Eamon Rockey is a patient man. As co-owner and general manager of Aska, Williamsburg’s new multi-course Scandinavian restaurant, he also helms the laborious cocktail program — Rockey often spends months refining house-made tinctures and mixes before serving a finished drink to diners. But he also knows how to have a good time.
“In the end, it’s all about making the drinks delicious. And that’s a personal understanding,” says the cocktail guru. Sure it is, but considering Rockey’s pedigreed background (Eleven Madison Park, Atera), we’d be willing to forgo our decision-making abilities and trust his palate for an evening. Rockey chatted with Fork in the Road about his latest project, his Brooklyn neighborhood, and why cosmopolitans aren’t just for Carrie Bradshaw.
What should we be drinking right now at Aska?
We’ve started to serve a Cosmopolitan. It’s such an innately New York drink, such a trendy one, but not one that many cocktail enthusiasts would consider ordering. So we decided to make it with our own ingredients. We pressed fresh cranberries — which released this intensely red, sour cranberry juice– and combined that with Swedish vodka and our version of oleo saccharum, made from sugar-rubbed lime peels. The limes macerate and turn into this wonderful bright-green tasty sugar. We also carbonate the the finished beverage instead of shaking it. It’s a serious drink, and the flavors you experience while drinking it are true. We’re very proud of it.
Instead of focusing on historically accurate cocktails, Aska specializes in original drinks. How did you design the menu?
I wanted to offer a cocktail program that would complement the restaurant’s style but would also be able to stand alone. So we offer drinks like the Red Hare, which is essentially an energy drink. It’s got a lot of citrus and botanicals that we source ourselves, as well as ginko biliboa and ginseng. We’re using really high-grade ingredients, so it’s an ideal beverage for diners who want to have fun and stay up late. At the same time, we wanted to serve drinks that recognize our neighborhood. The Hurricane Shandy, for example, donates a dollar from the sale of each cocktail to organizations that support Sandy relief efforts. But it also represents the community — it includes Brooklyn Beer.
Why do your drinks take so much time to produce?
I always want cocktails that tell a story. I think a menu should be diverse in its offerings, but also explain something about the neighborhood and why we’re here — it’s a part of our responsibility to the community. Usually, when you work with bartenders, they’re just going to grab a bottle and start shaking something up. The next step is to sip it and think, what does this remind me of? What clever little thing can I attach to this drink to make people interested in it? To me, that’s the exact opposite approach to what I bring to the cocktail program at Aska.
Aska offers a tasting menu in addition to its a la carte menu. If diners will be eating twenty courses, how do you then begin a dialogue about drinking?
I find out what’s right for the diner. Sometimes that’s about alcohol and sometimes it’s about other factors. We always have a hot cocktail on the menu and, in wintertime, people come in and they’re red-nosed and shivering. The first question I’ll ask is, “can I bring you something warm to drink?” Usually, people are surprised by the question, but it’s such a wonderful way to start the meal. We’ve started producing our own hot chocolate and it’s just delicious. We use local Mast Brothers chocolate and we spike it with a bit of aquavit and some sherry. Our aquavit is aged in sherry barrels, so we’re enhancing the complexity of the drink as a whole. It is grounded by Scandinavian [roots], but also tells so much about our experience here in Brooklyn.
It seems as if you’re bringing a Bob Dylan vibe to the bar. Not only telling stories that are personal to you, but also ones that speak to a moment in time.
(Laughs) I suppose so. Time is so crucial to so much of what we do here. These aren’t drinks that can be made in a day. They require a lot of investment, forethought and planning. There’s not a single cocktail on our list that is either shaken or stirred. The execution of our drinks is always very tricky, and they don’t rely on classic methods that people would generally recognize.
So are there cocktails that you could taste today and then again six months from now?
Oh, absolutely. So many of our drinks benefit simply from the evolution of time. The Milk Punch, for example, develops like wine. It’s a combination of dark rum, tequila, fennel, and winter citrus. It’s then complemented by oolong tea and milk. If you made and drank that today, it would be very vibrant and clean. Over the course of months or even years, you could come back and it would be a different beverage entirely. Sometimes things just need time to mature.