Aviary's Memory-Packed Cocktails

How Ross Hunsinger distills drinking stories into his drinks

By Caitlin Feldman April 2, 2014 Published in the April 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Nomad

Ross Hunsinger is the first to admit that bartending isn’t, generally speaking, introspective. But as Aviary’s bar manager since the NE Alberta Street restaurant opened over three years ago, the 29-year-old has taken a philosophical approach to mixology. Hunsinger finds inspiration for drinks in literature, music, or, really, anywhere. Then he translates those abstractions into alcohol, with an artist’s insouciance. “I do it until it tastes good,” says Hunsinger, who never uses jiggers or measuring tools in the creation process. “The best ones make you say, oh yeah, that whole thing. That was a whole thing. That was this time of life, and this is what it tasted like.” We asked Hunsinger to explain his art using a drink on the menu, and one that’s still in progress.

On the Menu: & Yet & Yet 

A vibrant green drink on ice: clean Hangar 1 vodka, Midori, Dolin Blanc vermouth, dill, lime 

Inspiration: Do Make Say Think’s album & Yet & Yet 

Hunsinger first heard this record in someone’s backyard in 2011. Girlfriends were around, as was beer. “This lifting of rain and cold and heaviness, and light coming,” Hunsinger recalls of the moment’s vibe. “Springtime is coming.”  

Process: When he played the record at his bar, he and some coworkers discussed the music’s essential “springiness”—twinkly and pretty, with a hint of lingering winter gloom. Somehow, Midori’s bad rap entered the conversation, and a formula making use of the melony Japanese liqueur took shape. Hunsinger’s first attempt involved vodka, cilantro, and lemon, which “tasted like garbage.” Forays into cilantro-and-gin territory also proved disastrous. About a week and a half and five or six iterations later, the balance was perfected. “I kind of settled on the obvious thing of clean,” Hunsinger says. “Just make it clean and delicious.” 

Work in Progress: Untitled

A yet-to-be-determined brown liquor drink, always neat, in a rocks glass 

Inspiration: Schroeder, the piano-playing intellect from Peanuts

“After the whole Peanuts shtick, Schroeder probably went to college, where he probably DJ’d parties or did college radio. He probably likes indie bands and podcasts. He certainly travels. He’s one of those aggrandizing hipsters, over everyone’s head and drinking something weird and not that good just for the sake of drinking it.” 

Process: The trouble, according to Hunsinger, lies in the tension between presentation and flavor: while Schroeder might drink something pretentiously bad, the final cocktail needs to taste secretly good. Schroeder would be a cognac or rye guy, so Hunsinger has tried subbing those spirits into boulevardiers and negronis: “meh.” Though Hunsinger is still many experiments away from the finished product, the first page of his notebook, where he scrawls his drink ideas and notes, expresses his credo: “90 percent of what you do is garbage.” 

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