Meet the Bartender: Andrew Larson
The recent San Diego transplant’s cocktails are making waves at The Nolen
The Nolen's lead bartender Andrew Larson. | Photo by MediumRaw Arts
Each month, I do a “Meet the Bartender” Q&A to introduce y’all to the talented folks who are putting San Diego’s cocktail scene on the map. This month’s Q&A is a literal introduction: Andrew Larson, lead bartender at The Nolen, moved to San Diego from Seattle just four months ago and he’s already made a significant impression. One of his cocktails on The Nolen’s current menu, the Pacific Wave, was featured in a Tales of the Cocktail blog post, and Larson was a top-three finisher in a recent Negroni competition. His twist on a Mule, called The Forgotten Visionary, is going to be featured in a Moscow Mule 75th anniversary book. (Try it—it’s listed on the menu as a vodka cocktail, but it’s even better with gin.)
Larson’s mighty talented. And fun to chat with. Cocktail geeks should hit up The Nolen when it’s not too busy. Larson’s happy to take the time to talk about interesting spirits, his housemade tinctures and bitters, and the magic of well-timed barrel aging. (Love spirit-forward cocktails? The Juan Nolen will change your life.)
Tell me about your background. What brought you to San Diego?
I moved to Seattle [from Sacramento] when I was 21 and lived in Seattle for almost five years. I worked for Michael Mina for three years and worked for another group called McCracken and Tough. They do Tavern Law and [speakeasy] Needle & Thread. I worked for them for three-and-a-half years.
But we were over the Seattle [cost of living]. We came down here and visited some of [my girlfriend’s] friends, had a blast and saw the bar scene down here. When we got back to Seattle, we were, like, alright, let’s do it in six months. So we worked and saved for six months, and moved down here blindly with no jobs. I happened to email Lauren at The Nolen and got an interview. I made her a couple of drinks and then they hired me. I’ve been loving it ever since then.
It’s such a great setting. It’s unique among rooftop bars in San Diego.
The view, the space, the overall feel of that place is pretty special. When I first saw the bar, I was, like, OK! It’s not a bad office at all to work out of.
Tell me about this avocado and cilantro shrub in the Alligator Pear cocktail (gin, Kummel, avocado/cilantro shrub, lemon and soda with a mezcal float).
A typical shrub is equal parts vinegar, fruit, and sugar. In the vegan community, for people who don’t like egg whites, or can’t eat them, avocado is a good substitute [in cocktails]. So, the avocado and the cilantro pair really well together. The Kummel—it’s a cumin, caraway, and fennel-seed liqueur—is absolutely awesome… When I found out they were going to start doing tacos at Nolen, I thought we should definitely have a savory cocktail on the menu. So, you have gin, lemon, Kummel, avocado-cilantro shrub. You shake the hell out of it, and then you top it with a little bit of soda water and a float of mezcal. The mezcal kind of hides that vinegary note that you’d get in a shrub cocktail, but also rounds it out because of the smokiness in the mezcal.
Do you keep the food menu in mind when you’re coming up with cocktails?
Whenever I go work with a restaurant, it’s always, like, pair the cocktails with the food. If you don’t have a balance between your food and your cocktails, then someone’s not going to eat or they’re going to drink beer and wine. So, it’s trying to find the happy medium. With food, I was taught to pair it with liquor or a cocktail. I always keep that in mind. Food is one of my main inspirations, because whatever you can do with food, you can do with cocktails. You’re trying to find the perfect balance—you want to hit the tip of your tongue all the way back. You want your mouth to be totally engaged with that drink.
Creating menus is one of my favorite things to do. You’re not creating one cocktail, you’re creating 10 to 20. And then you see how they interact with each other and the food that you offer—the puzzle game is a fun one.
Tell me about the barrel-aged mezcal cocktail (the Juan Nolen).
One of my favorite spirit-forward cocktails is called an Improved Whiskey Cocktail. With the “improved” cocktails, you pick anything besides vodka, and then it’s absinthe, Luxardo Maraschino, and a little bit of sugar—so it’s very anise forward. The reason we called it “Juan Nolen" is because one of my buddies is named Juan and it’s basically all of our favorite things in one drink, and it’s barrel-aged.
For how long?
This one, we do three weeks. The general idea of barrel-aging any cocktail is that you’re making something that’s a little harsh more palatable. So, let’s say you’ve never had a Negroni before. I have a barrel-aged Negroni, or I could serve you a fresh one. I’d much rather give you a barrel-aged Negroni because the oak helps round out everything. Negronis are very punch-in-your-face bitter, but if you barrel-age it, it’s going to be way less bitter; it’s going to be more rounded on your mouth and it’s going to go down smoother. The whole idea of barrel-aging is to take something that’s really harsh and mellow it out.
With barrel-aged cocktails, every day you’re in there tasting. You can over-oak it and all the flavors will be, like, blah together… and you just wasted two gallons of booze. So, every day you’ve got to taste and figure out what you’re looking for.
What’s your favorite spirit or liqueur to work with?
My favorite would fall in the gin category because gin has so many different expressions. You have your London dry gin, you have your barrel-aged gin, you have your genevers, you have aquavit. You have a very broad spectrum of gin. A lot of people don’t know all the different little fun things about gin. But I can make you what looks to you like a Manhattan, but it’s made with a gin out of Portland, Oregon, called Ransom Old Tom gin, so it’s dark. It looks like dirty gin, basically, and I make Manhattan variations with it. Mixed into a cocktail, you couldn’t tell if it was whiskey or gin. The thing about gin is you can do spirit-forward drinks, you can do citrus drinks, you can do tiki drinks. One of my favorites is a Singapore Sling and it’s a gin-based tiki cocktail.
Is there anything new and interesting you’ve come across? Anything new you’re working with or want to work with?
Because we’re so close to Mexico, there’s so many tequilas that I’m finding out about, and being able to taste all this awesome, small-batch stuff. We’re working on launching a barrel service for The Nolen—we’re going to do specialty barrel-aged cocktails. Right now, we’re looking for some specialty small-batch stuff that no one really knows about and creating some barrel-aged cocktails with that stuff.
So whatever’s in the barrel is just for that customer? [Note: The barrels are much smaller than your normal-sized barrels.]
What we’re working out now is the logistics of it. Getting the barrels isn’t the hard part. We’re trying to figure out if we’re going to do a half-barrel or full barrel and then we’re thinking about doing custom drink orders—so, I’ll do a barrel-aged whole cocktail for a customer, for parties of five or larger. It’s basically like the punch-bowl concept. No one’s doing it as far as I know right now, so it’s kind of like breaking into some fun stuff that we’re already playing with.
Fill in the blanks: I wish people would stop ordering ___________ and instead try __________.
I wish people would stop ordering vodka and start ordering gin-based cocktails. When people sit at my bar, I give them a little vodka and gin lesson. Vodka came to the United States in 1955. It wasn’t commercially available until 1958, 1960. For 150 years, there was not a drop of vodka in American cocktails.
But there are vodka cocktails on the menu?
If I had full say, I would have nothing with vodka.
Last question: When can folks find you behind the bar?
Every day besides Wednesday and Thursday—I’m usually there anyway. One way or another, I’m always there.
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