Nick Kokonas grew up in a family that revolved around food and drink. At an early age, he was drawn to the industry and was always mesmerized by bartenders.
“When I turned 21, the bar manager where I worked gave me a copy of the original Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide, and I was hooked,” Nick recalls. “Since then, I have headed multiple bar programs, competed in numerous cocktail competitions, and published the historical cocktail book Something & Tonic: A History of the World’s Most Iconic Mixer.” We ask Nick to tell us more.
Where do you tend bar now? What makes it unique?
I currently bartend at Avondale Bowl on Chicago’s northwest side. It’s a vintage eight-lane bowling alley and bar. It originally opened in the early 1930s and ran under a few names before shuttering in the 1990s. After heavy renovations, we opened in January 2020. Manual scoring, retro vibes, and White Russian slushies.
Who has been most influential in your development as a bartender?
My first bar manager Heather (now my sister-in-law) took me under her wing when I first stepped behind the bar. She is the one that got me the Trader Vic’s book. She taught me not just speed and efficiency behind the bar but also how communicating with the people across the bar is the most important aspect of our jobs. We serve people, not drinks.
Do you have any advice for novice or at home bartenders?
A strong foundation is essential. There are a lot of fancy bells and whistles and theatrics revolving around cocktails. At the end of the day, none of that matters unless you have a well-balanced, delicious drink. Keep it simple.
What is your favorite ingredient right now and why?
Tonic in all its forms. With tonic water, you add dilution, flavor, bitterness, and texture. With tonic syrups, you can provide secondary flavors, sweetness, complexity, and depth (it’s essentially a spirit-free amaro). The versatility in both forms moves so far beyond the G&T. I think its potential is limitless.
How do you go about creating a cocktail? Is there a specific process or simply a moment of inspiration?
Creating a new drink is difficult. Sometimes you can have a great idea on paper, and it turns out horrible when you make the drink. Sometimes you see two bottles on the shelf next to each other and think, sure, why not? When I’m looking for inspiration, I scour through cocktail books. I’ll put some general ideas down on paper, then cut, change, substitute, etc., until I have a few ideas I want to work through.
Do you have a special technique you use or a tip for making a particular drink?
Always consider a cocktail’s evolution over time. Deciding on ice, glassware, dilution, method for building, temperature, and garnish, make sure that fifteen or twenty minutes from the time it hits the glass, the cocktail will still taste delicious. The last sip should be just as enjoyable as the first.
Where do you see the bartending/cocktail culture headed?
I have no idea. The industry is still reeling in a lot of ways. We won’t know which way things are heading until we land back on our feet. All we can do is have a drink until then.
Something & Tonic
- 1 ½ oz. reposado tequila
- 1 oz. crème de cacao
- ½ oz lime juice
- Half bar spoon matcha powder (1/4 tsp)
- Tonic water (to top)
Preparation: In a cocktail shaker, combine tequila, crème de cacao, lime, and matcha powder with ice. Shake and strain into a Collins glass over ice and top with tonic. Lift ice with a bar spoon to incorporate. Garnish with horse’s neck lemon twist.