Over the years, I’ve gotten to know my fair share of bartenders. However, none have been quite as interesting, engaging and passionate about quality when it comes to mixing drinks than my friend Andre Levon Barnhill.
I first met Dre when he was the bar manager at a James Beard award-winning restaurant, which happened to be right across the street from my apartment – lucky me, right? – and was immediately impressed with the craftsmanship and intricacies of his original recipes.
His cocktails have a signature style that make them immediately recognizable as a “Dre drink,” which is something I think all makers, regardless of their medium, aspire to develop.
Beyond Dre’s mixing ability, I wanted to profile him in partnership with Absolut Crafted with Love, because his former restaurant was all locally-sourced. Like ultra local, high-quality ingredients.
And one of the things I was really interested to learn was that Absolut sources all of their ingredients locally – within 75 miles of their distillery – which is a key to the overall quality of the product.
Here’s Dre in conversation and in his own words.
“My path to mixing cocktails and creating original recipes actually began with my first liquid love and obsession: wine. It was really my first go at sensory analysis. Later, when I was living in Washington, DC I started to find beer fascinating and became the assistant beer director for a huge Belgian beer bar. It wasn’t until around 2011 that I really started focusing on cocktails and, since then, it’s been something of a love affair for me.
In my experience, there are three key elements that go into making a quality cocktail: the best ingredients, the right tools and the perfect ambience. These three things need to come together to create the full experience.
A lot of the inspiration for my drinks comes from reading history, particularly about the industrial revolution, barons and renowned inventors. I like to imagine settings, where people are relaxed, in many different cultures and time periods. Sometimes drinks are approaches based around the edges of existing drinks and sometimes they’re more imaginative and based off of the obsessions of particular historical figures.
For example, I like to imagine how Pierpont Morgan’s cigar obsession would inform his drink decisions; or what insane, intoxicating, smoking molecular expression of a cocktail I would make for Nikola Tesla. Putting myself into that kind of head space really helps me creatively.
Vodka is one of the most challenging ingredients to work with. It’s like working with a blank canvas, all the while, you’re trying to make it interesting. That also makes it an ingredient that can be fairly boundless. And when you’re talking about a quality product like Absolut vodka, that is most certainly the case.
My personality really comes through in the drinks I create. I love cozying up to people and sharing a little warmth. I love to jive and prefer, generally speaking, to be rocking and rolling. I love banging on all cylinders. Trying to create an experience for people – front to back and top to bottom – means finding drinks for everyone. Those drinks are informed by my loves and the things that personally challenge me.
Over the past five years or so, there’s been a revival of interest in classic and craft cocktails and our culture definitely plays a role in that. I see people searching for quality in all aspects of their lives. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to try to ask my local sports bar to make me a proper absinthe drip. It does, however, mean that I know I can go many more places and get delicious cocktails along with everything else excellent that is being offered.”
–as told to HSS
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