This is the first of our Industry Interviews series we are starting where we interview local people in the food & beverage industry and ask them to talk about themselves and an ingredient that best describes them. We were overjoyed when Nika agreed to be our first interviewee for this series as we always enjoy seeing her when we walk into Olio for some fine craft cocktails. She chose Suze as the ingredient that best described her.
Read below to find out why.
What do you focus on most when crafting a cocktail or choosing ingredients?
I focus on the interplay between simple ingredients with distinctive flavor profiles. I often compare the process of crafting a beverage to composing music. Beginning with an intriguing base spirit, I like to experiment and layer elements from there. Sometimes I gravitate towards flavors that are harmonious and balanced; other times I like to play with dissonance, tension, and expectation. I almost always try to limit my cocktails to 3 or 4 ingredients so that the guest can get a sense of the interaction between flavors, and better appreciate the importance of each ingredient to its whole.
What is your take on what it’s like being a woman in the industry?
There’s still a vast difference between opportunities for women and opportunities for men in the industry (and, for that matter, in nearly every industry). Many people carry the antiquated notion that mixology is an arena largely for men, or that there exists an inherent knowledge or skill gap between men and women when it comes to bar knowledge and execution. It’s simply not the case, and it pushes me to constantly seek to expand my knowledge and skill set.
What other creative ventures are you involved in?
I’m a pianist and violinist, and enjoy practicing classical and experimental music. My band, Marble//Wall Duo with percussionist Louis Wall is an improvisational outfit. We’re hoping to release an album in early fall. I also make collage art, and am hoping to show some larger-scale visual art later on this year.
What do you like the most about Suze?
Suze embodies my philosophy of composition–a few simple elements give Suze its incredible flavor. It’s like tasting wet soil–the earth, a soft bitterness, and a sweetly floral quality all coalesce into a spirit that’s enthralling.
What are your favorite ways to use Suze?
I like to drink it over ice with club soda. It’s a natural choice during these hot summer months, and the aromatics will make you feel as though you’re hiding in the cool forest undergrowth. It’s also delicious in a white Negroni.
What food pairs well with Suze?
Suze’s citrusy, earthy quality make it a natural aperitif–try it alongside any antipasti dish or charcuterie plate.
How did you get your start in the industry?
I got my start in the industry when I was 14 working at a coffee shop in Columbia, MO. I distinctly remember admiring the barista’s ability to create a beverage that was not only beautiful to look at, but showcased a very distinct impression of the ingredients and their unique characteristics.
This was my introduction to how indispensable quality ingredients are to a memorable drink. It also introduced me to the ideas of terroir and heritage, and how the origins of ingredients and their preparation informs their history, and can guide us in utilizing them in novel and exciting ways.
What do most people getting started in mixology get wrong at first?
It’s tempting to want to utilize a plethora of exciting ingredients in one drink. However, when a drink has many ingredients, I often find that my palate is overwhelmed and muddled. I am a firm believer in the importance of structure and composition, and find that being over-eager to bombard a drink with flavor elements discounts the simple beauty of ingredients. To turn another musical metaphor, a simple melody is often more intriguing that a raucous cacophony.
How do you like where you work now?
I’ve been fortunate to land at Elaia & Olio. I work with passionate and dedicated kitchen and front of house staff. I meet an incredible array of people, and am always amazed by the stories and conversations I get to experience while I’m behind the bar. We also play music using a record player…it’s actually an amazing catalyst for discussion. Feel free to bring something by to play…I’d love to hear what you’re listening to.
Who have you most enjoyed working with in your career?
So many people have been influential to me. Casey and Jeremy Miller at the Mudhouse introduced me to St. Louis’ food and beverage scene, and also to the joys of impeccable neighborhood hospitality. Bess Kretsinger Heffernan, Olio’s former bar manager, was (and continues to be) a wonderful mentor and teacher to me when I first began my introduction into spirits knowledge and mixology. And of course, Ben Poremba continually encourages me to explore my creativity and continue my development as an industry professional, and as an artist.
How does Suze best reflect your personality?
Do you feel Suze is vastly unappreciated?
I feel that many people balk upon hearing of Suze’s “bitter” and “earthy” characteristics. Fear not! These flavors are not overwhelming, but well balanced and composed.
Nika, thanks again for being our first guest on Industry Interviews and many thanks to all of you in the local food & beverage industry for all that you do. The city wouldn’t be the same without all your talent, hard work, and creativity!