By RJ Johnson
Crush Wine Bistro and Cellar opened in 2008 after friends Robert DeLucia and Scott Anaya were looking for a place to hang out and drink good wine in Anchorage. Shortly after Chad Culley joined the team and the location on the 6th Avenue side of the 5th Avenue Mall became a favorite spot for small plates and great wine. Upstairs, the location had a bottle shop, offering customers the opportunity to pick up a selection after discovering it in the bistro. In 2017 the choice was made to merge with Sacks Café. While there were a couple of reasons for the decision, DeLucia stated the main inspiration, “We wanted to pursue a full dispensary license so that we could take the creative piece of the food and wines that we like to source, and bring in the mixology side of things.” Another reason was the need to grow with the clientele. “It also spoke to how we wanted to develop our business model. We started off as small plates and wine flights. People started to dig on those small plates so much they wanted to see us really express ourselves more. So, we took that food menu and started to blow it up a little bit. We started to play with it and pair the wines with it, and one of the reasons we needed a move was that we could tell we were growing out of that space.”
The addition of a full bar meant creating a cocktail program for the new location. Bar manager Matt Iverson did not have as much experience in the world of bartending, but where he is studied fits perfectly into the heart of what Crush represents.
“My interest in cocktails comes out of my interest in wine,” Iverson said. “When we were transitioning into this space, and we were going to have a full spirits license, I knew that I wanted our cocktails to be really good. I also wanted them to reflect our origins, and our heart as a place known for wine. It came out naturally that way by me. I made cocktails for myself at home or at a friend’s party. The move over here allowed me to really showcase.”
He also took the same levels of enjoyment that you think of when experiencing wine and let them become part of the mixology in the new location. “The subtleties of the flavor are often what a great wine is about, the nuance, or the aroma, or the texture,” he said.
DeLucia feels it is a perfect match with everything else that happens in the restaurant.
“We needed the ability to flex on that full dinner menu and provide a breadth of experience, and part of that breadth of experience is being able to offer a quality cocktail to start off the night, but still not blowing people’s palates up because you are going to have food and wine coming down the pipe afterwards. That’s a piece of the dining experience that we were really excited about,” DeLucia said.
The General Manager and founder also said, “What I really respect about what Matt has done is… what we seek out in both the food and wine is character, with intrigue and interest, but above all with a sense of place and balance, and that’s a hard mission to give him when it comes to cocktails. To take what we take a lot of pride in, and what we spend a lot of time doing, and then add a whole other facet to it at the beginning. I think he nailed it. The balance on these cocktails is absolutely phenomenal.”
For the cocktail program, Iverson has a list of Classics, Remixes, and House Jams that stay year-round. For a lighter drinking experience there is also the Aperitifs and Sparkling selection. Some of these offerings may have originally been on the fresh sheet of specials that give the staff a chance to play with certain spirit categories, or possibly get a chance to gauge customer reaction to a new creation. Drinks like the Mendoza Sour, a mix of Don Q spiced rum, falernum, lime, star anise and a Malbec float were experiments that have now found a permanent home. Rum is a favorite spirit for Iverson to play with, and that fact alone sets him apart from many local mixologists.
“I really like gin and rum. I like rum because as a category you can so many different styles, from white rum to funky, earthy Jamaican aged rums,” Iverson said. “You can have a whole lot of different proof levels in gin and rum, so you can have something softer, lighter or you can have something that’s pretty assertive and in your face.”
One of the most unique parts about Crush is the location of the bottle shop directly next door. This adds a new depth within the spirits that they offer, given the intriguing selection behind the bar. You won’t find common brands like Jack Daniels or Makers Mark.
“Either they are distilleries people have heard of but it’s the less common bottling, or it’s distilleries people haven’t heard of, but we can suggest to customers,” Iverson explained. One way that customers are repaying the favor is suggesting the Manhattan that was created to their friends. “People come in the door because someone told them we have the best Manhattan in town. Every month it is right up there, neck and neck for top seller.”
To place a Manhattan on your permanent menu is a bold choice, given the personal likes and dislikes of each customer that orders one. With its triple whiskey blend, specially chosen Cocchi vermouth, a pair of bitters, lemon and Luxardo cherry, the Triple Whiskey Manhattan at Crush is worthy of such a confident decision. “I like it because it’s always a nod to tradition that Matt has a respect for. Then he gives it a subtle twist to give people like us that look at menu’s all the time interested,” DeLucia said.
Iverson estimates it took about 40 tries to get the correct recipe that he was happy with.
“The thing about this drink is that you can make a Manhattan with rye and it will be fine, but then someone will come in and say bourbon,” he said. “I also don’t think the same vermouth is going to work with a lean spicy rye as a big fat caramelly bourbon. I didn’t want people subbing whiskies and keeping everything else about the drink the same, because it would have a different trajectory. I said, let’s mix the whiskies and see if we can find a blend that’s interesting to a lot of people.”
Flavor is only one part of the secret behind Iverson’s intriguing concoctions. He is also specific about the creation itself.
“What I also appreciate about Matt and his cocktail program is that he is very deliberate about the way they are built,” DeLucia said. “Not only is it the recipe, but how his people stir. Things are stirred, or shaken, not either or. He also tells them how long to stir them.”
Both are happy with how much cocktails and spirits have started to lend to a business that they were already comfortable with, and both are excited to continue to grow this program. DeLucia is keeping a close eye on it but is satisfied with what he is seeing.
“The cocktail category is doing great for us, and it’s amazing how it’s building,” DeLucia said. “I thought people were going to flip out, so it’s taken a while. I think people still don’t associate us with it. They don’t know what to expect, but as soon as they hit it, they come back again and again, and they bring their friends in. It’s great to see the response.”
As the weather cannot seem to make up its mind which season we are in, a Manhattan is a fantastic choice to take in a warm spring day, or winters last holdout. Head on over to Crush and see what you think of this remix on a classic that has been called, “The Best Manhattan in Anchorage.”