Thursday 19 July 2012

"The Fellini" from Joel Virginillo at The Refinery

There’s something special about The Refinery. It could be the tasty Italian-influenced bites courtesy of chef Kirk Morrison, the very affordable prices, the talent behind the bar, or maybe its location on downtown Granville Street – an area known for nightclubs and not for quality food and drink. Maybe it’s the fun events hosted here weekly dating back to Lauren Mote’s Cocktail Kitchen, to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party Wednesdays, to the Cork & Distillery Four Course Dinners starting this month. Or perhaps it’s the culinary approach that the bar takes to the cocktails and the dedication that they have to making everything fresh and in-house rather than stocking an extensive back bar. Looking past the wells you’ll see counters covered in hand-labeled mystery liquids, and around the restaurant itself are a multitude of shelves displaying mason jars of tinctures, bitters, infusions, preserves, teas, and herbs. Most bars nowadays have the occasional housemade bitters or flavoured syrups, but The Refinery takes this to a whole new level.

Chatting with bar manager Joel Virginillo reveals a passionate interest in all aspects of flavour and an ambition to combine them.

How do you view the cocktail program at The Refinery?
“The spirits we have here are selective – it’s the bitters and tinctures that are really the personality. Customers are getting more used to saying ‘I like this flavour but not this flavour’, and then we create something special for them. Something that sets us apart here is how we really nurture that – that’s what drew me to this place. Being able to take any random number of ingredients and throw something together that’s quality is really exciting. The most pleasure I get is from that culinary background of being able to create something individual for a specific guest.”

Where does that culinary approach come from for you?
“I actually started in the kitchen and studied at the Dubrulle French Culinary Institute when I was fifteen and afterwards had the chance to work with some amazing chefs. After that I went to a bartending school and actually ended up teaching there for five years before doing some consulting for nightclubs and it just went from there.”

How do you view the use of bitters and tinctures behind the bar?
“I like having a lot of options for flavour, and I’m also looking at the apothecary side of it and the health benefits of the ingredients I use. I definitely got inspiration from both Lauren and Dani (Tatarin from The Keefer) in that respect. Bitters, and for the most part the entire cocktail culture came from the medicinal side of things, and one day I want to create my own line of fairly profound bitters that have immediate health benefits. My ideal bar would have little vials and containers covering the entire back wall with raw teas, spices, nuts, and all this stuff – having that as part of the bar kit and almost replacing the back bar.”

Where do you think cocktail culture is going overall?
“The industry is really turning towards the personal relationship between the creators and the guests. Ten years ago it was pretty rare that anyone would care who the chef is at a restaurant, now you seek these people out and want to talk to them, and that’s now translating to the front of house and bartenders. Media has brought a lot of light to chefs and what it really means to be a professional in the flavour industry.
I think this ties into the economy right now too – people want a lot more quality for a lot less money, and a whole lot more feeling and story behind it. They want to know that they’re getting the most out of their dollar. People are going to a specific bar to meet a specific bartender for a special experience. There’s so much more to that than just going to a chain restaurant and getting a squishy out of a machine.
People’s palates and tastes have really changed too and everyone is really expecting quality now.”

Where do you see Vancouver’s cocktail culture going?
“Vancouver has the attention span of a gerbil. It’s so hard to tell where the trends are going, and while I like hearing what other bartenders are doing, I don’t pay a lot of attention and follow trends. I do what I’m interested in.”

How do you approach creating a new drink?
“I love changing people’s perceptions of something. Mixing with interesting spirits that aren’t overly common is one of my new interests, like pisco or grappa. Using good bases and having a ton of options. I definitely play with flavours in the spirit, but I also try to do a lot of things regionally – things that grow together tend to work really well together. A lot of our cocktails have classic origins, but we’ve taken them and done our thing. Any good bartender has to pay credit to classic cocktails.”

What cocktail have you chosen to share today?
It’s one that showcases our cocktail program, our Italian mentality, and what we do here. It’s sort of a classic cocktail with a little flare. There was a guy I knew was on a sherry kick, saying that port and sherry aren’t in cocktails enough, so when he came in I knew I wanted to start with that. Using a grape spirit base makes sense since the port is also grape-based, so grappa should work well, and we do a wicked grape bitter. The combination was very light, so adding Cynar gave it that herbaceous depth. I called it “The Fellini,” after the influential Italian filmmaker.

Originally posted on by Rhett Williams
Photography by Rhett Williams: "The Fellini" by Joel Virginillo at The Refinery, Vancouver, 2012

The Fellini

1oz grappa
1/2oz Cynar
1/2oz Tawny Port
Dash of The Refinery’s grape bitters

Combine ingredients with ice. Stir. Strain over rocks.
Flame an orange peel over the drink and garnish.

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