Drinker of the Month: Jessica Torres, booze blogger turned bartender, talks about building a home bar and when it’s OK to dump something down the drain
Drinker of the Month is an ongoing monthly series where we spotlight someone in the community who brings joy to our taste buds. Brewers, bartenders, distillers, sommeliers, restaurant owners, farmers and many others help us enjoy life just a little bit more every day. This is an ode to them. If you want to nominate someone (or yourself) to be the next Drinker of the Month, visit the Contact page and send in your suggestion.
Jessica Torres knows her shit and she knows she knows her shit. She spent the last two and a half years blogging about spirits on OneMartini.com, learning how to make her own drinks, sharing her recipes and writing for a national audience. Today she starts work at Death & Taxes every Sunday making brunch cocktails, some of which she invented herself. Go get one, because like I said, she knows her shit.
We met at Zephyr Bar at 3 p.m. Apparently they open at 4 p.m. but luckily the bartender arrived early and set up the patio for us. As soon as I pressed record, Michael Jackson started blasting over the speakers and the bartender started banging around chairs. Maybe he’s sending a message or maybe it’s just too early to care. It’s a testament to noise cancellation that I could transcribe this interview later.
Michael Higdon: How’d you get started running One Martini?
Jessica Torres: I bought the domain OneMartiniAtATime.com but didn’t know what I was going to do with it. Then a few weeks later my friend said we should start a cocktail blog because we both like to drink. Well I happened to own this URL so we started doing it. That was two and a half years ago. She stopped along the way and it’s just me, so I shortened it to OneMartini.com. The focus used to be a lot of vodka cocktails and now it’s changed as I’ve grown.
MH: Do you do other websites or work?
JT: My husband and I own a warehouse and distribution company, we also own a lighting company and I freelance write for other websites (Full disclosure, Jessica writes for Drinkable Reno). I do social media and marketing for various people. I do it for Midtown Eats and Death & Taxes. Starting Sunday I’ll start bartending at Death & Taxes on Sundays for brunch cocktails. I’ll do little projects, indy consulting. I’m kind of all over the place. I do three posts a week. Two cocktail recipes and a spirit review or bar feature. Lately I don’t have the time so I’m getting ready to hire some people. That’s a lot of work with photography and everything.
MH: What kind of collection do you have?
JT: I have a cabinet on the wall that is full. Two shelves and an underneath cabinet that’s full. My hall closet has three shelves full and more on the counter in the kitchen. I’m having my husband and my friend build a corner storage cabinet. Right now it’ll be a pantry that’ll hold the hall closet booze. Oh yeah, plus there’s a bunch in the fridge. The plan is to clean out the storage room downstairs and have a real bar down there so I can hold events and parties. Then I’ll have everything really set up with actual wells.
MH: Are you going to have like LED lights under the drinks ‘n’ such?
JT: Whatever my husband wants, I’m going to let him go crazy.
MH: How long did it take you to build that collection?
JT: Two and a half years.
MH: What’s the best way for someone to build a collection?
JT: One bottle at a time. It’s really expensive. I get a lot of bottles from public relations companies, but a lot of the drinks I really want, I go out and buy. I would just buy one or two bottles at a time. If you buy six bottles you’re spending $300 at least. I have a list of spirits to buy with me so when I see something I want, I grab it.
MH: Is it building a collection of specific bottles you want or do you have recipes in mind you want to make?
JT: Both. Right now I’m focusing on gin so I’m slowly buying bottles of gin to try and then some liqueurs to go with them.
MH: Are all the drinks on your site yours?
JT: Some are classics, some are ones I’ve come up with or something I’ve seen at a bar and tried to recreate.
An elderly couple drifts in from the street side of Zephyr, possibly lured by the blues mix now playing on the speakers. The woman stands in the doorway as her companion checks out the bar. Jessica and I watch in awe to see if they will stay, despite the bar’s obvious attraction to a different demographic. They leave promptly.
Zephyr’s evolution from a seedy dive known for roofies and metal concerts to a classy bar featuring fresh cocktails and displaying local art stands as yet another testament to Midtown. Zephyr is often overlooked though — something about being wedged between a dry cleaners and the adult store I’d imagine. Luckily the porn store is on its way out (what? yep, that’s right).
This thought makes me forget my next question.
