Michael Lay takes great care in making a drink. In fact, he might even spend a couple of days to complete it—curating his own syrups, shrubs and other mixology magic.
Before heading the cocktail program at L.A.’s Faith & Flower, Michael helped open Rose.Rabbit.Lie at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas and Monterey’s James Beard-nominated Restaurant 1833. His concoctions have been featured in Robb Report and Wine Enthusiast, and his accolades include Zagat’s “30 Under 30″ and San Francisco Chronicle’s “Top 5 Bar Stars” lists.
So we figured it was time to quiz him about what goes on behind his bar.
“I don’t like people to be fully comfortable. I want them to come in and be a little awed.”
How did you get your start in crafting cocktails?
I was working around Seattle. A restaurant group kind of gave me a chance. It was a really high-end concept and they had a few locations around Seattle. I was managing a little café at the time and the chef/owner was firing people left and right. So, I stopped what I was doing and got hired as a bar-back, wondering if I had what it takes. I didn’t want to get fired and wanted to see if I could do it.
The bartender I worked under made great cocktails and knew classic recipes. He was able to take care of his entire bar when it got busy, with just the two of us, and it was incredibly busy. The guy was, like, the man. I thought, “This is a lot of fun. I like it.” I also spent a lot of time in the kitchen prepping things and have always liked to cook. So I got to perfect my prep skills and work in a bar, which is kind of a marriage of two things that I really enjoyed. I like the hospitality aspect too—taking care of people and making things they appreciate, which gave me inspiration.
You’ve won many awards and accolades for your cocktail making skills. What inspires you when creating new drinks?
I’m always inspired by the classics. I like new technique. I think that the foundation for many of the things that we use now is based on old-school technique. I love those classical techniques. I like using modern ingredients that are crazy and I like using molecular things, but I don’t like it to come across as molecular or pretentious.
For example, the cocktail we demonstrated at The Taste has about 20 different ingredients in it, and takes forever to make. I want people to taste it and be like, “Cool, I get it. That’s very simple. I don’t know what’s in it, but I dig it.” I like things that are like that. I don’t like showing all my cards. I like to say, “Hey, taste this. It has no garnish. It’s black. It’s in your cup. It’s just sitting there. There’s nothing intriguing about it at all. Does it taste good?” I like that.
Did you find yourself making different cocktails in the different cities where you’ve worked?
Yeah. I always try to go for what the clientele wants and what they don’t know about, which can be intriguing. I like to marry the two together. I don’t like people to be fully comfortable. I want them to come in and be a little awed. “Maybe I don’t understand what this is or that is, but it’s not too pretentious. Maybe I’m a little bit out of my comfort zone…”
What spirits are trending right now? Do you have a favorite?
I’m really digging… I don’t know what’s cool right now, but I’m really into old-school rums. I really love Jamaican rums and I really like cognac.
How does the home bartender begin to experiment with making fresh inventive cocktails?
I think finding what’s around you is cool. I like going to the market, seeing what looks good and then Googling a recipe or ingredients. “I’ve got a bottle of rum. I’ve got some basil over here. I wonder what basil pairs well with?” Then construct a drink off of that.
What is one of your favorite fall ingredients and a drink that you make with it?
I really like quince, I’m trying to work it into a cocktail right now and I failed a couple of times. We make all our own bitters and I have a quince bitter that rocks. I don’t have a recipe for it yet, but I think it may go with bourbon.
So it might be on the menu?
Yeah, I’ll definitely mess around with it.
Photos: Kiana Laing