A Chat with Marshall Altier: A New York Mixologist Working (and Playing) in Asia

20100212marshall1.jpgName: Marshall Altier
Title: Missionary of Mixology

Hannah: What is it exactly that your job entails?

Marshall: I train restaurant and hotel staffs in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Jakarta on bartending technique, as well as the history of professional bartending, cocktail building, and the production of spirits.

I also develop cocktails inspired by local and regional food, and I've designed different menus for hotels, clubs, and events—classic, tiki, Asian-themed, molecular-inspired drinks. The bar culture in Asia is on the verge of coming into its own. Being part of that is a very exciting prospect.

And then, my personal projects: my first major writing project, the forthcoming How to Booze: Exquisite Cocktails and Unsound Advice of which I am co-author; and the launch of my Baked Apple Bitters, which will be produced by Modern Organic Spirits this year.

Hannah: How did you come to be a mixologist?

Marshall: My mother's grandparents owned a bar in Canton, Ohio. I guess it's in my blood—I've worked in restaurants ever since I was old enough, every imaginable position, front of the house and back.Being part the show was always a buzz for me.

And bartending was a natural step after working as a head-waiter—I wanted to get more creative. I just found myself geeking out. First it was food, then wine, then spirits. Soon I was buying every cocktail book I could find.

Hannah: What is your cocktail philosophy?

Marshall: Keep it simple. Let the spirits shine.

I've been known to work with savory flavors and bring wines into the mix. I do like to approach things from a culinary standpoint—usually simple combinations of great ingredients do the trick. A bartender whom I respect very much once told me that he likes to think about cocktails like Mr. Potato Head. It's interesting food for thought, pun intended.

Most of the great developments in drinks took place before the turn of the 20th century, so it's always good to go back to the basics. Our work in Asia really represents a melding of all styles old and new, high and low.

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Blood orange cocktail. [Photo: Robyn Lee]

Hannah: What's a day in the life of Marshall?

One day I might be carrying 36 cases of booze to a third floor walk up where I have only a bed and a shower. The next day, I'm staying in a six-star luxury hotel with an expense account. It's all over the place. One thing is consistent—the days are long.

I've been able to move around, seeing different trends and patterns; I've been able to work formally along with one my mentors, Eben Freeman. But I came to Asia to find some inspiration and to gain insight into a culture I believe will help shape the future of food and beverage.

In Hong Kong, my day is usually focused on the creative firm I'm collaborating with. We might work on designing the layout of our new projects: a brasserie with two bar spaces (a collaboration with Eben in Central Hong Kong) or a hotel project in Singapore. In the evening: hands-on stuff: training sessions or events. We develop menus and training programs in existing spaces under our other creative division, called Blue Blazer. And business done in the evening over drinks and dinner—I think of it as market research.

A few times per month, we'll hold events for brands or publicity under the label Cocktail All-Stars. The events are when we get to show off and get the rock star treatment. They usually take place in really lavish locales—a penthouse overlooking Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong, for instance. It's a chance to work with some of the top people in our industry, in great venues, on our terms; that part is a dream come true.

Hannah: What does the bar scene in Asia look like these days?

Marshall: With the development of business comes development of high culture, better food, drink, art and all things creative. The cocktail market in particular has been resilient, though it's tough to pin down the scene as a unified one. Hong Kong has the posh clubs with lots of bling. Bangkok has that too, but with an edgy art and music scene and open-air night market bars. Jakarta is really fascinating—huge nightclubs open all hours of the weekend with Ferraris parked outside, on what looks like a bombed-out block of the street.

Every place is very different from the next. Generally speaking, though, no one has really been exposed to the advancements in ingredients, technique, and overall craft that we have been able to study in the U.S.

One thing that the bar scene has in common is great food. There is nothing that I love more than being able to order a bottle of Thai spiced Rum, and soup noodles that have this intense depth of flavor that you just can't believe, and listen to great live music—all in the same laid-back place.

The best part is that, through our passion, we have a chance to shape what happens next. At the end of the day, I've really been able to take in so much that I know will influence my life and work from here on. That is just the coolest prospect that I can imagine as a creative professional.

Marshall's Tom Yum Gimlet

Ingredients

2 ounces Hangar One Kaffir Lime Vodka
1/2 ounce Lemongrass syrup
1 ounce Fresh lime
4-5 sprigs of Cilantro
1 small de-seeded slice of chili

Procedure

1. Pour all ingredients into a mixing tin and shake for 15-20 seconds.

2. Double strain using a fine mesh tea strainer to remove any excess cilantro/chili into a chilled cocktail glass
.
3. Garnish with 1 lightly pressed or "clapped" leaf of kaffir lime.

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