Stephen Gaessler is the AGO’s resident mixologist and has been with the gallery since 2008. In the fall of 2016, he took our bar menu up a notch, crafting elaborate cocktails that connected with the themes and artists in our galleries. Clichéd but true: Stephen’s creations are works of (drinkable) art. But they also reflect a lengthy research process and thoughtful historical or thematic connections to art and artists. We caught up with him to learn about his process, the origin stories behind the Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters menu, and what’s next for Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors.
AGO: Why did you start tying the drink menu to the exhibitions?
Stephen: About a year ago, the AGO sent me on an extensive two-week course on designing cocktails in Stockholm, Sweden. The first menu I put together after that course was Mystical Landscapes, which included the drinks, Monet’s Garden, Foraging with Emily and Van Gogh in Paris. Every ingredient had a connection to the artwork or artist and it was so well received – we had to keep it going! Sometimes when you hear about theme menus, they can be tacky – it’s a loose connection with a name slapped on it. I don’t do that. Each menu takes about two to three months of research and experimentation.
AGO: Take us through your research process.
Stephen: In the past I’ve researched flavours artists are said to have enjoyed, or what would have been common in their locations, during their lifetimes. Sometimes it’s ideas you see reflected in their art. At Home with Monsters was different – it’s based on movies rather than traditional artworks. I did watch all of del Toro’s films, but it goes deeper than that. For the cocktail based on Cronos, I researched alchemy and elixirs of life from the 1500s, from both Mexico and around the world, and the symbolism behind certain ingredients. For the cocktails based on The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, it was more about how I could convey key visuals and plot points – like the grapes and figs that are so important to Pan’s Labyrinth – into the drinks.
AGO: What’s your favourite from this menu?
Stephen: The Devil’s Backbone was my favourite film, so hands down it’s Dr. Casares’ Willow Water. The cherry wood smoke aroma is intoxicating and saturates the entire restaurant – customers say it reminds them of being at a cabin, or sitting around a fire. All of our cocktails are made to order, and when we make a Willow Water, we keep a little cap on the glass until we get to the customer’s table – it keeps the smoke in so you get to enjoy that little poof of smoke, that little flourish. Even if you didn’t order one, there’s a good chance someone sitting near you did, and we’ve seen a single order set off a chain effect.
AGO: Do you see your creations on Instagram?
Stephen: Oh yeah. Customers tag me in the pictures, too.
AGO: What are you planning for Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors?
Stephen: It’s going to be a big challenge! It’s such a huge show. We’re going to do something that’s common in Japanese cocktails, where the approach is more minimalist and clean. It’ll be pretty different from the del Toro collection. We’ll use flavours that are indicative of Japanese cuisine, but visuals that connect to Yayoi Kusama. When I think of her work, the patterns and visuals immediately come to mind.
AGO: You must have an artist wish list for cocktails you’d love to create…
Stephen: My top three are da Vinci, van Gogh and Caravaggio – no other artists could come close.
Watch the video to see Stephen concoct the drink Dr. Casares’ Willow Water, and check out the ingredients list below!
Dr. Casares’ Willow Water – The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Ron Zacapa 23 yr. 1.00 oz.
Eldorado 12 yr. 1.00 oz.
Black Cherry Cordial 0.33 oz.
Orange Oleo-Saccharum 15 Drops
Clove Tincture 4 Drops
Clove Spiked Orange Zest Ice Sphere 1
Cherry Wood Smoke
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