In our world today, where Whole Foods Market is headquartered in Austin, where the Slow Food movement boasts more than 100,000 members worldwide and where Michael Pollard’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is commonly found in households the world over, we have the right to exercise our free will with choices too numerous to count. For me, I will be standing at the four corners, where I can have my cake and eat it, too, where taste, the natural, the artisan and the authentic collide. I invite you to share my communion cup and my table.
Mirjana “Mindy” Kucan, bartender at Hilton Hotel Austin, tells L Style about her favorite cocktail ingredients, her award-winning drink concoctions and the coolest feature of Austin’s cocktail scene.
What was the first great cocktail you drank? What is your favorite recipe today? Mindy Kucan: The first great cocktail I have ever had was a Negroni. I love the complexity of the gin and sweet vermouth with the Campari. Campari is so under-used these days. My favorite classic recipe today is a Ramos Gin Fizz. I love the orange flower water and gin, and how beautiful it is on the palate.
LS: What is the range of drink projects, assignments and opportunities you’ve been involved in?
Kucan: Wow! There are so many different projects I have been a part of. I met Tito Beveridge [of Tito’s Handmade Vodka] and was talking about a lavender recipe I have. He then introduced me to Jeannie Ralston, who just wrote a book about her adventures growing and farming lavender. Her book was due to be released and she wanted lavender cocktails served at her book-release party. I created recipes for her party and they were a huge success. My mentor, Tony Abou-Ganim, asked me to found the Austin chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild, which is a working network of professional and knowledgeable bartenders around the nation. I entered a cocktail contest for Hilton Hotels, and won Top Bar Chef for all Hilton Hotels nationwide. My recipe, “Hot Summer Night,” can be tasted at any Hilton-owned property. I entered another contest for Bombay Sapphire and won the grand prize for the Austin market, a spread in GQ Magazine in December and a trip for two to Las Vegas. So far I have five award-winning recipes.
LS: What is the difference between a cocktilian and a bartender, in your eyes?
Kucan: The difference between a cocktilian and bartender is simple. A bartender is a speed drink maker, a drink slinger. They are the ones that work at the nightclubs and bars that get crazy-busy in two hours and do not have much time to think about what they are making. A cocktilian is someone that truly enjoys a cocktail for all that it has to offer. A cocktilian does not have to be a bartender or know how to run a bar or cut someone off from drinking. They just need to know how to enjoy the classic cocktails and a well-crafted drink.
LS: What is the coolest thing about Austin’s drink scene? The most disappointing?
Kucan: The coolest thing about the Austin drink scene is it is unmarked territory. There are only a few places to go to get amazing drinks, but at least we have that. The most disappointing thing is that there are a ton of cocky bartenders who will argue that gin is disgusting. They will not experiment.
LS: What other mixologists do you look up to and where do most of your ideas and training come from?
Kucan: The other mixologists I look up to are Bridget Albert, Tony Abou-Ganim and Audrey Saunders. My training comes from bar books such as “The Joy of Mixology” and “Classic Cocktails.” Also cookbooks like “The Elements of Taste,” “Culinary Artistry,” and “The Flavor Bible.”
LS: What is currently the coolest cocktail city in the U.S. and why?
Kucan: I feel the coolest cocktail city is San Francisco. As my friend puts it, you can throw a rock and hit a mixologist. That is also where Allison Evanow, the creator of Square One Organic Vodka, and her mixologist, H. Erhman, call home.
LS: From a woman’s perspective, what is the difference in cocktail design, i.e., taste, color, presentation, naming, etc.?
Kucan: I think cocktail design from a woman’s perspective is more sensual and pleasing to all of the senses. I, for instance, think of how a drink will look, smell, feel on the tongue, and taste. I build my drinks like a perfume: I use ingredients that have a full body for the base flavor, a medium-to-light mouth feel and a light volatile scent for the aroma. For my names, I use fun and flirty words like “card” and “lily” or “ginger” and “drama.”
LS: What is your idea of the ultimate cocktail party? Who would be your special guest?
Kucan: My idea of the ultimate cocktail party is having all of my friends close, great eats, amazing cocktails and, of course, a gorgeous vintage cocktail dress, ring and hat!
LS: What is the most innovative spirit or non- alcoholic mixer you have seen come on the market recently?
Kucan: I just adore Paula’s Texas Lemon Liqueur. It is an ingredient in two of my winning recipes. Absinthe has been on the market for a while, but I absolutely love it, and also St. Germain Elderflower and Domaine de Canton ginger liqueurs.
LS: Do you think the stereotype that gay women are more interested in beer and wine than cocktails an unfounded generalization or one based on fact?
Kucan: I would say it is an unfounded generalization. The gay women I know all know what they like, it may be beer and wine, it may be cocktails, but they all have great taste and drink what they enjoy.
LS: Does Austin resist sophistication?
Kucan: I do not feel that Austin is resisting, just slow at changing. I feel that mainstream Austin is yearning for sophistication, especially downtown.