A Cocktail Artist and His Pourable Palette
A “Numbers Guy” becomes a mixology master at Elliotts
By Ann Marie Thornton » Photos by Melissa Souto
Elliotts’ bar manager, Jordan Ervin, sandy shoulder-length hair pulled back into a ponytail, a bar towel on each hip, sweeps his arm from the high shelves of gin, bourbon, rye and rum down to an array of mixers, potions and garnishes in various bottles behind the bar. “This is my art,” he says, “The bar is my canvas.”
The Pepper Hound, Basil’s Bite, the Scallion Gin and Tonic, the Cubed Old Fashioned. He rolls off names and flavors and garnishes to delight and entreat. Seeing a flash in the customer’s eye, “Oh!” he says, “Can I make that for you?”
Ervin is on a roll now, gliding behind the bar in a practiced weave around Nick, the GM, and Jake, another bartender, scooping up a glass, clattering in a huge ice cube, flourishing each bottle to a lofty height for a measured pour. After a few more dashes of this and that, he pinches a slice of orange peel in one hand, and with a lighter in the other, he torches the spraying essence, sending up a dazzling whoosh of flame, and dropping the peel delicately in to the glass.
The Cubed Old Fashioned is Ervin's creation, following him from restaurant to restaurant for the past six years with an updated history of tweaks and mods. It is the best-selling cocktail on the menu at Elliotts since he introduced it upon his arrival 18 months ago.
A native of Kinston, Ervin debuted this cocktail while working at his first upscale restaurant, the Chef and the Farmer run by Vivian Howard and featured in the PBS series “A Chef’s Life.” Although the Old Fashioned is often made with bourbon, he opted for a decadent blend of rye, spiced rum and cognac. The original version at Chef and the Farmer used familiar brands of top-shelf liquor. However, Mark Elliott’s fresh and local ethic promotes using liquors from distilleries based in North Carolina, so Ervin tweaked the recipe to feature Preamble Rye from Seven Jars Distillery in Charlotte and Carolina Spiced Rum from Muddy River Distillery in Belmont, as well as Remy Martin VSOP.
“I’m a numbers guy,” Ervin says, “So this (Cubed Old Fashioned) recipe is all about threes….three liquors, three bitters, three garnishes. Three by three by three. Cubed.” In addition to blending rye, rum and cognac, he makes a double-strength, brown-sugar simple syrup and adds his three bitters, aromatic, orange and cocoa, to lend depth and complexity and a pinch more sweetness.
For the namesake cube, the first garnish, he uses a large, clear ice cube for dramatic impact and practicality, since it will melt more slowly. The second garnish is a heap of small, savory dried cherries that have been steeped in a blend of bourbon, amaretto and brandy with smoked cinnamon sticks. The final garnish is the torched orange peel flambé, volatizing the aromas and beckoning one to sip. The complex nose has a bit of prickly heat from the youngish Preamble Rye plus elegant spritely orange notes. The flavors in this elixir are many: caramel notes, citrus, cherry and a savory smoke, with a long finish of leather and toasty oak. Opulent and satisfying.
Since the cherries and simple syrup are prepared in advance, making the Cube behind the bar is a series of quick pours and flourishes. Then he is off again, checking in with one customer, chatting with another, drawing neighbors into conversations, developing that lively magic of the cocktail hour.
The hand-crafted cocktail menu at Elliotts lists quite a few of Ervin’s creations, the Pepper Hound, with grapefruit, vodka and black pepper, the Figgin’ Good with rye, dry vermouth, maple and fig, delightfully presented in a classic coupe. Inspiration comes from a myriad of sources, updating classics, playing with whatever is in season, pomegranates, sweet potatoes, cilantro, or dill, asking customers about their preferences. The Salted Caramel Martini, the Scallion Gin and Tonic, or something created just in the moment, each a prologue to a fantastic evening at Elliotts and its tantalizing menu.
Soon the soothing rhythm of the cocktail shaker is humming again. With, as he says, “the ears of a fruit bat,” his attention remains on his customers as he moves through the traffic of the back bar and entices another customer to try something new.
Ann Marie Thornton and her husband David are the owners and cidermakers at James Creek Cider House in Cameron. Ann Marie holds certifications from the Court of Master Sommeliers, the American Cider Association, and the (UK) National Association of Cider Makers.