Article By: Liza Weisstuch
Clif Travers is in the airy kitchen of his Dorchester home. Wielding a ridged muddler, he shows no mercy toward a lime wedge in a glass. An assortment of liquor bottles sits on the nearby table. A quartet of elegant, sleek square bottles stand out from the collection like stilettos amid a mass of Timberlands. He reaches behind him for one of the angular bottles filled with a slightly gold-hued fluid and adds a few dashes to a concoction of Cazadores tequila and Ron Matusalem rum. What would generally have been a straightforward drink suddenly has a surprisingly multi-dimensional character.
That's precisely the effect Clif was aiming for with [SWEET], (pronounced "sweet") a line of all-natural cocktail syrups he's been developing over the past three years. The boutique brand is launching with four flavors - Honey Brown, Green Apple Mint, Lemongrass Ginger and Thai Basil Geranium - plus a premium grenadine. As of press time, the products were in the final six weeks of testing in a food lab while he was talking to distributors.
Lest [SWEET] be thought of as just another basic flavoring agent - cloyingly sugary stuff best suited for the tribe of flavored vodka devotees - these more refined syrups are positioned to occupy a different place behind the bar. In essence, they're the sum of Clif's decades-long career, fully informed by his experiences at various bars and lounges where he spent time behind the bar. He was also influenced by the sundry restaurants, bars and clubs where he's consulted on cocktail lists. The concept came about, he says, because he had long had trouble finding any all-natural American-made grenadine. Every aspect of the products is designed to make things easy on bartenders - from the attention to the precise elements used in the formulas (ie: organic limes, bay leaf, ginger oil) to the user-friendly, display-worthy design of the bottle. (It comes topped with a cork, but comes with a pour spout.)
Clif wanted to launch with flavor combinations that are attention-grabbing but, above all, versatile. Most can be used with the basic range of spirits - vodka, gin, bourbon, tequila. But Clif will be the first to tell you that he's not out to revolutionize the cocktail world, just to ensure that bartenders serving in even the most high volume establishments can have access to a premium product that will make a standard cocktail a little less, well, standard. "It's specifically designed for a bar. There's a lot out there designed for desserts or coffee, but I come at it from a bartender's point of view," he says. (He's quick to add that that's not to imply it doesn't also go well with other things, especially dessert items.) "These are flavors that will take a drink up a step. I'm not breaking new ground. I wanted to do something just for bartenders so that they can be more creative."
Of course, to say "bartenders" these days is like using a broad term like "physicians". Everyone has their own specialties and one's location dictates a great deal about the volume of service. Nobody expects a tool that's integral to a cardiologist to be even vaguely relevant to an ophthalmologist. Clif acknowledges that the product isn't going to be as much a staple in every bar as, say, martini glasses. He's essentially targeting the wide swath of bars in the middle range - a notch up from the dime-a-dozen beer and shot watering holes and perhaps a little less cocktail-centric than a restaurant that does all its daily prep work with ingredients and equipment from the kitchen. "The level of restaurant we're going for is kind of in the middle because higher level places prep this kind of stuff themselves and the lower end ones don't care. This is for the mid-range restaurant that wants to be more interesting and competitive and doesn't have anyone on staff to pull it off or the money to have someone do the prep work or someone on staff with a flavor background who knows how to put this kind of stuff together," he says. "They can take a basic gimlet, old fashioned, mint julep, or whatever else and add one of the syrups and essentially change the list. Even with the fluffier drinks, like a cosmo or lemon drop - adding this adds aroma and changes the whole profile."
Indeed, the Honey Brown can imbue a margarita or a daiquiri with a depth that evokes luscious island flavors; the Thai Basil Geranium lends a floral dimension to any white liquor; there's a zing to the Lemongrass Ginger that nicely enhances drinks with exotic Asian elements - especially sake; and the Green Apple Mint has a cool refreshing spearmint essence that imparts a bit of kick to gins, silver tequilas, white rums and vodka, and some lesser-used Scandinavian and Latin American spirits.
