By RJ Johnson
When SubZero Microlounge opened in 2002, Cory Leicester was in Colorado. He had just started working at a high-volume nightclub after his first couple years of bartending at a country club. From picking up a bartending guide at Barnes and Noble and “messing stuff up right away”, to where he is now, as a highly respected mixologist who understands craft cocktails and the bar industry was a process.
Leicester was behind the bar before his 21st birthday with the country club set due to Colorado laws that allow those under the legal drinking age to serve. His start in the fast-paced nightclub industry took place the day he was first legally allowed to drink. He found early success in his 20’s, which is rare in the industry, but soon it wasn’t enough.
“I loved that high-volume, energetic, exciting scene. I took over as General Manager for my first bar when I was 25 years old. That was in my hometown of Fort Collins. I was partnered in there by the time I was 26 as an operating partner. I absolutely loved it until I started getting a little older. I started getting burned out and started to see a disconnect between myself and that. It was a strict 21,22-year-old customer base in a Mardi Gras-themed party bar. I have always loved the industry but that was one where I thought maybe it would be the last bar I would work in; that it was time to grow up and get the ‘real job,’ and do what I am supposed to do.”
His schooling gave him a background in engineering, but even that wasn’t the correct fit.
“I have tried getting out of the industry a couple times and it has never clicked. I love this industry, and essentially what happened was, I noticed that I was getting old enough that I was having a disconnect from my customer base at the time.”
The nightclub world can be a difficult one even for people who enjoy the work. Cleaning up messes left by customers, stopping bar fights, and endless late nights can wear a person down fast, no matter how good the money is. After almost a decade of the work, Leicester stumbled across a part of the industry that he hadn’t explored and it sparked an entirely new fire in the bartender.
“I was ready for the next step and that is when the craft cocktail movement started coming to Colorado. It had been in New York, L.A., San Francisco, New Orleans. So, it’s 2009 in Colorado and I got exposed to that and all of a sudden the lights come on for me.” His interest became passion as he learned to experiment. “I started messing around on the craft cocktail side while I was still operating this party bar and slowly started incorporating some of that into the bar I was working at. It wasn’t that style, but a couple of years later I had some life changing events happen and realized that wasn’t where I wanted to be.”
A combination of luck and knowledge let Leicester quickly pivot the direction of his career. He focused solely on craft cocktails and soon was invited to do some development for companies in Colorado. He got his first publication for his creations around 2012 and found success in an entirely new area of the business he had been doing for years. “I knew it was something I was really passionate about, and I was interested in the culinary side, and the design, and the engineering side of the craft cocktail.”
He had been traveling down this new path for about three years, and in 2015 was working for a company that wanted him to develop a modern cocktail bar. One of the men he met while working on this project would end up being the key to his travel to Alaska.
“I had someone working with me that had previously been that General Manager of the Humpy’s in Kona. He had helped me out with a bar that I had put together in Fort Collins. I was looking to go down to Arizona with this company with some concepts. They were college concepts, high volume, the good money concepts. My buddy had maintained a friendship with James Maurer (an owner of Sub Zero), and they had been looking at something to put together that involved a speakeasy.”
Leicester hadn’t been looking forward to Arizona summers, so traveling to Alaska became an easy choice. He quickly fell in love with the company and the people he met up here, so he decided to sign on for the project. The Blues Central speakeasy concept in the upstairs room at Williwaw was something different and Leicester enjoyed what he was able to do. He created a large cocktail menu that he was proud of; one that inspired conversations between bartenders and clientele, as locals learned about new concepts and creation styles that hadn’t been thoroughly explored in the Anchorage bar scene.
While it was his skill at the speakeasy that got him the position at SubZero, he is taking the cocktail program in an entirely new direction. High on the wall, in view of each patron is a cocktail menu. Four cocktails that match four different moods. Familiar, Playful, Pensive, and Experimental. Leicester explains, “The Familiar category, those are four of my favorite classic cocktails. For that category, it’s that warm blanket of ‘I know what I am getting into’ when I order. Then we have the Playful category, which is all bright whimsical cocktails. Effervescent, fun, and playful. Pensive, these are going to be your big, full-spirit sippers. They are moody, and almost brooding. You can hunker down and sip and get lost in your thoughts. Then we have the Experimental category. These are going to be the ones that have some unique, outside of the box presentations, techniques or ingredients.” The bartender puts a lot of thought into each aspect of what SubZero offers, as well as who his customer base will be. “Every aspect of that needs to be thoughtfully produced and presented in a way that meets and hopefully exceeds our guests expectations when they come in. That’s the goal.”
