|Interview with Mixologist Jackson Cannon of Eastern Standard–Boston, MA
At one of Boston’s most successful restaurant-bars, a head mixologist plies his craft. Jackson Cannon, 44, is Eastern Standard’s bar manager and one of Boston’s revered senior mixologists. Cannon’s cocktail style is classic, but not conservative, and he views drink making as a tool of hospitality, not as an end in and of itself. Eastern Standard’s success as a hip American bistro is partly due to Cannon’s lengthy cocktail menu which helps appeal to the broad cross-section of diners who might come from nearby Fenway Park, from the adjoining hotel or who are there just for the cocktails. It’s all balanced with top-notch front-of-house service that keeps locals coming back.
Cannon is foraying into largely uncharted territory for modern American mixologists: the art of making homemade vermouth. Along with the help of other protégés he’s trained and other vermouth enthusiasts, he’s creating his own recipes and laying the groundwork for one of the next trends in artisanal mixology. Check out our feature on house-made vermouth to learn more about Cannon’s passion and how to implement a successful vermouth program into your bar.
JJ Proville: What drew you to restaurants and in particular, to mixology?
Jackson Cannon: It wasn’t what I did for my first career but I always was fascinated by it. I trace it back to being a kid. There was a healthy emphasis on social drinking in my family and when I was about eight my father taught me how to make a gimlet. His was half Tanqueray and half Rose’s lime juice. Mine was all Rose’s lime juice. I was taught to shake those up and that if you shake it, its more pleasant than if you pour the stuff right in the glass. There was another moment that got me interested in cocktails. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises was something of a family heirloom. I was fascinated by the scenes in the book of people having cocktails in a bar and was always drawn to it. When I got closer to legal age, I was interested in beer and wine and went into music as a career. I was always in bars and around bartenders, so that’s when I got bitten by the bug and started mixing cocktails late at night. It was a long time before I did it professionally. The obsession led me to collect a lot of books and at some point it just captivated my attention more than playing music, so I switched careers and got into the bar buisiness. I was in my late 30’s at that point.
JJP: What was your training like? Where did you learn your chops?
JC: Hanging out with bartenders late night learning to stir a Manhattan before you shake one. The now-closed B-Side Lounge was one of the bars on the Cambridge scene. I lived in a house with one of the opening bartenders who was a cocktail historian and close friends with the proprietor. That was where I started to see the standard be set for how things are done and how you study old books as a reference or a place to start. The first place I tended bar was a rock n’ roll joint that I used to play at and I took over as bar manager almost as soon as I started. That’s when I started learning that there are traditional standards for a reason and that it’s up to you to explore them and see what works.We started to be aware of Dale de Groff. He was the guy I wanted to be like because he’s hospitable to the end and as interested in an exact period-specific Sazerac as he is in a fun concoction that will please another demographic.
JJP: Who are your mentors?
JC: My father taught me importance of doing things right whatever it is you’re doing. In the business I didn’t work for Dale DeGroff but I respected him very much. In Boston, Pat Sullivan of the B Side Lounge was huge for me.
JJP: What goes into creating a new cocktail? What inspires you ?
JC: It’s all different. There is a big analogy to music production. There are stories of writers who get off of a tour, are exhausted and can’t come up with a single idea. They struggle and go back to a song and try to make it work. There are periods where you’re not thinking about it very much and it’s a prolific period where you come out with thirteen songs. It’s kind of like that with mixology. You’re always mixing and always able to cook something that works at a certain point. Once you’ve developed your own sense of texture and seen enough recipes, the more fundamentals pop out at you and you can turn them around a little bit and look to different ingredients to substitute.
It’s all just practicing and living and mostly just reading old recipes. You get to a point where you kind of know what they taste like after years of doing it. Sometimes you can read recipes for influence and not even make the drink. I think if you’re doing it live and subjected to the stimulus from waiting on different kinds of people and you’re reading old books and experiencing other people’s drinks it’s hard not to be inspired. Sometimes they’ll seem like radical new concoctions but most of the time it’s the same stuff. Nobody asks the chef who invented the steak frites—it’s all about the execution as much as it is about anything. A lot of the drinks that seem really original are built on the same building blocks.
