Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I’d love to say that all of my really great ideas have dawned on me in the shower, but that’s just not how it works. The majority of the truly inspired things I’ve done behind the bar result from engaging conversations with people who, deep down, speak the same language as I do. Apples don’t just fall on heads, people.
My latest cocktail idea began with my fascination to make horchata at home. Now, for those of you who aren’t experienced with horchata, it’s a sweetened rice milk, flavored with cinnamon. Giant, beehive-shaped jars filled my California upbringing as I frequented taquerias in my youth.
Living in Portland now hasn’t shaken loose the California in me, leading to regular taco nights hosted at my home. As is my wont, perfecting the recipe alone wasn’t enough. I couldn’t resist the urge to weaponize it by adding booze and turning it into a proper cocktail. I started by making the same drinks I’d seen bartenders before me try: horchata and coffee liqueurs; horchata and aged rum; horchata and aged tequila.
But cloistered alone in my home, I poured failed experiment after failed experiment down the drain in frustration. Everything I made was just… boring. Using the formulas I’d come up with on my own only resulted in a muddy mess, and I wasn’t sure I would find something I liked. Until, that is, I got together with my head bartender, Benjamin. At first, we didn’t even mix drinks. We just talked. He encouraged me to look at the problem a different way—to try something that we’d never tried before. Did the drink necessarily need to be sweet, could it actually be sour? Did we need to use heavily aged spirits, or could something brighter work with the horchata? Once we sat down and started actually making the cocktail, it came together in a matter of minutes.
We arrived at something neither of us had seen before; a drink that contrasted horchata’s sweetness, rather than adding to it. A drink that challenged the idea of what a “creamy” drink could taste like. We started with reposado tequila, which is only aged for around two months. To that, some fresh lime juice brought brightness and sourness to the cocktail, which we tempered with agave syrup. And just a touch of Becherovka, a Czech cinnamon and clove liqueur, brought out the cinnamon and spice in the horchata. Ultimately, we arrived at a drink that reminded me, once again, how important it is for me to stop trying to operate inside the vacuum of my own head.