When enjoying a drink prepared at SubZero, you may notice that many of the cocktails are created from across the drink spectrum. Spirits and beer may be used in the same creation, or wine could appear with a liqueur. While his college education may not have been applicable at the time for the career he wanted, it is useful at this point in his professional life.
“I have an engineering background. When I am starting to look at building a cocktail, I will break it down. Number one, we have our fundamental builds, Old Fashioned builds, we have Manhattan builds, Collins builds. I am always working in those structures. Then when we are looking at strong, sweet, bitter, and acid.”
Breaking cocktail components down to those four basic flavors is what Leicester refers to as part of the culinary aspect of his craft.
“Now we look at wine. At the end of the day, wine is very acidic. That’s why we incorporate vermouth, because it is acidic. Stripping it down, saying this is wine, but knowing that it is an acid now it leaves some room to incorporate that into different cocktails without really (letting on) that we are rocking the boat. Look at an IPA. That is inherently bitter, so if we are looking at a beer cocktail, and we need that bitter, there it is. Once we break those things down to their true nature of what those different ingredients are, we can use them in cocktails.”
He puts the same care into the methods of creation that are used when serving. From the type of ice, to the way that it is stirred, to what aroma hits your nose first are all calculated long before the beverage is even served. “We are looking for all of those elements in a cocktail as well as being very technique driven. When we shake a cocktail, we are looking not just to chill the drink, but to control the amount of dilution we have from the ice melting. We are incorporating air into the cocktail if we are shaking it to give it a light texture, an effervescent texture. Whereas, if we are stirring the cocktail, we are looking to keep a strong viscosity, we are looking to chill that and keep it viscous and coaty.”
Special tools are sometimes required in order to bring these drinks to fruition and some are just a step in the finishing process.
“Here at SubZero we physically have some potable, some edible aromatics and bitters that we are putting into atomizers and putting over the top of cocktails, so that it is present when people bring it to their lips. Olfactory sense is 80% of flavor.”
For mixologists like Leicester, this is just another step in the goals of customer service. He, and others like him, want to anticipate the needs of customers that have never stepped food into their establishment. He explains his theory that
“You put that attention to detail into it, whether it’s going to be some bright whimsical cocktail that is going to appeal to someone younger, or if it’s a big, full-spirit drink. When you put that attention to detail, and you are paying attention to your build, your garnish, and everything else they are not going to know why that cocktail is the way it is, and why they like it so much. They are not going to be able to know that you laid aromatics across the top and that it has been shaken at 26 degrees for 55 percent dilution. Subconsciously they will know that something is different about this drink, that this is a different elevated experience.”
With a little push from staff from the Anchorage Press, Leicester has created a new cocktail that will debut at the lounge. It didn’t take much urging to get Leicester to agree.
“You don’t have to ask me twice to come up with a cocktail. Give me some direction. There was a suggestion to do something spicy, and something with mezcal, and that is actually my favorite spirit.” Next his mind went to the classic Presbyterian cocktail, referred to as a “Press” by most bartenders. This combination of soda water and ginger ale would give the drink a lot of bubbles and effervescence. “It’s a long drink, Collins style” said Leicester, and said that other ingredients will include “ancho reyes, fresh pressed ginger, homemade grenadine, lemon, grapefruit, and finished with Prosecco.” Topped with crushed ice and finished with Peychaud’s bitters, the creation will be a mix of several different flavors and mouth feels, much like an alternative newspaper appeals to different parts of the community.
Customers need not be intimidated by the craft cocktail movement, as Leicester and his staff are more than happy to serve up two ingredient cocktails such as whiskey and coke, vodka and tonic, or even just a craft beer. At the end of the day customer satisfaction is the goal, and as Leicester says
“When it is your free time, when you are looking to escape, and looking to enjoy your time away from the daily grind, we want to do this so that it is the best possible time for you.”
The launch party for the ‘Hot Off The Press’ cocktail is Thursday, May 9 at SubZero Microlounge.