Behind the Bar with Andrew Volk
Mixology, the art of cocktail crafting, seems to be in equal parts a science as it is an art form. The intricate and comprehensive knowledge of liquors, spirits, and the relationship they have with other ingredients are essential to the practice. The craft is about building and creating unique drinks, but also about refining and perfecting timeless classics, based both on meticulous portion as well as polished technique.
In any profession there are those who flourish and those who fall somewhat lackluster. A good bartender is someone who has the skill set required to keep their guests happy and comfortable. They require speed, efficiency, and ultimately care about the wellbeing of their clients. But what makes a bartender unparalleled are those who combine the cultivated palette and ingenuity of a mixologist with the dexterity of an adept bartender.
Andrew Volk, a bar industry veteran with experience over a decade long behind the bar top, has the profession nailed. After opening his Scandinavian themed bar the Portland Hunt + Alpine Club in Portland, Maine three years ago, his bright, yet quaintly spacious establishment has been garnering significant attention.
Within two years the bar was dubbed one of “The 5 Best New Cocktails Bars in America 2014” by columnist Andrew Knowlton, and also won the Coastal New England Rising Stars Award from StarChefs.com. Last year his restaurant became a semi-finalist in the “Outstanding Bar Program” category of the James Beard Award, and just this past year Volk was named Food & Wine’s “Best New Mixologist 2016.”
Volk’s his bartending career began at the fresh age of 21. With his BA in International Studies from Colby College in Waterville, Maine still warm from the printing press, the fledgling was left, like many college students today, wondering what to do next. Volk enjoyed working with his hands and admired the social aspects bartending offered. So, the summer after graduation, Volk landed a job at a bar in Glacier National Park in Montana.
“It was a job where I knew that whatever I was doing I could find another job. It was mostly about new experiences and job security. A paycheck.” Volk explains.
As it turns out, Volk enjoyed the bustle and thrived in the field with finesse. His growing knowledge and solid work ethic provided him with various bartending jobs over the country, until he landed at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon. Inspired by many of his seniors that were making names for themselves nationally, and also finding pleasure out of the job itself, Volkreally began experimenting.
Drawing inspiration from online blogs, past kitchen experience, insight from pastry chefs, and his own novel ideas, Volk started making his own ingredients like tonic water and compound syrups. His goal was to cultivate flavors that one couldn’t easily get from a bottle six or seven years ago.
“One of the grossest things I ever made was a rosemary syrup. The idea was there but the execution was off, and it just tasted very bitter, very piny, and very intense,” Volk retells, laughing slightly at his optimistic concoction.
Volk revels in cocktails that are simple, yet technically executed very well. His own cocktail recipes have been noted for being carefully constructed, and his artistic choice in beverages creations echo the sentiment that less is more.
“The beauty of the drink lies not in the creativity in what you’re putting in, but the balance of the drink,” Volk explains. Drinks with three simple key ingredients like a fresh lime daiquiri or a rich negroni, are some of his staple favorites.
Depending on his mood, you may catch him sipping a smokey single-malt scotch on a cold fall evening, or enjoying a classic dry gin martini before dinner with his wife and two-year-old daughter.
Some of Volk’s most beloved liquors and spirits to work with are those that are “representative of the people making it and the place that is from,” he explains. True cognac, rhum agricole, mezcal, and single malt scotch are all very definitive of their inherent cultures and, he thinks, add exponentially to the quality of a drink.
His personal cocktail, for example, the semi-sweet “Oaxacan Sunrise,” (a spin off of the iconic tequila sunris) is made of three simple ingredients: mezcal, orange, orgeat liquor. While mezcal and tequila are technically both agave-based spirits, the intricate manufacturing process behind mezcal, in turn, makes the taste of the transparent cocktail complex.
Volk’s thoughtful spin on traditional recipes as well as the combination of fresh and sprightly new cocktails may certainly attract curious customers and foodies alike, but Volk understands the gravity of impeccable customer service. His strong personal philosophy has been chiseled from the tools acquired through years in the trade.
“As much wonderful creativity and awesome technique out there in bartending what I think really is essential is hospitality skills. Being able to make sure that every guest is having a good time, whatever that means for them at your bar,” Volk explains.
Guests who sit in front of the metallic bar top are welcome to friendly service that is as engaging as it feels genuine. Those who feel like veering off menu are rewarded with drinks kindly tailored towards their likes, dislikes, and personality. A popular question that Volk likes to ask is, “How do you take your coffee?”
“If you’re going to take your coffee black, you tend to like stronger, more bitter things. If you take cream in your coffee you’re going to tend to like more softer flavor, and if you like sugar in your coffee you probably tend to like sweeter things,” Volk says, elaborating on the question.
In the success of his endeavours, it’s the thoughtfulness, and genuine interest in the comfort of his guests that play just as big a role as the ingenuity of his drinks.
And business is good-- it’s almost all he has time for.
With the escapades of his young adult life experienced, now settled Volk says he lives to enjoy “all those sort of boring family things,” when he isn’t required at his bar. What time he does have, he spends on long car rides holding his wife, Briana’s, hand, while chatting away with their daughter, who’s strapped safely to a car seat in the back of their car. In the midst of playing hide-and-seek or pretend with their rambunctious two year old, he might put on the tunes of Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel in the background.
Although Volk and his family love to eat at home, where more flavor creation and experimenting emanate, Volk’s most beloved place to dine is one a little too far from home. The Clyde Common, where his career first began to take off, also holds immense personal significance for him: it’s the place where he first met his wife, and later proposed. He loves the atmosphere, the sense of community, and admires, from a business perspective, everything the establishment is doing right.
“I feel like there are a lot of bars and restaurants that people will kind of outgrow. You no longer go to the bar you went to in college because you’re not that person anymore, but Clyde’s is one of those bars that has evolved with me.”
It’s Volk’s own hope that his bar will continue to be as progressive and evolving as those establishments he so admires, and all given all appearances, it seems like he’s off to a solid and promising start.
Written by Cheantay Jensen
Photographs by Meredith Perdue