Even though San Diego bartender Trevor Easter bears a striking resemblance to a young James Hetfield, the frontman of Metallica, and his father was Chuck Norris' stuntman, it's in the cocktail industry where he chose to kick ass.
Easter has trained under the best, from Sam Ross (Attaboy, Milk & Honey) to Erick Castro (Polite Provisions) to the Bon Vivants, working in well-respected drinking establishments like Shady Lady in Sacramento, and Rickhouse, Bourbon & Branch, and 15 Romolo in San Francisco. He also helped Charles Phan's Heaven's Dog in San Francisco (now closed) earn a nomination for Best Restaurant Bar at Tales of the Cocktail and snagged Rickhouse the award for Best Volume Bar.
Further, Easter was a Plymouth/Beefeater brand ambassador, though he now manages popular cocktail haunt Noble Experiment in San Diego, and heads up consulting company Revelry Cocktail Co. with friend Anthony Schmidt (Rare Form). Recently, the duo consulted on the new cocktail menu for Park & Rec in San Diego.
Below, Easter discusses drink inspiration and how he develops cocktail menus.
Where was your first solo cocktail program? I don’t think I’ve ever done a menu totally solo. It’s never my bar, it’s "our" bar. The first time I was responsible for a menu was Rickhouse in San Francisco, but it was probably more the staff than me contributing drinks. It’s incredible what can happen when you give the staff a sense of ownership. I’m just there to guide them, not tell them what to do.
How would you describe your style? This is always a tough question for me because I believe I’m a creative bartender and come up with great ideas but then these young bartenders come in with brilliant ideas and remind me I’m terrible at being "that" bartender. I guess I’m a classics kind of guy and I can pretty much blame Erik Adkins [bar director of San Francisco's Slanted Door] for turning me into that guy who knows the backstory to all my favorite drinks.
I love simple cocktails especially a three-ingredient cocktail that is almost hard to believe it's so simple. I love making Martinez, Negroni, and Martini/Manhattan variations or even just the classics themselves. That category would probably be what I hope is reflected in my style along with ridiculous cocktail names. It’s like really great food served on plastic plates. I love that contrast of something serious delivered in a cheeky style. A good example would be the Bean Me Up Biscotti [at Park and Rec]—my bourbon, coffee, and biscotti Old Fashioned. The drink is garnished with a smile and a laugh.
I feel like my cocktail puns should get their own section but if there is one thing that even the people that don’t like me can agree on is that I love giving cocktails ridiculous names. At any moment you could catch me talking about Ernest Hemingway and his love affair with the Hemingway Daiquiri followed by me giving you a tequila version and calling it the "Heming-guey Daiquiri" and probably laughing at my own joke.
... late night with a bottle of mezcal in us, we have come up with some of our best ideas, but the only downfall of this process is whether we remember them the next day.
In creating a cocktail menu, how does your process start? I’m very big on working as a team and just about any decision starts as a discussion with the staff. We talk about how we feel, what we have seen working lately, and what our audience is interested in. Seasons don’t really follow months in Southern California so you have to look and feel to notice the change. We don’t always drop the new menu when the calendar says, so we see how people are dressing, what's showing up at the market, etc. I try to assign each staff member a style of drink that I know they are strong at. I see my staff much like a kitchen. There's the baker, a pastry chef, the guy who’s great on the grill, and the person who is at the salad station dreaming of the chance to touch some fire. Utilizing their strengths is a big part of the menu development. Once they come up with some ideas we all get together, taste our way through them, critique and offer suggestions. And hopefully at the end we have a great buzz and a new menu to share with our guests.
What inspires you? It’s the cheesiest answer anyone can say but I’m going to do it. Traveling really inspires me but not because I’m in the downward dog position on a beach searching for the meaning of life. It’s mostly because of the food and flavor combinations I run into. The majority of my travel is in pursuit of either food or drinking, so it makes sense that I walk away with something. My travel partner Anthony Schmidt has this incredible knack for finding the best food anywhere. This stuff makes me think of flavor differently. I don’t really copy food dishes, they just make me think. Also I’m competitive so there's that to push me to constantly want to be progressing and do new exciting things. Having a drink with other bartenders tends to lead to some great ideas. I hate to say it but late night with a bottle of mezcal in us, we have come up with some of our best ideas, but the only downfall of this process is whether we remember them the next day.
What does your research for a cocktail program involve? I can’t say I do much research. I just constantly ask myself if the direction we are headed in feels right. I think we are getting further away for this one-dimensional idea that people are only there for the drinks. Our spaces are so much more than that and I would be willing to say the drinks may not even be half of why people come back in some cases. It’s common for us to spend more time on sequence of service and hospitality than the actual cocktails themselves. If we can get a group of likeminded individuals together with their focus on hospitality it is impossible for them to make bad drinks. Cocktails are just another extension of hospitality and if we truly care about our guests we will take every step possible for their drinks to be perfect for them. With every change in bar or even staff it changes the way we make drinks. I encourage my staff to identify with that and understand why things feel right or seem like the right thing to do. I also take a look at the numbers and see what people are drinking and once we have that data we can see if we can manipulate that to help the business make money while also catering to what our guests want.
Do you usually use books when building a cocktail program? I personally don’t depend on cocktails books anymore, but in the past I would dive in deep like a record collector searching for a forgotten gem. At Noble Experiment we have curated a large collection of books that I think are relevant and my staff searches for the gems and shares them with everyone. The only book I find myself constantly going back to is The Flavor Bible. It’s just so quick and easy and gives you just what you need. I know I said it before but again the most important information you can find comes from your computer terminal. That has all the answers to what your guests are interested in and what your staff is good at selling. I would go as far as to say that knowing what your clientele order and your staff is good at selling is probably the most valuable information for changing just about anything in your bar.
I’m really tied to the idea of keeping things simple and classic, so it’s a bit tough to stick to that while using the elusive New Zealand horned melon.
Do you avoid cocktail trends? I’m really tied to the idea of keeping things simple and classic, so it’s a bit tough to stick to that while using the elusive New Zealand horned melon. I’m also aware that esoteric ingredients can be fickle and change dramatically even within their seasons, so it’s tough to find a real consistency. I also lack the experience that people like Alex Day, Dave Kaplan, and Devon Tarby [of Proprietors LLC] have for using hard-to-pronounce science equipment to create interesting ingredients and mind-blowing cocktails. They have an entirely different type of skill set that allows them to do things most can’t and yes, I envy it but love enjoying it.
At Noble we try to make drinks that our guests can return to enjoy and develop relationships with by understanding their simplicity. Sometimes these drinks take us months to master the finite details of slightly short or overjiggering or even dilution. If we are constantly changing things and are using foreign ingredients, I don’t think it allows us to really settle in and master the drinks which we are known for. This is why some of the best bars out there are known for specific drinks. For years or even decades they have been mastering this one thing by being comfortable and taking the time to completely understand it. Using technique and applying it to formulas that we know work allows us to expedite that time for new drinks we come up with. Applying the same theory we have developed making the parent classic to a new cocktail helps us understand it quicker.
With all that being said it would be a terrible world if all the bars made cocktails the same. We need the real culinary-driven bartenders and the nerdy scientific ones to really bend the spoon and push the boundaries. They keep us and guests on their toes and I’m thankful for that. Hooray for style and diversity in the bar world! They make the world a more interesting place to drink in.