When restaurateurs Nathan Stanton and his twin brothers Matthew and Marshall Stanton opened up downtown’s El Dorado Cocktail Lounge, Schmidt went to work for them, honing his skills and making the usual mistakes along the way.
Visiting other bars in other cities to gauge their success, Schmidt says, “we quickly realized there was a big difference between what other folks were doing in these big cities and what we were doing.”
The El Dorado’s bar was unwieldy, for one thing. Mis en place — the fancy culinary way of saying “everything in its place and a place for everything” — clearly belonged as much behind the bar as it did in the kitchen.
“It was comedic,” Schmidt says. “We had one refrigerator where all our juices were stored, so if two people from opposite sides of the bar ordered something off our menu at the same time, from two different bartenders, the two bartenders would meet in the middle of the bar and duke it out for who would get the bottle first.”
At the same time, their approach to cocktails was as scattered as spaghetti thrown on the wall, as consistent as lemonade sold from a child’s sidewalk stand.
“We tended to do things like try five different daiquiris with five different rums and the same sugar. Or, sometimes, we’d try a different type of sugar and rum, and compare it to another [combination], and get this concept of the perfectly shaken daiquiri. The same went with Manhattans and martinis.”
Eventually, when Schmidt helped the Stantons open Noble Experiment, he learned that successful classic cocktails require the right building blocks — ice blocks, to be precise. Sizing up the 30-by-50-foot area that would become the barroom, Schmidt realized that a cocktail lounge that aims for intimate and cozy puts a premium on workspace.
“It was too small in the room to put in one of those cold draft ice machines that pumps out beautiful one-by-one-inch ice cubes. There’s no room in the kitchen in back or in here, so we had to figure out another way to do a high-end cocktail service without a proper ice machine. That’s when we realized there were bars out there cutting their own ice.”
As a homemaker will change the color of the curtains only to realize that the entire house needs repainting, so Schmidt, as he revised the proper setup behind a bar, found that mis en place fell into place.
One glance behind the bar confirms it. Laboratory beakers (“They pour more easily than bottles”) sit in neat columns, filled with pineapple juice, cranberry juice, and other cocktail mixers. Nestled in a large bed of ice that fills a stainless-steel reservoir, large bowls of olives, maraschino cherries, lemon twists, and lime wedges look more like a tapas bar than a garnish well.
Having solved that problem, Schmidt and his cofounders focused on the cocktails themselves. To crack this nut, Schmidt headed east.
“We didn’t know where to go from here, so we went to other people and brought on a mentor, a consultant, and we went all over the place,” he recalls. “They’d all say, ‘You’ve got to go to New York.’ So then we went to another city that wasn’t New York, for whatever reason, assuming we’d find someone to show us something different, and they would also say, ‘You’ve got to go to New York.’”
Heeding the advice at last, Schmidt took a flight to the Big Apple to visit pioneering mixologist Sam Ross, star bartender at the crazy-successful classic cocktail lounge Milk & Honey. Founded before the dawn of the classic cocktail revival in 2000, the eccentric, reservations-only Milk & Honey was a “hidden bar,” with no sign advertising its location, no menu for its customers, and a no-nonsense approach to cocktails that Schmidt says he’s consciously sought to emulate at Noble Experiment. (Last summer, Milk & Honey’s owners relocated to another part of town and became more accessible, adding a sign and menus. Ross bought the original space and opened Attaboy, which continues some of the exclusivity, much of the eccentricity, and all of the excellence of Milk & Honey.)
Explaining some of what he learned from Ross, Schmidt says that the successful cocktail is born from four basic principles: dilution, temperature, presentation, and the keystone, the coldest, cleanest, coolest ice on the market.
“Ice is both a foundation and an ingredient for our drinks,” he says. “Water leads to temperature, and it also softens the cocktail, which some people might criticize, but it makes fiery spirits more approachable.”
As an algebraic formula, if a cocktail is the equation, then ice is “x.” Solve for x, and you have your answer to cocktail perfection.
“The kind of ice we use is correlated with how much water is eventually added to the drink and the temperature of the drink. All these things are integral to how a drink tastes, how a customer experiences a drink. Also, if they’re telling us, ‘I drink whiskey neat or on the rocks,’ I need to be mindful of a presentation which uses a certain type of ice, so that the drink is going to be relatively strong, at least at first.”
And if the bartender must solve for x, sometimes it helps to control the other variables. That control came with something called the Clinebell Ice Machine.
“Instead of a conventional freezer, which freezes cold air from the top down, the Clinebell has walls that freeze inside and up,” Schmidt explains. “On the side of the console, there’s a hose that is constantly washing away any mineral deposits that might settle on the top. The mineral deposits are what trap the air and make the bubbles. So, if it’s constantly rinsing away these mineral deposits, you get this perfectly clear ice when it’s all set.”
Walking over to a bar back who is working in a far corner, tapping and cutting ice at a steady clip, Schmidt brings back a piece of the Clinebell-crafted ice. It’s about the size and shape of a chalkboard eraser and as translucent as a pale, oversized sapphire. Such clear ice comes to Noble Experiment in 300-pound blocks that have been sliced into 20-by-40-inch sheet cakes of translucent ice ten inches thick. The bar backs cut them down further into two-inch sheets, which are stored in stacks in a freezer next to the bar. Over the course of a night, Schmidt and his fellow bartenders will slide these sheets out as they need them and cut them down even further into “rods.”