At a recent visit to Avery Ranch’s the League Kitchen and Tavern, a regular of the restaurant requested Aviation Gin be added to her Cucumber Lavender Sour, rather than the Hendrick’s Gin that normally comes with it.
A customer’s tweaking of a cocktail recipe for one craft spirit over another isn’t so out of the ordinary anymore, but only a few years ago, when the first location opened in Lakeway, the League’s head bartender Brandon Turner had some convincing to do to get some of the people stopping in for a drink and a bite to try one of the specialty cocktails on the menu. He’ll still encourage new visitors to try something they haven’t had before, asking questions about whether they prefer vodka or whiskey, sweet or savory, served up or on the rocks, especially at the more recently opened Avery Ranch location.
"From the start, we’ve wanted to bring a sort of speakeasy vibe to the restaurant," Turner said, gesturing toward the wall that separates the dining area from the bar. "That includes the cocktails. We have both classics from that era and modern twists. The bar program is about educating people who have only ever had Jack and Coke."
It was a welcome challenge for Turner and one of the main reasons he decided to leave the city for the suburbs. He had cut his teeth in the craft at Peche and Drink.Well and countless bars before them, originally more into beer and wine himself before craft cocktails ignited his curiosity and passion. A trip to San Francisco — and a cocktail there called the Laughing Buddha — cemented his desire to work with bitters, fresh fruits and small-batch spirits, so when the opportunity to convert others to their wonders arrived two years ago, he jumped at it.
The League in Lakeway (the Avery Ranch location didn’t exist yet) was having trouble selling its cocktail program and needed Turner’s creativity and expertise to revive it. Now, the Avery Ranch restaurant’s cocktail sales are so robust that they comprise about 40 percent of total sales there, even more than the Lakeway flagship, a figure Turner isn’t completely surprised about.
"In Avery Ranch and Lakeway and surrounding areas, there was nothing like this, literally nowhere to go after work for a good cocktail," he said. "But people like having a good cocktail bar close to them so they don’t have to drive 30 minutes into town and then worry about how they’re getting home."
His menu — only two of the original League creations still remain, the Cucumber Lavender Sour being one of them — is a mix of drinks between $9 and $12 that are either traditional favorites like the Old-Fashioned, the French 75 and the Blood and Sand, or his original variations on old recipes. The El Guapo, a popular drink, features Deep Eddy Ruby Red vodka, fresh lemon and grapefruit juice, honey, and Infamous Hijack, a cream ale (whose founders, Turner said, hatched the idea for Infamous at the Lakeway location); the Walking Dead, a twist on one of Drink.Well’s former tiki cocktails, has three types of whiskey as well as maraschino, grapefruit and lime juice, cinnamon syrup and tiki bitters.
There are also wine and beer lists. In addition to a roster of "macro beer," Turner maintains a hearty menu of micro brews, including a rotating variety of local and national drafts, such as two Infamous mainstays, (512) Pecan Porter and Odell Myrcenary Double IPA.
He also creates a "Drink of the Month" — a cocktail he might highlight because of the current season or because of a particular event. June’s is a Blanco Negroni made with gin, aperol, Lillet Blanc and grapefruit oil, a twist on a typical Negroni (which is usually made with Campari and vermouth, but he swapped these out for the aperol and Lillet Blanc) to celebrate Negroni Week at the beginning of the month.
Part of the reason he’s so able to experiment with new ingredients for classic drinks is not just that he’s had the guidance of cocktail experts locally. He’s also traveled around the U.S. and Europe and witnessed first-hand what world-class bartenders can do. In addition to San Francisco, he’s also been to Portland, England, Dublin and Amsterdam on life-changing cocktail sojourns.
Along with Travis Tober, bartender at the Four Seasons downtown, he recently visited some of the top cocktail bars in the world based off awards given by Tales of the Cocktail, a big yearly cocktail conference in New Orleans that gives honors to both U.S. and international bars, bartenders, brand ambassadors, and drinks publications and writers. Going to these places and seeing the polished, talented showmen behind the bars, he said, opened his eyes to how much more he can learn.
"We wanted a vacation and could stay at hotels for free because of Travis’ job," he said. "We went to Employees Only in New York and Milk and Honey in London. It’s this unbelievable five-story speakeasy with one floor below, two private floors above and a rooftop. There is nothing like that here."
He’s been a fixture at Portland Cocktail Week and plans to go back, hoping to win again the "Top Chef"-like competition that he and 7 other bartenders took top prize at after designing a bar and cocktail menu in eight hours, then opening the space for 400 people.
But Turner is plenty busy here, too. Something else on his plate: he’s designing the cocktail menu for a new Mexican restaurant at Anderson Mill and Ranch Road 620 that the League team plans to open sometime in the fall. Count on the menu having more than just margaritas.