaurants. I took a trip to New York, and we went to Pegu Club. Before we went to Angel’s Share, the night prior, and I had a couple great cocktails, but the Earl Grey Martini at Pegu Club kind of opened up my eyes. I spent the rest of the summer in San Francisco working at Michael Mina, in the dining room. But I was drinking at Bourbon & Branch, Alembic and Absinthe, sort of all the great San Francisco bars, all summer, just trying to get my head around it.
Would you say that you have any cocktail mentors?
Yeah, on different levels. Jose Zepeda in Las Vegas taught me a lot about a bar, how it operates, and efficiency in motion. He was a great bartender. We were in a casino, he’d see a guest coming from literally 50 yards away, on a night where it was three-deep, and by the time the guest got to our bar, a cocktail was on a coaster waiting. It was ready. The bartop was always clean. There were no extra straws or picks. It was kind of like less mixology and more being a bar man and a bartender. Really tending bar.
The next guy I worked with was Michael MacDonnell in Las Vegas, who I’m still good friends with. He was very into classic cocktails, and he pushed me in the right direction. It was big. When we opened, from the two of them, I did what I did for awhile.
When we opened Clock Bar in San Francisco, Marco Dionysos headed up the bar there, so we were working side by side. On my best day now, I would say he’s probably five times better than I am, on his worst day. As a whole, as far as all things spirits and cocktails go. There was an even bigger discrepancy then. I met him. We had this hiring test to see where people are. 75 questions. I think the high score we were getting in San Francisco at the time was a 41 or 42 out of 75. Marco comes in, hands me back the test in like 10 minutes, and is just like, “Yeah, great test, really liked it. By the way, two of your questions were not entirely rooted in classics. Here are the correct answers to them.” They were esoteric questions, like, the Negroni was originally made with a lemon peel and Dale DeGroff was the guy who added an orange to it. Even people who know classics don’t really consider that. And then there’s all the other varieties of Chartreuse, beyond yellow and green. The clear and the red. I don’t know that he mentored me, but I worked with him, and honestly, I probably learned more about cocktails and spirits in three months working with him – I learned as much working with him as I had in my life up until that point.
What do you think sets him apart?
I’ve been to a lot of bars in a lot of cities. To me, he’s like the best bartender I’ve ever seen. His cocktails are spot-on. He’s fast. He’s efficient. He can discuss cocktails or spirits with you. You bring up tequila, his iPhone’s out and he’s showing you pictures of him at all the different distilleries. You like Pisco? He’s showing you pictures of Peru. If it’s a smoking bar, your cigarette’s lit before it’s in your mouth. The coasters face the right way. The check presenters are there. Every aspect of bartending, from understanding the raw product, to mixing the perfect cocktail, to handling the guest correctly to running a good bar, I think he really encapsulates. He’s just like the perfect amalgamation of all those things. He’s just unbelievable. His cocktail knowledge is literally through the roof. You don’t want to play stump the bartender with him.
Who are some other bartenders you really respect, other than Marco?
Jason Bran, out here, is terrific. He’s at Roger Room now. When we did XIV with SBE, he joined the team and when we interviewed him, he told me he was at a Japanese restaurant, and I know just enough about sake to get myself in trouble. I started asking him about it because I was trying to gauge everyone’s knowledge. We had a really good conversation. He came in and started bartending and I was just blown away. He’s one of the fastest and most efficient bartenders, very smooth, with a great understanding of cocktails.
Kevin Diedrich, who was in San Francisco and then New York, and is now back in San Francisco, is really unbelievable, handles fresh products well. Again, great bartender, understands the bar.
But the best cocktail I ever had in my life is Cyrus when Scott Beattie was bartending there.
It’s more West Coast, and majority Bay Area, because that’s where I’ve spent the majority of my time.
I think Marcos [Tello] here is amazing. Eric [Alperin] at The Varnish is great. Rivera, awesome cocktails. I sort of hold Marco and Scott Beattie in this regard; it’s the pinnacle to me where I would love to be at some point.
What are some bars that you really enjoy drinking at, anywhere, and why?
I love PDT in New York. Cocktails and drinking to me are a little separate. PDT in New York…If I were behind the bar for 12 hours a day for six days a week, I probably still couldn’t come up with cocktails that good.
Cyrus is Healdsburg, unbelievable. That guy understands how to take farm ingredients and process them into a cocktail like nobody else I’ve ever seen. A lot of people try and some cocktails look as good. Some taste as good, but Scott’s just unbelievably talented.
I love Angel’s Share in New York for the room. I love the Japanese bar aesthetic. It’s very much about the process and the journey, then the cocktail’s sort of your reward. I love The Varnish here. I think The Varnish is unbelievable. Milk & Honey in London was terrific. Bar Hemingway at the Ritz Paris, it’s not technical at all. They don’t measure. It’s very whimsical, but at the same time, the drinks are great. It’s a beautiful hotel and just kind of works. Then Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco is one of the coolest bar rooms. Also The Doheny, when it was The Doheny. I love the entrance.
Have you been back since the switch to Caña?
I haven’t, but it’s high on the list. La Descarga’s an amazing room too.
What’s a great simple cocktail that you recommend people make at home, and how do you make it?
Really simple, a classic daiquiri. I’ll do two ounces of rum. I like a white, or light molasses-based rum. Then maybe three-quarters of an ounce of freshly squeezed lime juice, a couple not-mounded barspoons of white sugar. Shake unbelievably hard. Strain it but don’t double strain it. I think you want the ice crystals in that. Garnish with a lime peel.
