Cocktail Alchemy: Behind the Scenes at Experimental Cocktail Club

By Channaly Oum
Channaly Oum
Channaly Oum
August 1, 2013 Updated: October 8, 2018

Step into the Experimental Cocktail Club and Xavier Herit and Thor Bergquist will be sizing you up. What kind of mood are you in? If you are feeling indecisive, they’ll ask what your favorite spirit is. Shaken or stirred?—an inevitable question.

No, they’re not trying to pick you up.

“We’ve been making so many cocktails we know more or less what fits you; it’s like being a tailor,” Herit said. Are you a Roll-with-the-Punches 2 kind of person; or maybe you need a good Wimbledon Milk Punch?

“Our job is not to sell what we think is best. It’s to find what’s the best fit for you.”

But, If it’s midnight, and I’m sweating, I’ll give you a Wimbledon,” Herit joked.

The Alchemists

A charming pair, Herit and Bergquist are both well-known for their mixology skills, having worked at eminent restaurants and bars for years.

Herit, 35, from Paris, looks every inch the dapper Frenchman, decked out in a red bow tie, smart vest, and rolled up sleeves—a gregarious character who can’t help but crack jokes.

Bergquist hails from New Zealand and adds a slight rugged flavor to the duo, smiling brightly behind his brown shaggy beard with a tattoo on his left arm reminiscent of “Where the Wild Things Are.” The 27-year-old is the general manager at the Experimental Cocktail Club (ECC), while Herit is the assistant manager.

“It’s a strange mix, right?” said Bergquist.

“It’s like Laurel and Hardy,” said Herit.

And it works—the cocktail bar is a des- tination, being at the confluence of Nol- ita, Lower East Side, and Chinatown. The location invokes memories of the speak- easy days—there is no sign outside, and there’s not much in the way of shops or anything else in its immediate vicinity.

Inside, it’s 50 percent cocktail and 50 percent atmosphere, said Bergquist. The setting gives an intimate vintage vibe and the ambiance is relaxed, in a casual-classy kind of way.

“We don’t take ourselves too seriously here,” Herit said.

The drinks at ECC are complex and layered, and the talented staff is always musing on the next taste sensation.

“There’s a drink we have called the Wimbledon Milk Punch, created by Nicolas de Soto who left us not long ago, a dear friend of ours,” said Herit. “How he came up with this drink is, he is a big fan of tennis and he was at a Wimbledon game and was eating strawberries with whipped cream.”

Making the cocktail is an intricate process—it involves clarified milk, as well as Hendrick’s gin, Batavia arrack, coconut water, strawberry purée, tarragon, Earl Grey tea, and a secret spice mix.

The milk punch is beautiful, clear, light, and a golden color. When the milk is clarified, it loses the creaminess, but retains the flavor.

“The complexity of the flavor is completely insane,” said Herit. “This drink takes two days to make. It takes two seconds to serve, so we love it when we’re busy.”

Concocting Cocktails

The 15 custom-made syrups ECC maintains are something any mad scientist would be proud of.

“We do everything from scratch here,” said Herit. “Each cocktail requires a lot of preparation. … There’s a lot of cooking, a lot of preparation. Lots of infusions.”

The red beet and pomegranate shrub is crafted by juicing a red beet, blending it with pomegranate, making a syrup, and adding some yuzu vinegar.

Herit said new creations often come from the evocation of a bartender’s memories or a combination of flavors that left a remarkable impression. “We get inspired from what we eat, what we see, what we smell.”

“All bartenders here have their own influences and elements,” Bergquist said. “I know some of the bar staff are inspired by food and dining, and transfer those flavors into the spirit world, whereas, myself, it’s more from travel, seeing more cultures abroad and trying to implement that into drink format.”

Bartenders are free to experiment with their own creations at ECC, but the approach is very team-based, said Bergquist. “As soon as you have a concept, you submit it and we work on it together, give each other insight and advice. It really helps the young bartenders grow up and learn our style of drinks—not that they don’t develop their own styles as well.”

One example is the Stockholm Syndrome. Bergquist, whose heritage is Swedish, visited Sweden for the first time last year. “I really fell in love with a dish called pickled herring. And those combinations of dill, herring of course, a little bit of lemon lime, salt, and pepper.”

Bergquist talked to his Swedish colleague to try and find the elements to recreate the pickled herring using aquavit, the Scandinavian spirit of choice.

“He mistranslated and said it was dill and cumin, whereas in fact it was dill and caraway. So he built the cocktail around those two things. It was a lucky mistake.”

Herit said, “Most of the ingredients that you see on the list are also combinations that go well on the plate.”

Take for example, the Milk of Sorrow, with Drouin Calvados, La Garrocha Amontillado sherry, Wray & Nephew overproof rum, pine nuts orgeat, lime juice, and angostura bitters.

Still, as in fine cooking, Herit abides by a central tenet.

“The rule, which is very important is know your classics. It’s like food,” Herit said. “You’ve got to know the dish from Escoffier before you start to make a dish from Daniel or Jean-George. You’ve got to know your base, how to make chicken stock in order to make a good sauce. I think the cocktail is the same thing. You’ve got to know your classics.”

Herit speaks from experience. He was the head mixologist at Daniel Boulud’s for Daniel for seven years, where he crafted cocktails with exotic ingredients and created beautiful orchid flower ice balls in lieu of run-of-the-mill ice cubes.

At Daniel’s, he said, there was incredible attention given to every detail, from the beginning apéritif, through the six-course meal, ending with the coffee.

Herit made the move downtown to the ECC last May, when it opened.

“I would even say that the cocktails are even more creative here and it’s another level again because this is the focus.”

Balance and Taste

These days, Herit likes to dabble with mescal and tequila.

“This comes back a lot in the stirred drinks, or even shaken [drinks], by the fact that there are so many different kinds of aging processes. They are so different from each other. The smokiness of the mescal is a great tool to use. I think I like bitterness as well so I like to play a lot with amaros. It’s the favorite shot of the bartender, you know, a Fernet-Branca or an amaro. Usually if you ask a bartender to do a shot and you offer him a Fernet-Branca, he won’t say no.”

“My philosophy is, no matter how experimental you go, how technical or creative you go, in the end don’t forget that sometimes the simple things are the best. I always come back by having a Negroni,” said Herit. “Don’t forget a drink has to taste good. Balance is the most important thing.”

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Experimental Cocktail Club
191 Chrystie St.
www.experimentalcocktailclubny.com
Open every day from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.

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Stockholm Syndrome

ECC Chinatown, Thor Bergquist & Alex Skarlen, 2012
Shaken and served on the rocks in rock glass.

Linie Aquavit
cumin & dill infused Fair Vodka
lemon juice
simple syrup
Peychaud’s bitters
pinch salt + pepper
Garnish: lemon zest & dill garnish

Roll with the Punches 2

ECC Lower East Side, Thor Bergquist, 2013.
Shaken and served on ice in a highball glass.

Vanilla infused Plantation 5 rum
oatmilk orgeat
angostura bitters
lime juice
orange juice
Guinness float

Wimbledon Milk Punch

ECC LES, Nico de Soto, 2013.
Bottled, served in a water glass with 2 cubes.

Hendrick’s gin
Batavia arrack
Coconut water
strawberry puree
tarragon
Earl Grey tea
Niko’s spice’s mix
clarified milk

This article appeared in our New York Summer Dining Guide, 2013 Special Edition. To see the complete summer dining guide as a pdf, click here.

Channaly Oum
Channaly Oum