Marvelous//Q&A with Pip Hanson

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April 23, 2012
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

The new Marvel Bar in the North Loop has taken the art of the cocktail to a whole new level — a credit to Pip Hanson, the head bartender at the posh hot spot below the Bachelor Farmer.

Hanson, 31, said there are two key aspects to being a good bartender. “On the one hand there is mastery of classic technique,” he said. “On the other hand, there’s your contribution to the discourse — pushing things forward.”

Though he has created many elaborate cocktails, his favorite is a martini.

“It’s my favorite drink — a hard one to beat,” he said. “Gin, heavy on the Vermouth, and a dash of orange bitters. Really simple things are the hardest, always. You can really blow peoples’ minds sometimes with simplicity.” 

Here are highlights from a recent interview with Hanson.

So what makes a good martini?

Dilution, temperature and mouth feel. Balance is kind of an overused term, but it’s always applicable. We’re dealing with really intense ingredients. A lot of people wouldn’t just drink straight lemon juice or lime juice, but you can take those things — those really intense flavors — and make something really subtle and sublime out of it. 

What’s your source of inspiration for the cocktail menu? 

The classics side [of the menu] is the established drinks. The originals are us trying to push things further. In the last 10 years bartenders have finally regained the skill set that they forgot during Prohibition. … It’s people realizing that cocktails can be just as delicious as anything else. In a way we’re on the frontier. We’re dealing with this very limited art form and we’re trying to push it forward, and that’s what the originals are.

One of my new favorites is the Strong Water — it’s an experiment in hyper dilution. It takes something that is a variation of a Manhattan and it waters it down with four ounces of distilled water and suddenly all of those flavors change and it becomes just quiet, subtle and nuanced. Those things you take for granted, the more you question them, the more creative you can be. Suddenly you have this new recipe and a new style of drink. What I shoot for is trying to invent new genres. Everytime you can do that, it’s like making a new cocktail — squared. It’s so much more satisfying. 

What’s one of the new genres? 

Our best seller here is the Oliveto. That one is a new category of cocktails. It’s an emulsified oil sour. People have been making egg white drinks for centuries. I’ve never seen a cocktail anywhere where they use those egg whites to put a half ounce of oil in. But it’s the simplest thing in the world. Anyone could have done it. We are also trying charcoal-filtered cocktails. [Charcoal] smoothes it, mellows it and gives a soot to it — a smoky, sooty flavor. It resembles in a way a peated Scotch. We make 25 liters of the cocktail and you rest it on lump charcoal for 10 days. 

What’s special about your ice? 

It’s your water. Water is so important in drinks. The truly great drink makers have mastered the art of dilution. That’s really what they do. They are diluters. Whether they are stirring a drink or shaking a drink, their timing of that technique is so good that they stop it at exactly the right point and get it off the ice immediately. 

Can you talk about the art of the cocktail shake? 

I’m very much a technique-driven bartender. My shaking style is adapted from a technique taught to me in Japan by a bartender named Kazuo Uyeda. I wouldn’t claim to be able to do the hard shake. The only person alive who can do it is Mr. Uyeda. … It creates spin in the shaker. It aerates and doesn’t destroy the ice. Aeration is something bartenders are really talking about. 

Many people go to bars to de-stress. What do you do to unwind?

I also go the bar … I love coming here. There are so many great bars in this town. I also like to bike a lot. I love music. I started bartending to support a jazz drumming habit. I was playing in rock bands and bartending to pay the bills. I started at the Dakota. I was 23. I was lucky enough to get behind the bar of the Dakota and Johnny Michaels was working there at the time. Ever since he’s been my good friend and teacher.

 

What are you thoughts on the scene at Marvel? 

We’ve had regulars since the first week and we love having regulars. The best nights here are when you look out and you know 80 percent of the people. That’s just awesome. Regulars are your business. You can’t build a business on people coming once. In the neighborhood there are empty nesters and young professionals. There’s nothing better than making Manhattans for a guy who has been drinking Manhattans for 50 years and having him tell you it’s the best one he has ever had. We also have a lot of people who are willing to make a journey for a drink. That’s a big part of our business as well.