Friday, February 8, 2008

Mixologist: Tim Lacey

Meet Tim Lacey, the Bar Manager/Beverage Director for the Spring Restaurant Group. In addition to that role, he’s an accomplished mixologist, a bit of a perfectionist, a relentless experimenter, and very excited to be expecting his first child next month.

The Restaurant Called
It all started when Tim was studying theatre in college; he was working in retail and looking for something else (ideally where he could make more money). A family friend told him about a busser position at a local restaurant, so he checked it out, and made the leap. Moving on from busser to server, and eventually to bartender, Tim spent time in several restaurants along the way, including the acclaimed Trio in Evanston. Eventually he met up with the chef he works with now, Shawn McClain (who had also been at Trio in the past, although not at the same time). Tim has been in his current role for a couple of years now.

Balancing Act
Like any great mixologist, Tim always strives for balance in his cocktails. I asked Tim when it was that he knew this was his career path. He told me that one night a few years after he started in the restaurant business, he was out with his wife Lisa, and she ordered a dirty martini. After tasting the glass of half brine she received, Tim realized that he knew a thing or two about balance that some bartenders just didn't get. He has always been creative, and loved the opportunity for creativity behind the bar. So there he stayed, gradually moving into beverage management roles.

Tim takes a seasonal approach to his cocktail menus, and right now he’s playing around with citrus fruits, including blood oranges and Meyer lemons. Brown spirits entice in the winter, and his favorite spirits to work with right now are whiskeys (Elmer T. Lee and Old Overholt are favorites, and he’s exploring ryes). He also makes a range of colas, tonics, ginger beers, tinctures, and bitters in-house, and is often experimenting with those as well.

Inspired by… a True Story
Rows of bottles inspire Tim, and get him thinking about flavors that work together. He also finds inspiration in checking out other cocktail menus and hearing what other mixologists are doing. Nailing a cocktail on the first (or even second try) is the sign of a great day. Like many of us, Tim sometimes end up tinkering with a recipe a bit too long, and sometimes has to tell himself to give up and move on.

Each day, Tim works toward getting people thinking about beverages differently, to open their minds and be curious about spirits and cocktails. One example - he has a drink on the menu right now using a "Hollands Gin" that he made based on a recipe in David Wondrich's book Imbibe (a blend of Plymouth Gin and Jameson Whisky, as it turns out). It’s called the Wicked Old School, made with the Hollands Gin, blood orange and bitters. While people do occasionally order it, they rarely ask what Hollands Gin is, even though it’s in quotes. Unfortunately, Tim's main concern has ended up to be making sure people know it's a true adult beverage, not a fruity juicy one, despite the blood orange. But he’s working on it.

Love it, Hate it
Tim loves the fact that creativity is part of his job, and that he actually is paid for it (in contrast to the playwriting he was doing for awhile). He also loves the variety - routine has never been his thing. He doesn't mind the non-corporate hours, and appreciates the flexibility he has in his schedule.

On the other hand, Tim dislikes having to balancing that artistic side with the customer's fear of change. Despite his efforts to innovate and create unique drinks, the Cosmopolitan is still the most commonly ordered drink in his restaurants. I was a bit surprised, and a little disappointed, to hear that one, but I imagine that it's true at more places than I realized. It’s frustrating when people who seek out adventure on the plate don’t seek it out in their glass (and sometimes refuse it, even when recommended to them).

And What Else?
Tim and his wife Lisa are expecting their first baby next month, so most of his free time right now is being spent planning and getting ready for their baby girl. Tim loves to cook when he has time, although he doesn't do much drink-making at home. He tends to drink mostly wine and beer at home and when he's out, unless he is tempted by a unique cocktail.

At the end, I asked Tim to tell me one random fun fact about himself that might surprise people. His answer: "I think Carl is the funniest name on the planet." He had to come up with one of these for a recent get-to-know-you thing at work, and that's what he said. It turned out that one of his colleagues had a date with someone named Carl shortly after that, and the colleague kept laughing about it during the date (and then blamed Tim).

Seek and You Will Find
Tim is often around, although sometimes behind the scenes, at Custom House these days. He tends to float between the restaurants, and doesn’t have a set schedule (he likes that). You can always find his libations at the restaurants, so be sure to check ‘em out!

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