Following Two Bartenders Around Sundance for a Story
Published in Blog, March 28, 2010
A few months ago, I followed around a bunch of bartenders around Sundance for a story. Here is the short version of how it went down:
Over a surf, my friend tells me of two local mixologists going to Utah to guest bartend celebrity parties at Sundance and asks if I want to come. I say no, because they leave in two days, then catch a wave, and change my mind while paddling back out. I realize this will definitely make for a good story, especially because this is their first big break. I have no place to stay, no flight and no story assignment, but I tell him to count me in, then paddle in and get on the phone to start pitching.
Every editor loves the idea, but only one will take a chance (good thing he is only the second one I called). I buy a last minute ticket, take a shuttle to Sundance, and trip and fall in the snow upon arrival. My foot is still broken. My name is not on the list, so I sneak in to the first party where I meet the guys. I stay at the bar until 5am every night, watching like a fly on the wall, and squeezing bags of lemons and limes to help out when I can.We share a blow up mattress between three of us at the CUPS condo, laughing hysterically about the situation, and I learn more about cocktails in two days than I ever did working at a bar myself right after college. The story finally unfolds the last day.
Voila! Here it is . I have never been excited about the taste of alcohol, but these two guys are truly talented liquid chefs.
The phone rings at 4PM. A frantic voice is on the other end. “Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are having a last-minute release party. Can you guys do the cocktails?”
It’s day five of Sundance in Park City, Utah. Celebrities abound. So do people who merely dress famous. San Diego mixologists and Snake Oil Cocktail Company co-founders Ian Ward and Lucien Conner have been asked to quench thirst at Luxury Lounge—a converted nightclub with lots of silver and fancy lighting. It’s a shiny ephemeral shelter built for after-parties and doling out free gifts to celebrities, producers and the people who loiter in their vicinity.
Ward sighs, pauses. He’s spent the last four days handcrafting cocktails that go way beyond pouring vodka and cranberry juice over ice.
“What time do we need to be there?” he asks.
“It starts at 10,” says the voice. “There will be 200 people and I’m not sure how much product we’re working with.”
“Sure, see you in 15,” Ward mutters. As he grabs a chunk of his hair, you can see the tattoo on his right arm—two C’s, five H’s and an O, connected by dashes. The chemical formula for alcohol.
Exhausted, he turns to Conner. When not creating custom drink menus, the two of them are responsible for the cocktails at Whisknladle in La Jolla. In that restaurant’s back lab, they concoct recipes for award-winners like London’s Burning (roasted jalapeño and avocado puree, fresh-pressed lemon, lime and house-made simple syrup) and their famous cucumber honey mimosas.
Ward grew up in New York, the son of deli owners. Conner worked at top L.A. restaurants while getting his degree in fine arts and Spanish at UCLA. Snake Oil is their venture; Sundance is their opportunity. And they’re draining every last bit of it.
“I just want to lay in the hot tub all day and drink Krug,” says Conner. “Didn’t we do enough of these parties already?”
“All I wanted to do was go to Chef Dance Dinner tonight and stuff my face with foie gras,” adds Ward. “But work’s work.”
The work has gone until 5AM every night in Park City. Blizzard-like conditions have made things complicated. So have Utah’s notorious liquor laws. Fruit that’s supposed to be ripe is delivered raw or black. Sponsors’ drinks, liquor and perishables are late or lost in the Donner Party snow. Luckily, improvisation is the duo’s forte.
Mangos too green to even cut? No worries. They make a mango gastrique by reducing mango-flavored Honest Tea (a sponsor whose goods did show up on time). Lemons, limes, sugar and white balsamic vinegar become sweet and sour. Adrien Brody couldn’t get enough of them.
By now, they have served up drinks for Bill Murray, Robert Duvall, Joan Jett, you name it. Big names, buzz names, no names—they’ve served them all. Movie producers have invited them to bartend private parties; liquor companies have asked them to create inventive drink menus.
It may have been easier to politely decline this last-minute soiree and relax at the condo. They’re staying with friends who own Cups, a new organic cupcakery in La Jolla (Ward and Conner make their specialty syrups). Ward looks longingly at the steaming hot tub. But there’s one more chance to impress the right people, to make a fan that could turn their startup company into a cocktail juggernaut like New York’s Milk & Honey or Portland’s Liquid Relations. He gathers his things and heads into the snow.
The party is a mess from the start. It’s the last night of the film festival, and this is an ad-hoc production. There’s no liquor, no glassware, no ingredients from sponsors like Zola Açaí and Dos Lunes Tequila to splash into their drinks.
Thirsty celebrities will be arriving very soon. As a last resort, Ward and Conner open the caterer’s refrigerator, stealing whatever items they can possibly use. Calling out to each other like auctioneers, they put a cocktail menu together from scratch in just a few minutes.
“I’ve got raspberries!” yells Ward.
“I hate using raspberries!” Conner groans. “It’s amateur.”
“I know, but we have nothing else here!” Ward returns.
“I found chocolate!” says Conner. “We could do a raspberry water martini with shaved chocolate.”
“I’ve got some of that cabernet foam left over from the Celebrity Poker Party!”
“That’s good. Lets add some balsamic vinegar to it and call it a day. What else do we got?”
“Mangoes, kiwis, bananas… it’s like [expletive] Aruba in this fridge,” Ward says in his New York accent.
“There is something kinda hilarious about serving daiquiris in the snow,” Connor retorts.
Over the next few hours they scurry around the kitchen cooking syrups, making gastriques and creating flavored waters out of anything they can. The kitchen smells of roasted jalapeños and grilled kiwis. It smells of dinner, not drinks.
At 9PM, guests arrive. One by one, they drink them completely out of vodka. The ShamWow guy is there and so is Couples Retreat star and ogle inspiration, Malin Ackerman. An old lady repeatedly attempts to take pictures with Ward and Conner. She also attempts to lick Ward’s ear. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes either never get near the bar (they don’t drink) or skipped out entirely.