JJP: Besides the obvious vermouth and bitters, what other ingredients or spirit do you feel are under-used?
JC: The simple, real answer is grain alcohol because that’s what you can manufacture and do simple constructions with. That’s what’s in your bitters. I’ll give you an example of a product we make that isn’t a bitters: We take grain alcohol and when we juice grapefruits for other cocktails we reserve the peels. We soak them in denatured alcohol and obtain grapefruit peel essence. We then have this essence that we de-proof it with some sugar water and water and bring it down to about 68° and we have it on the bar to mix with. It gives you this bitter grapefruit that’s not grapefruit bitters. It's almost tiki-like. I’ve got these ingredients that we've manufactured but I can pick them up as if I was slinging vodka sodas. So we've done some pre-batching and we have some distinctive products that are very interesting and hard to duplicate that we can create recipes around where otherwise we would have to be using a bar spoon of this and a two drops of that. Those opportunities are still underutilized.
JJP: What’s the most over-utilized?
JC: I'm slinging a lot of house infused berry spirits and I'm feeling that it’s a little overdone. It doesn't bother me when it’s done great and I try to do a good job of it but it’s a little tired. There's so much flavored vodka out there and it's like 'here comes another one'.
JJP: If you weren’t a mixologist, what would you be doing?
JC: I’d be in a kitchen. A cook that talks too much.
JJP: What are some of the trends that you’ve been seeing in the country or in Boston specifically?
JC: One of the trends I’m really excited about is how much more things like vermouth and bitters people are making. It’s a much more artisanal expression than raspberry-infused vodka. Everyone around the country is laying sort of a groundwork of ‘they don’t have that but they make their own here’, so it’s nice to see it get to a deeper personal level and get to express something unusual and take it to the next level. We’re making grapefruit cordials, and after dinner drinks are starting to happen. I’m looking forward to house-created ingredients before the house-created cocktail. I suppose what’s next is on-premise distilling but that’s a bit more dangerous.
JJP: Is there something that you're doing in this economy that’s working really well for you?
JC: To me it’s more about hospitality. I think one of the most powerful things in how emotional we are at Eastern Standard is we have a small service bar or pickup area that doesn't really give us enough room to work and the poor servers have little room to pickup their drinks. There's no barrier to the guests to kind of mingle up in that area. So on a very busy night you'll see some of the waiters shoot out between staff and guests and get to a person that’s 3-4 people away from the bar. I've just watched the effect on people and we're just doing because we feel like it’s the right thing to do but it is unusual at a bar that busy. I think people really respond to that. It isn’t a tactic, it’s just a reflex at this point, but one that demonstrates the reason why people do keep coming back.
JJP: How busy is the bar at Eastern Standard?
JC: It's starting to really scare me. We did 8 million dollars in sales in the restaurant and very close to 4 million of that in beverage. Its very exciting because we do breakfast, lunch, and dinner and overnight room service for the hotel we support. That’s all happening morning, afternoon and late into the night. It’s a lot of wine and good beer and cocktails. In May alone we did $240,000 net sales of liquor with an average drink price of $10. That's 800 cocktails a night. It’s pretty substantial considering that some of them take 3-4 minutes to make. If that's an average, that means on a Friday we're doing 1200 cocktails a night, and I mean cocktails. The floor staff is still doing wine and beers to be shared and that sort of thing.
JJP: What's next? Where will we find you in five years?
JC: We're looking for property all the time. Our restaurant is thriving in the downturn. Part because we just tapped into something that's just a very exciting bar scene but we also had a restaurant concept that was perfect for the bad times. We're an American brasserie with a lot of different price points so we didn’t have to re-concept ourselves at all. We try and offer more luxurious service that has comfortable price points on food with great drinks. We’re looking at a lot of different properties and the owner, and the chef and I are excited to have some other expressions that are differentiated from Eastern Standard. I have three or four different concepts that I'd like to see at the same time as growing my people at Eastern Standard and beyond that. I have people who can run bars the way I want to run then and perhaps I'll be able to get my hand wet in each of then just a little bit.