Bartender Spotlight: Aviary’s Ross Hunsinger

Aviary is, without doubt, one of Portland’s top restaurants. Its inventive and creatively-executed menu has acquired plenty of buzz from the local and national food community. And it’s not hard to see why. Originality and splendor simply oozes out of the Aviary kitchen.

Despite a simply exquisite menu and dining experience, it was the cocktails at a recent girls night that blew me away. I may have been a couple drinks in, but I knew there was something special happening at the bar. 

Last week, I spent some time with the man behind the bar, Ross Hunsinger. Between chatting about his love of baking and pop-culture, I learned how this bartender extraordinaire is humbly upping the cocktail game, one ingredient at a time.

Hi Ross, thanks for spending some time with me today! Word on the street is that you’ve whipped up some awesome new seasonal cocktails.
We’ve got some new stuff. A couple of our new seasonal cocktails are already gone, but some are not. I made a gallon of brown butter bourbon. We went through a gallon in like, three or four days. So yea, there’s a fare amount of drinking happening.
Obviously I want to start with asking about your favorite.

Right now it’s the Dark & Shrubby. I’m stoked about that guy. The bar program over at Ping and PokPok uses this vinegar. We waited for like three months to get a bottle of it, and thought it was really good. So we got a case of it and I made like five gallons of soda. And it’s…awesome. I have not seen something like this, like a carbonated shrub. Back in the day, if they told folks a drink had vinegar or egg in them, they usually would not buy them. So, shrub is an old school term for drinks with vinegar in it. So, I’ve never seen a carbonated shrub, so that’s the carbonated shrub ala the Dark & Shrubby. It’s super good, it’s really summery, and it’s got a great color…

{Ross’s homemade Purple Yam Vinegar Soda}
{Dark & Shrubby cocktail}

So that was one of the cooler, more original additions. A lot of flip stuff happening. I’ve found that for a lot of the things I’ve been doing recently, it’s kinda a cool pill that lets base ingredients stand on it’s own. I’ve been doing a brown butter flip and a house wood-aged gin flip. I literally took a bunch of American Oak and split kindling out of it. Then I burned it with a blow torch, then I put it in a ziplock bag with a gallon of gin for a month and a half.  Tastes like a campfirey-super-smokey-summertime gin thing.

{The Gnt’nT cocktail}
That’s definitely a creative approach to cocktails! Where did you get your start bartending?
I started at Salty’s when I was 20. I was just interested in all the stories about wine and booze. The bar manager was like, “hey, as soon as you’re 21…”  So I started bartending there and doing inventory management. Eventually went to ClarkLewis
So you’ve worked with a variety of chefs and bartenders here in town. Do you look to other local bartenders for inspiration?
I usually will look at a cookbook or a chef, and totally just straight up steal a flavor profile or see if I can make that work in liquor. At a certain point, these guys have widdled down the flavor combinations and the profiles in a way that really works for them. So if there’s a way for me to take that and pull it on back… All the bartenders focus on bartenderly stuff – liquor, etc. I try not to limit myself with that. I think it’s really good for food like this, really delicate and really conceptual food, to have cocktails that are conceptual and not just about booze. I’ve never really looked up to a bartender until recently. David Chang is a big deal at his new bar, Booker and Dax [Editor’s note: in NYC], and it’s awesome. Aviary in Chicago is another bar. It’s insane. There are these dudes now who are pushing cocktails beyond what they’ve been, and those are the dudes I’m stoked on. 
I guess it’s worth mentioning too, that I have my brewmaster certification. For a while I thought it’d be really cool to be a brewer, like everybody else. So I actually went off to school for a while. And I’ve done nothing with it.
Well, I wouldn’t say you’ve done nothing…
The practical application is that I make all the sodas now. The whole program is house made except for CocaCola. That’s kinda cool. This is my lab. I make 5 gallons of things at a time. I carbonate everything, I’m a freak about it. It’s fun.
And tasty. I would buy this purple yam soda if you bottled it. How long have you been here at Aviary?
I was in school when it opened. When I came back, I was really close to opening a brew pub. Eventually this came up on my radar…. I was reading the paper and saw that they applied for a liquor license. This is one of the few restaurants in town that I actually had a lot of respect for, just because of what they do, I thought they were really ahead of the city. I totally get the casual gastro thing. But, I’m really stoked to see this whole swing back to really fussy, kinda pretentious, hyper-executed stuff.
Pretentious but affordable…?
For the first few months I ran this thing, the wine list was dirty cheap, it was goofy, stupid cheap. Because it was so punk rock, we were like, let’s just give the best to the people for nothing! And then we were like, that’s crazy, we should probably make a little bit of money. But, that’s totally the concept.
I have to say, the website lists the menu as “eclectic,” and I would say that the cocktail list is too. It could easily be intimidating, but you make it very approachable.
If this place were to have a gimmick, I’d say that’s it. There’s so much cool stuff in here in terms of ingredients, product and people that know technique – but it’s so little about that. Jasper [Shen], Kat [Whitehead] and Sarah [Pliner] are the three most humble people I’ve ever met, and they’re also three of the most talented people I’ve ever met too. They’re also insanely hard workers, and I totally respect them. When you do something all the time, it’s just what we do. I don’t think there’s any room for pretension. 
Well said. So – would you say you have a signature drink?
I would go ahead and say it’s the Brix Layer. That’s the one everyone’s stoked about, and one that I’ve been making as long as I’ve been bartending basically, that I came up with. Never been popular, but now everyone’s all over it. 
What about the names? How do you come up with them?
If I think of a name, I’ll reverse-engineer a drink around the name. I can make things that taste good all day long, but in order to market and sell stuff, it’s gotta have that snappy cocktail name. Actually, a lot of these drinks kinda existed in my notebook. So, putting a name to all of them was really hard to do. We sat around for like a week talking about it. We’re all kinda nerdy. There’s no two ways about that, so they’re all kinda nerdy names. The Curious Yellow is a reference to a criterion collection film, it’s an off color Swedish film from the 70s. St. Germaine’s Bisilica being a church. I’m kinda pop culture cuisinart. Pinkerton, inspired by the Weaser album. McCarthy, inspired by my buddy Jeff McCarthy. It’s just a drink he likes to drink. For the Choke & Coke, I got a bottle of cynar, the Artichoke liquor. I was like Artichoke… Choke… choke and coke? Let’s make a drink somehow with that.. and it worked! We’re such the information age. It’s gotta taste good, look awesome and be clever. Gotta up the game! 