JT: I’ll tell you about brunch cocktails. Starting Sunday I’ll be working 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Two of the drinks on the menu will be my recipes. Another was an idea I had to mix different ingredients than usual because I didn’t want to do a Bellini. So I thought “let’s do peach apricot liqueur with champagne instead.”
MH: So what makes it a brunch cocktail?
JT: For one, I used a lighter booze in one. I thought, “What would my mom want to drink?” You don’t want to be full of spirits this early in the day. So I did homemade jam — I made a strawberry vanilla jam because I’m into canning and jellies and jams and gardening and all that stuff. I made it with an apertif wine, which is low in alcohol and topped it with Prosecco. It’s light, it’s bubbly, you’re not going to get wasted if you have two of them. The other idea was infusing gin with Earl Grey tea. In the morning you drink tea, so why not infuse the gin, so it’s a play on the Bees Knees.
MH: How does someone go about developing a cocktail at home?
JT: “Is it going to taste good, do I have the ingredients?” You have to keep this memory bank of drinks you’ve had and ask “What if I took those ingredients and changed this on it.” It’s about tasting the different elements and playing around with them and not being afraid to mess something up. There have been many drinks I’ve dumped down the drain because, “Oh, that’s disgusting!” but you have to be willing to do that.
MH: I guess someone giving you permission to dump something down the drain is nice because I feel like “If I made it, I have to drink it.”
JT: My husband always tries to drink the bad ones and I tell him “No that’s awful, put it down!” we’re going to remake it. We tweak a few things and try again. Some of my best drinks are just, “Let’s just try it and make it and see what happens,” so I have him try everything first. You never know what’s going to happen. You just need to taste and taste and taste.
MH: Especially if it comes out different from someone else’s version or you don’t know what someone else will like.
JT: Right, he really likes mezcal and scotch and I like it too but if I’m going to put mezcal in the drink I want hints of it but he likes when it overpowers the drink.
MH: I like being able to taste the cactus. But my wife doesn’t. She likes gin and tonic and puts a lot more tonic than I would because I like the flavor of the gin more.
JT: For tonic, I make my own tonic syrup. So for a gin and tonic I put 1 oz of tonic syrup, 1 to 2 oz of gin and top it off with soda water.
MH: How do you make tonic syrup?
JT: I started with a recipe I found online from Jeffrey Morgenthaler and it’s grapefuit, lemon, lime juice plus the peal, water and cinchona bark and a few spices. Boil it for a certain time, strain and add agave syrup. I’ve come up with a Thai version that uses ginger and lemon grass. It’s really good. My kids will drink it without alcohol and I add gin to mine. I don’t like mine overly sweet and it has bitterness from the cinchona. I took the sweetener down because it was too sweet. I wanted more cinchona bark.
MH: How do you find cinchona bark?
JT: Amazon. I bought a bag of it on Amazon. My mom helps me make bitters and all that stuff.
MH: Is it hard to make bitters on your own?
JT: It’s expensive to make it on your own. You only need a few teaspoons of stuff but it comes in a huge bag. It lasts forever though.
This launches us into a lengthy conversation about homemade grenadine, maraschino cherries, brandy cherries, bitters and all the other homemade goodness. Jessica loves making everything at home and seeks out recipes online, alters them, writes about them and makes new variations all the time. Almost any mixer, other than liqueurs, can be made at home and they turn out better because it uses natural ingredients instead of red-colored high fructose corn syrup.
MH: Do you learn a lot being a barback? (Jessica barbacked a few years ago before starting One Martini)
JT: I learn about new drinks. A lot of people talk about Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco. “Oh, I tried this drink at Bourbon and Branch and I want this,” so just watching people make the drinks you learn a lot. For the new cocktail menu coming out at Death & Taxes I’ve tried all the drinks on it so I can guide people to what they like based on that.
MH: So it gives you an idea of how it works?
JT: I need a variety of formats to help it all get stuck in my head. Reading books, online class, talking to bartenders, visiting distilleries to see how it’s made. We went to Distillery No. 209 in San Francisco and spent two hours with the master distiller and he took us to the spice room. When you taste the gin you finally understand all of it. Once you’ve smelled the spices individually it’s easier to place them in the spirit.
MH: Maybe bars should have little spice containers on the counter to sample? It’s like when you go on a brewery tour and they have all the grains on the table. Wine is hard though. Do you get into wine?
