Elijah Craig Bourbon’s annual Old-Fashioned Week returns for its second year supporting the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, October 15-24. Sign up your bar or restaurant to participate by featuring Elijah Craig Old-Fashioned riffs on your menu.
Alex Negranza’s mindset about how cocktails are created radically changed around 2009.
Now the bar director for MARCH Restaurant and Goodnight Hospitality in Houston, Negranza was, back then, in the coffee industry, having moved to Seattle at the age of 18 to become a barista. He was working weekend brunches at a small French restaurant measuring less than 400 square feet, where occasionally he’d also have to make a Bloody Mary or Cosmo at a customer’s request.
After work, he’d visit a local bar called Tavern Law, in those still-early days of the craft cocktail movement; on one night in particular, he asked for something off-menu and “like an Old-Fashioned.” The bartender made him an Improved Whiskey Cocktail—“essentially an Old-Fashioned, but with a little addition of flavor and thrill, typically through the use of bitters and absinthe,” says Negranza—and a lightbulb went off.
Negranza began moonlighting as a barback at Seattle’s Liberty Bar while keeping one foot in the coffee game. The confluence was natural to him, as baristas and bartenders share similar skillsets, both being incredibly detail-oriented and able to flawlessly repeat the same physical tasks again and again. Though he kept repeating that he was merely on a “sabbatical,” that became harder to believe as he worked his way up to bartender, then general manager, making friends with local legends like Rocky Yeh and Jim Romdall along the way.
In 2011, Negranza traveled to Houston to judge the U.S. Barista Championship and ran into Bobby Heugel, the city’s famed bar impresario; by 2014 Negranza was working for him at Tongue-Cut Sparrow and The Pastry War. That sabbatical has turned into a decadelong career.
Today, Negranza’s style is defined by “ridiculously simple” cocktails that still manage to dazzle, as exemplified by The Simple Sussex, a Martini on the rocks with grapefruit bitters and a twist. To him, it’s all the better if these seemingly straightforward drinks utilize unexpected combinations, such as peated single malt and dark rum. His Enhanced Whiskey Cocktail, an Old-Fashioned variation, fits both criteria. Though the drink is stripped down to the cocktail’s most basic elements, the inclusion of black lemon bitters dries out the drink, while his spiced citrus syrup ups the brightness and complexity.
“It’s a quick and easy way to add some extra zing to a cocktail,” he says of his housemade syrup.
When he’s not making drinks at MARCH, a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant where cocktails bear esoteric names like Olive (the house Martini) and Artichoke, Negranza is focused on promoting physical and mental fitness within the bar industry. He’s also the director of GLASS, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance for Spirited Sipping, a registered nonprofit advocacy and education group working within the hospitality and beverage industry that strives to unite LGBTQ+ professionals. Through GLASS, Negranza has worked with liquor brands to help bring better drink offerings into gay bars—a category he feels is known more for mixed drinks and rail liquor but where quality cocktails, like an Old-Fashioned riff, would be welcomed.
“You really don’t need to change much in an Old-Fashioned to introduce someone to something new and exciting,” he says.