Any type of rum in particular?
For a daiquiri, El Dorado white comes out pretty well, the unaged. You try to keep it molasses based. The Myers’s Platinum is pretty good for that. There’s just sort of a lot of options. It depends what you like stylistically. I’d say El Dorado white’s some great stuff.
If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would it be?
I drink Campari and soda. That’s sort of my go-to, with an orange slice. It’d probably be that, though that’s not very interesting, is it?
It’s whatever you prefer.
Either that or a Corpse Reviver 2, but honestly, I’m a Campari and soda guy.
What’s your approach with the cocktails at Red Medicine?
What we’re trying to do is not have an overwhelming amount of cocktails or spirits. We might have one or two gins on the list at a time, and one or two whiskeys, or maybe just one of each style. One Bourbon, one rye, one Scotch from each of the big regions. Rums are a little interesting. Do you have one from each country, one from each age statement or style? I don’t want to huge back bar with a lot of spirits. We’ll have the really great cordials or vermouths and liqueurs that we need, but we’ll buy a case of this, and we’ll run it and make great drinks that are really seasonal, with it, and when we run out of whatever the product is, we’ll try a different gin for the next month. Then the same thing with any fresh products that we’re using. I love classics. I’m not very creative, so classics are a great outlet for me, because the recipes exist. You don’t need to make anything up, you can just try to perfect them. I don’t think that stirred clssics are really going to help the food. It’s not like I’m going to have a great banh mi, and I’m also going to have a Remember the Maine. Or even a Negroni. We’ll be able to make those, but you won’t be able to call all your spirits. Maybe we’ll have 6-8 cocktails on the list, and try to change one every third day. We’ll be very seasonally relevant. I’m not going to say that we’ll be fruit forward, but we’re going to be using really seasonal ingredients, doing some unique things with shrubs – the old vinegar based syrups. We’ll try to process the ingredients really well so it’s not overt, but they’re there. Everything’s going to be bright cocktails. Same thing with the wine. We’re not going to serve big reds. It’s going to be primarily really aromatic, really high acid whites. The cocktails are going to be to that style. There’s going to be some variance, but nothing too strong, nothing that’s going to beat you up.
What’s one cocktail that you’re pretty sure is going on the list, and what was your approach?
We haven’t finalized anything, but I think a Pisco Punch, but we’ll make it to order versus overnight. I think it would do really well. Pineapple, when it’s in season, we’ll make a pineapple gum syrup, made with a little bit of pectin though. We’ll use Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Bitters so you’ll get some neat cookie spices that will play well if Jordan’s doing something with five spice. We’re not pairing cocktails, but the cocktails will go well with the food. A little bit of lime juice and some grapefruit peel. So you have a little bit of citrus and some fruit forward flavors. You’ll get a little bit of funk from the Pisco. Vietnamese and a lot of Asian cuisines have that sort of umami flavor. Is it fish sauce? Is it kombu or dashi? They all have something a little fermented or a little funky, and Pisco sort of adds that base note. When it’s in a Pisco punch, you can’t identify it, but it has some nice depth to it. That will probably make the initial list.
As far as having access to the markets, what will that allow you to do that you weren’t doing in Vegas?
There’s a great farmers market here, and this is a small enough operation where we’ll really have our hands around it. The issue in Las Vegas or other cities, it partially was having a great farmers market like we do here, but I think the other half is that I wasn’t necessarily involved in the day-to-day enough. It’s a big operation and you can’t just buy from a farmers market when your restaurant’s in a casino or hotel. There’s purchasing and all the things that make Las Vegas efficient and cost effective don’t really work to your benefit if you’re trying to change things on the fly. The nice thing here is that we’ll be able to go and pick up some great fruit. We’ll pick up some specific farmers. And then we’ll be able to knock out a great drink today and it will be on the menu tomorrow. Right off the bat I’m looking forward to strawberries. We’re probably going to open right at the end of that, but then we go right into stone fruit. It’s going to be unbelievable. And then citrus in winter.
When you think of stone fruit, what do you think cocktail wise?
Everybody thinks of peaches, which I love, but I’d love to do something interesting with plums. I think apricot’s also a really interesting flavor. There are some unique apricot eau de vies. Without using too much apricot, you can get that nice fresh vibrant fuzzy apricot. When you’re biting a fresh one, then you can get the underlying base tones. A little apricot eau de vie, where you can get the pit and deeper, richer cooked notes. I think that will be really interesting. Cocktail wise, tough to say. Honestly, I have a list of maybe 40 drinks that are inspiring or interesting, and then we’ll go from there. Initially we’ll start playing with classics, not like tweaking them. It’s not going to be like an apricot flavored Blood and Sand. That’s kind of obvious.
Does it matter that it’s Vietnamese food as far as the cocktails are concerned?
No, we’re trying not to go Asian. We’re trying to play more to classic European and go more that way. A lot of Vietnamese food is French influenced, because they were colonized, and we kind of want to at least give a nod to that. So you’ll see classics that are French or European, and obviously classics that are traditionally American, in that sort of more metropolitan style. You think of colonial hotels and bars, like a Singapore Sling. Not Vietnamese, and not even tropical. It’s gin based, but it’s a play on the great old colonial hotel that’s in Singapore.