Tony Rials: Brewing cocktails in the kitchen
You might not expect to find one of Buffalo’s best bartenders working over a stove, but Tony Rials spends a notable amount of his work week in the downstairs kitchen at Mike A’s, prepping ingredients for the sophisticated cocktails that have made the young restaurant’s lounge a place to see and be seen. Whether it’s the ingredients for an infusion, a new bitters recipe, or some other technique-based version of Rials culinary-themed mixology, Mike A’s kitchen—and its head chef Ed Forster—remain a place of inspiration and experimentation for Rials.
When he decided to take a hiatus from college in his home state of Kansas to visit some friends in Rochester for the summer, he didn’t realize that Western New York would one day become his home. Work as the bread boy for a fine French restaurant proved interesting, and with diligence he worked his way to dining room captain in just three years. It was here that his interest in wine first showed itself, after the general manager encouraged him to taste and experience as many types of wine as possible. Little did either of them know that Rials would go on to become a certified sommelier with a passion for all things drinkable.
Work at several other restaurants and the simultaneous pursuit of a degree from St. John Fisher College rounded out the next few years, but it was work at the Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park that turned him into a fan of the cocktail. This New York restaurant helped propel the modern notion that expertly mixed drinks are an important component to the contemporary fine dining experience. During staff tastings and wine classes, Rials was able to learn from the restaurant’s mixologist, Leo Robitscheck, a man whom Rials describes as “flamboyant, hilarious, and full of amazing ideas.” His passion and flair, combined with the on-site cocktail education, drove Rials to see cocktails through the same lens with which he gazed lovingly at wine.
From there he went on to become part of the opening staff at Rochester’s Nikko, until he was recruited by chefs Ed Forster and Mike Andrzejewski to man the bar and the entire beverage experience available at Mike A @ Hotel Lafayette.
“Everything you learn about wine, everything that is required to become a better sommelier, is to taste with people who are better than you. It’s the best way to learn,“ Rials says. And he applies this principal to his cocktail program, which he says has become increasingly finessed due to the influence provided by his proximity to the ethereal food and those responsible for it at Mike A’s.
“We like our customers to receive a similar experience, if they want it. I have the opportunity to interact with guests and help guide their experience, we build a relationship and when they come back they feel like they belong here. Some of our guests aren’t interested in that, because they are here with friends or to celebrate, and that is okay; we take good care of them, too. But I love to build a relationship of trust with a guest. I get to know what they like and then I can suggest new things for them to try.”
Rials’ principles apply to the wine list he’s crafted for the critically acclaimed restaurant as well. The list offers classic benchmark wines alongside those that are more groundbreaking, providing guests with an array of good choices. For those looking for a tasting experience, Rials is capable of creating some of the best pairings this food writer has ever sampled, and it’s a service available to any dinner guest. Though some may quibble that the wine and cocktails at Mike A’s are merely part of the overall dining experience—and they wouldn’t be wrong—it is this writer’s opinion that it may be the most delightful and unexpected aspect of the evening, leaving you wondering how many otherwise laudable meals from your past were dampened by the lack of the dexterous and knowledgeable Rials.
Can you share a few of your favorite drink names?
Gingers Always Win—named after the boss’s daughter [laughs].
What is the theory behind your wacky drink names?
Funny, but relevant.
What is a name that maybe didn’t go over so well?
My humor might be a little strange, so sometimes people just don’t get the names. Take the Growds Up ... I assumed most would get the reference from the movies Swingers and Old School, but most don’t even know how to pronounce it. My bad.
Definition of the perfect drink:
Everything in balance, please.
What could we do to improve our drinks at home?
Not enough people are using bitters, and stop relying on Rose’s Lime Juice. Nasty!
You’re also a sommelier; what should the average bartender know about wine?
The basics are fine (differences between varietals), but honestly, knowing more about wine will never hurt. No matter your course in life, wine will have relevance at some point. Why not be prepared?
Favorite bar(s) to sit at in WNY besides your own?
I can’t resist tequila, so Cantina Loco. I’ve spent many a late night at Vera. Rochester has a few places doing some cool stuff too—Nikko and Cheshire Club.
Christa Glennie Seychew is Spree's food editor.