We'll Drink to That: Tony Rials shakes it up a notch
Sitting on a stool at the secluded bar of Mike A @ Hotel Lafayette, soft-spoken Tony Rials sips a green tea. He doesn’t immediately come across as the obsessive type, but when I ask him if there’s a particular drink on his menu that took a little extra time to perfect, he recalls a recent foray into fat-washing. “I took hazelnut butter, threw in cognac, strained it, and tasted it, and said, ‘Well, this sucks.’ There was too much tannin,” he says. “But I let it sit for four months, and it was much better. I changed the recipe around, took some inspiration from Vieux Carre [a rye-and-cognac-based New Orleans cocktail that makes liberal use of bitters], and made hazelnut bitters—which took a couple of months—and really strong coffee. So that drink ["A Quarter French"] literally took three months to come up with.” Though most of his drinks don’t take quite as long to finalize, it’s not difficult to taste the effort that goes into every one of Rials’s cocktails. Despite their multiple ingredients in myriad forms, they’re so balanced and even-handed that sipping is a little too easy.
Rials got his start as a busboy at Rio Bamba in Rochester; he became interested in wine and cocktails thanks to mentoring from one of his managers. “I don’t know why, I guess he saw something in me, but he would always call me over and say, ‘Here, try this.’ I enjoyed cocktails, but I was really focused on wine,” Rials recalls.
Later, Rials helped open JoJo Wine Bar in Buffalo, where he began playing with cocktails—making granitas and his own ice cubes and experimenting with infusions. “I was playing with the way you can change things,” he says. “I like the fact that I can alter something and make it completely my own.” The barman describes his shift to cocktails as a natural progression for someone with a passion for both creativity and making people happy. “I can be an amazing sommelier; I can make an amazing wine list,” he says. “But in the end, it’s not something I created. It wouldn’t be unless I worked in a winery, made the wine myself. And I like seeing the immediate reactions of people to my own product that I’ve created.”
Rials creates a peach conserve, to be used as a drink ingredient.
His creations happen to be killer. Bacon’s Last Stand, he says, “took three to four weeks to get the recipe right” and contains barrel-aged bitters as well as Italian vermouth, amari, and bacon-washed bourbon. The Saz-That-Rac, made with lavender absinthe spray and flower honey, tastes like a walk through a Garden District neighborhood in New Orleans. “Wine has such levels to it—aroma, palate, finish—and you’re tasting all these components over a five-minute span,” says Rials. “I wanted to make cocktails like that.” The Saz-That-Rac is perhaps the most stunning example of this philosophy; it has all the depth and contemplative structure of a great wine, the sensations of the components changing within each sip, into the finish, and throughout the life of the drink.
The Ghost of Negroni shows off Rials’s calculated-Jackson-Pollock approach to mixing as well as his adept use of sprayed ingredients: it consists of pepper Anejo tequila marinated with rosemary and thyme, Blanco tequila, punt e mes, rhubarb amaro, aperol, a mezcal spray accented with cinnamon, and clove-dusted ice cubes. The bar is obviously a playground for Rials, who enjoys improvisation just as much as studied, long-term projects. “I love it when people just tell me what they like or what they’re in the mood for and say, ‘Just make me something’—it happens pretty frequently, and I love that interaction,” he says. “The goal is to create a conversation. That’s customer service.”
So far, local reception to Rials’s brand of customer service has been overwhelming—evidence of the new preference for classic cocktails and high-end ingredients rather than alcohol smothered in sugar. “Our strongest cocktails are also the most frequently ordered,” he says. “People are crazy about trying them. I’ve made two Cosmos since we’ve been open.”
Rials notes that the ability to cue off Edward Forster, head chef, is a huge advantage. “Edward can tell me what he’s ordering, so I have this amazing repertoire of ingredients at my disposal.” Being able to constantly play with new ingredients makes Mike A @ Lafayette an ideal setting for Rials’s creativity. He plans to experiment with beer and wine cocktails in future recipes: “I also want to play more with reductions and blend them into spirits, and use herbs and spices and manipulate them into cocktails.” In other words, those interested in mixology should make this bar a regular stop––chances are whatever idea’s gotten into Rials’s head lately will have insanely delicious results.
Julia Burke writes on beer, wine, and spirits for Spree.