Booker & Dax’s Tristan Willey: “Cramming More Techniques Into the Glass Isn’t Going to Give You a Better Cocktail”


We’re just two weeks out from this year’s installation of Le Fooding, the 13-year-old Parisian dining renegade that first strutted into New York City four years ago. The group’s made its name on looking at aspects of food culture through a unique lens, bolstering egalitarian eating (as opposed to fine dining) in the process. And for this year’s New York event, Time Mach’Inn, Le Fooding takes a look at the trends of the last three decades, simultaneously poking fun at the hype that once surrounded, say, fusion while pointing to the good things that came out of each era.

The group enlisted Booker & Dax’s Tristan Willey to take on a cocktail pairing for the bistronomy segment of the evening–the late ’90s through early ’00s–which presents a challenge because drinks have followed an evolutionary trajectory that hasn’t necessarily matched food. We caught up with the bartender to talk about his role in the event and chat about the past, present, and future of drinks.

Tell me a little bit about your take on the Le Fooding theme, Time Mach’Inn.
The good thing about Le Fooding is that they’re able to produce a serious product while maintaining the fun and overarching we’re-having-a-good-time vibe. They’re okay with puns and color, but they’re very, very serious about what they produce. This year’s theme is about looking at these timelines and saying, “Can you believe what was happening? But look at these awesome dishes that came out of that.” It’s easy to look back and criticize, but we tend to forget that there were some really awesome things happning.

How do cocktails fit into that?
Cocktails are a little more difficult. There was this big gap, and drinks haven’t had that same evolution. But change has happened in the 2000s, and it’s almost mimicked what food has done, just at a later date.

Given that gap, how did you put together cocktails for the bistronomy years, 1998 through 2007? Did you look at what was happening in the beverage world in the same era?
We looked at cocktails through that time, and it was almost like looking at how you drank in college: You see a lot of cape cods, cosmos, and whiskey sodas. It’s not until recently that you see widespread use of fresh ingredients and flavors. But I knew ahead of time that I wanted to make something true to the theme that drinks more like beer or wine so it wasn’t a shock of flavor. The chefs tied us into the theme and provided an ingredient. Mine was hay. So I made an old school whiskey highball, and I kept it simple, akin to the times. It’s a savory, effervescent drink akin to a beer in weight and feeling.

So cocktails went through a less simple phase?
Yes. Those drinks were not focused on the artisan elements. Cosmos were made from ingredients that were bottled and readily available. That was before the time of adding 10 or 12 ingredients to a drink. Then we see that evolve into people having access to fresh ingredients and more ingredients, and it gave way to a more-is-better philosophy: If you can do something, more is better. In that time, there were so many cocktails with so many ingredients that weren’t necessarily contributing to the drink.

But now we’ve evolved again.
Over the last two to three years, people realized that cramming more techniques and more into the glass isn’t going to give you a better cocktail. At Booker, our preferred drink is the daiquiri. There are just three ingredients in that drink, and it’s one of the most beautiful cocktails I can think of. It’s nice to see everything come back that way. It’s transparent–you can’t hide a lot there. People are going back to making things as simple as possible.

So where do cocktails go from here?
We’ve hit a really cool point with so many people working on cocktails out there. But there are better ways to get better results. For instance, we’re trying to create a better way to muddle–how can we make that a better process? We’re using tools that we haven’t had before that can enhance integrity of ingredients and preserve flavor better. So the future is more about utilizing things we’d never previously had access to in order to make our jobs easier and make higher quality drinks.