JT: Not really. I’m not a big wine person. I drink so many cocktails. For me buying a bottle of booze is cheaper in the long run than a bottle wine. A bottle of gin will last for 12 cocktails but wine will last for one night. Last night we got a bottle of wine for $60 at Trokay in Truckee. I would’ve much rather had a cocktail and spent $14 on that. Wine, I’ll use for sangria but I don’t use it at home much. My mom and I went wine tasting in the Sacramento Delta area and came home with 12 bottles of wine and realized we don’t even drink wine.
MH: Beer is easier for me to pick out the flavors. Wine seems harder.
JT: I have a friend who is a certified sommelier. Some of the things she describes on wine, I’m like “How did you find that!?” like wet dog, tobacco, tar. I have a wine wheel. We went to a Wine 101 class at Total Wine and More so I bought some wine wheels. There’s ones that tell you the smells if it goes bad.
MH: Beer has a wheel like that but the off flavors are obvious. Like cabbage equals bad. If it’s too sweet it’s bad. They name it after the scientific term. Instead of wet dog, it’s dactyl, sulfuric, cloying.
JT: Wet dog seems easier to identify. It tastes like my dog coming out of the lake. The other thing is, spirits don’t go bad like wine and beer. A bottle of gin will last you forever.
MH: Well unless you leave the lid off.
JT: I’ve never done that, so I don’t know. I know some fruit liqueur will go bad after six months or so. Apertif wines and vermouth will too because they are basically wine.
MH: I have some pretty old vermouth…
JT: You should probably toss it. Smell it. But it might be time to replace it.
MH: I made a lot of Manhattans for a while but then stopped when it got warmer.
JT: I go through a lot of sweet vermouth, I make a lot of Manhattans. I made some bourbon poached peaches and then I used those in a black Manhattan, which is bourbon and Amaro Averna and bitters. It’s really good. It’s like dessert in a cocktail. It was created at Bourbon and Branch. It’s a speakeasy where you have to have a password to get in. It’s all in the same restaurant but with three different rooms. They take you into the Wilson and Wilson room where they lock the door behind you.
MH: There’s one like that in New York City we went to that had a fake psychic in the front.
JT: There’s been a lot of talk lately about the speakeasies being overplayed. People are tired of them. It’s funny because there’s no prohibition but there’s Yelp and Facebook and all these other things. So the speakeasy is supposed to be a secret but it’s reviewed on Yelp.
MH: Your GPS tells you which phone booth to go into.
JT: Right and you can register online and make a reservation and they email you the password.
MH: That’s such a funny trend to bring back when it’s not really appropriate anymore.
JT: They’re cool and have trend-setting cocktails but…
MH: What would Reno do if there was a speakeasy? Not show up?
JT: Probably knock on the door “Can we come in, are you open? Someone says it’s a speakeasy, I wrote down the password!”
MH: When you do get out, which bars do you go to? Or do you make it all at home?
JT: We’ll usually go to a restaurant that has good cocktails. Or we’ll go to Chipotle for dinner and then go to Death & Taxes. But we want to start going out to other bars soon.
We start talking about barrel-aged cocktails. A few weeks ago I learned that EDGE nightclub at the Peppermill Casino will be doing table service with little 1-liter barrels from Seven Troughs Distilling Co. At the time, Ilona Martinez, beverage director at EDGE, had not decided what to put in them.
JT: Mostly I see people laying down and opening their mouths. You have a different atmosphere at the night club than at a bar.
MH: At least it’s mostly finished so you don’t have to make your own cocktail.
JT: Depends what you’re putting in there. People are aging citrus in the barrel and it does not turn out well, it needs to be spirits only and then you add citrus later. I haven’t played around with doing that yet but I want to get a barrel and barrel age my cocktails.
MH: Do you make a lot of martinis?
JT: I made one the other day for National Martini Day but I’ve mostly been drinking gin lately.
MH: Anything else you’re working on?
JT: Mostly I’m just preparing to start working on Sundays, which will be new for me. And I’m always working on new drink ideas. Like I’m working with Davidson’s Tea right now, using organic teas to make a summer tea cocktail series.
MH: What about cocktails with those juice bar juices. Like a kale cocktail. Would it defeat the purpose of the health benefits?