The idea for the syrups took shape during his stint at Om Restaurant and Lounge in Harvard Square, which began when the restaurant opened in 2OO5. For the four years prior to that, he was lead bartender and mixologist at Cuchi Cuchi, an intimate but busy Cambridge restaurant that specializes in international small plates. There he developed a list that was heavy on muddling. Om was a bit more high volume, and around the time he started there he didn't have to hand sell muddled drinks. The mojito and caipirinha craze was beginning to take on Beatlemania-like proportions. Om had a bustling late-night crowd. While attending to swarms ordering those drinks, he was also concentrating on other intricately constructed drinks with multi-sensory appeal, a challenge due to the labor-intensive task of muddling for the much-demanded mojitos. It was at Om that he started experimenting with herbs that he didn't have access to before, like geranium leaf. That's also where he began cultivating a fascination with essential oils in the syrups and using them in cocktails in a spray. Om's executive chef, Rachel Klein, had worked with a California-based friend, Julie Weinberg, on a food & wine feature for which they developed food and cocktails for Chanukah. Playing on the fact that Chanukah is a celebration of light and the miraculously long-lasting oil, they incorporated an essential oil into the drink recipe. The cocktail list he came up with based on that idea included mixed drinks enhanced with ginger, lemongrass, rose, and lavender essential oils.
Clif points out that no matter how artisanal his or any other similar product may be, [SWEET] is more an accessory than a centerpiece. It isn't intended as a replacement for the genuine article. "I don't recommend substituting mint syrup for muddled mint because there's something about releasing oils when you muddle. You could make a gimlet and add mint syrup, but I discovered I couldn't cross certain lines. I wouldn't use it as base, and I wouldn't use it in a mojito. The mojito has strong feelings around it," he says. In other words, though the syrups were, in part, inspired by the effect of muddling, they aren't designed to take its place. "I wanted to make syrups that make cocktails that were interesting, and offer different experience."
Also, when he was experimenting with flavors and aromatics of the oils at Om, he started tinkering with cordials, wines and fortified wines in cocktails. "I was doing all the stuff that's the base of what I like to do now. I got to explore," he says.
Indeed, that stint proved useful to the consulting work he's done over the past few years in various restaurants throughout Boston, but he'll be limiting - though not entirely cutting out - the consulting work quite soon. As of press time, he was getting ready to move to Brooklyn to work in the New York cocktail scene. Cocktail consulting and the attendant staff training involved has long been a tactic often employed by major chains to give a national - or international - corporate establishment consistency. But in the past few years, it's grown in popularity among smaller restaurant groups and individual establishments. In 2OO7, Clif devised lists for the Beehive in the South End, the Aquitaine Group's South End French eatery, Gaslight, and Mission Hill's gritty-chic nightspot, the Savant Project. He draws from those years of "experimenting" when working with clients who approach him with simply a general concept of the list. "I find out what the chef is doing, what the [food] concept is, and whether there are vendor restrictions. Then I start playing with the list and while doing that, keep in mind what to plan on as far as clientele and volume. That works into list. I'll put together a basic list of 15 to 2O drinks and have a few tastings. And when [the client] has figured out what they want, there should be a cocktail for every person that walks in the door. You don't have to please everybody with every cocktail, but you should please everybody with at least one cocktail. A scotch drinker who never drinks cocktails should find something on that list. The way to have credibility is to have one thing for that one discerning customer. A list has to be well-rounded and have variety."
The challenge is to develop variety that stays within the confines of the concept devised by the restaurant's owners. The Beehive, for instance, wanted "old-school kitsch", while Gaslight wanted to play on the Parisian theme and play up pastis and absinthe drinks. The Savant Project, meanwhile, posed a greater challenge, as they opened with a beer, wine and cordials license, but wanted a range of innovative signature cocktails with an Asian bend.
Each new client poses its own individual challenges, but the business of consulting in general comes with an inherent roster of complexities, particularly when it comes to training the staff. Often, not only are they learning recipes for new, sometimes complicated drinks, but they also have to be taught how to make specialized ingredients from scratch. Clif trains them, but the nature of the job dictates that he doesn't have on-going oversight capacity. Nor is he there to train any future hires. "I'll show people how to use the jigger and do a dash, but I'm usually training staffs where I'm not going to be a few weeks later. It's definitely important to get everyone on a level playing field."
Syrups aren't the easiest product to make from scratch, so at least he can leave in the inventory, almost as a way to ensure his personal stamp isn't wiped away when he leaves.