{The Brix Layer cocktail}
{The Pinkerton cocktail}

But, you really have. Even artichoke liquor… I wouldn’t see that on a shelf and feel compelled to buy it.It’s compulsory at this point.  Yes, I would imagine it is. So with all of this great cocktail knowledge, what’s your drink of choice?I don’t drink too much. I drink wine, or maybe a little bit of whisky. That’s pretty much it.  Are you snobby about your wine or whisky?No. The thing that interested me about alcohol is that there are all these infinite stories. So even if something is really bad, if it’s got a cool story, there’s something kinda compelling about that to me. So I’ll drink it and check it out. I feel like I’m digesting stories more than anything. The whole thing with wine and cocktails, which I do all the time. I figure if you work your whole life, or you’ve been a part of a family that’s worked for, like this really stylistically perfect wine that has this expressive quality about it or whatever, then you’ve really focused that in. So, if I can pick up on something that works with alcohol, then cool, because they’ve already spent hundred years perfecting it. I don’t understand why there’s not more wine in cocktails. So the Pinkerton was barrel-aged tequila that’s really oaky and a really oaky chardonnay, and that just made sense to me. I don’t think there’s a bartender doing that, but I think it’s because I look at it like a chef. If you have a flavor profile inside of a drink, you can pair it with wine inside a drink… and blow a mind apart! So, what’s next?Well, I’ve never competed in the bartender competitions, but I’m doing one this summer.  It’s the Cocktail World Cup. The regionals are here in town at the Heathman. 
Can you give us a sneak peak?It’ll involve fennel and eucalyptus, sauvignon blanc and mandarin orange. Sounds intriguing. Where are you eating out when you’re not working?I love the retooling of the Brasserie and what they’re doing. Really, really solid. I also love Boke Bowl. I dig Interurban. I’m a pretty simple dude. I love a Grain and Gristle burger. That’s a great little neighborhood drop zone. On the weekends, I get out of here so late. Luc Lac is open until 4, so it’s totally the industry hangout. …Luc Lac is my reference point for everything. They are killing it. It’s completely straightforward Vietnamese restaurant, but their drinks are insane. They are totally aware that what they are doing is pho, Vietnamese food and spring rolls and stuff, but they’ve got a little something and they keep pushing it a little bit further, and I see that in what they do, and I totally respect that.  Along with being a rockstar bartender, do you consider yourself a chef?I wouldn’t ever say that, when I see what the chefs here do. But I wanted to be a baker when I was young – until I found out those dudes get up at 3 in the morning. Crossed that off the list. But I have a wood fired oven in my yard. It’s so good! I do a lot of baking, and I love pizza.  OK, last question – and only because I’m hungry. What are your favorite items on the menu here at Aviary?The pig ear is ridiculous. The warm vegetable salad is great as well. [Editor’s note: we ordered both dishes after the interview. Ross was absolutely correct]

{Bread Starter}
{Warm Vegetable Salad – fava beans, sugar snap peas, black olive cake, gruyere}
{Crispy Pig Ear – coconut rice, chinese sausage, avocado}


2 Responses to "Bartender Spotlight: Aviary’s Ross Hunsinger"

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  1. Marissa, you talented thing!

  2. Thanks Eva – that means a lot coming from one of my favorite Portland artists! 🙂


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