Amber West started slinging drinks at Central 214 in February. Before then she worked at a few bars around town, but really for all her life West had a mind towards spirits, though not always the alcoholic kind.
Her approach to tending bar leans more toward balancing the good with the bad. Sure, she'll pour you a drink that will certainly take the edge off, but if you mention to her a sinus problem or an upset tummy, she'll buzz around the back of the bar, with a furrowed brow, and find something to fix you. Primarily for West, it's about creating cocktails using some natural ingredients, even if that means she to make them herself.
How did you get started making your own infusions and juices? I grew up with a very holistic, hippie mother, so I've always been exposed to the importance of natural ingredients. I incorporate a lot of these things at home in juices and in things I cook. My brother was a chef at Hotel Zaza a while back, and he really helped me a lot with pulling things together. And since I've been here [Central 214], chef Graham Dodds has really helped me take it to another level.
Where did you work before you were here? My first bartending job was at Champs, and we actually used some natural ingredients there, nothing like I do now, of course. Then, I did some other things for a while. Before I was here I was at Backyard Beach Bar down the road. There were lots of volleyball courts. Customers from there come in here now with their parents. But, when you're constantly four deep at a bar, like I was there, it's almost impossible to do some of these things.
How was the transition from Backyard Beach Bar to here? It was a huge transformation and something I really had to study for. What's great about being here now is I can go talk to Graham and ask him questions about what's coming in fresh from the farm, what are we looking at for next month or season. I get to play with all these different variables that I couldn't before.
The farm-to-bar movement? Yep. Building relationships with these farmers has been one of the most amazing things ever. It's also been great to get my team in on it. They get excited about trying new things now. They're playing with fruits from each season and incorporating them into different cocktails.
Pictured above: Mulled Shine Wine, CatDaddy spiced moonshine, red wine, brandy, TX Honeybee Guild honey, ginger, orange and mulling spices.
Is there any ingredient that you've discovered works well in cocktails or something you wish people would try more? I would have to say fennel. Fennel is my favorite ingredient.
How did you discover that? When I came in for an interview with Graham, I knew I had to prepare for it, so I infused a vodka with fennel and made a homemade fennel liquor. I served it on the rocks with a little chopped fennel and used fresh fennel as a garnish. Little did I know Graham loves to cook with fennel, so he loved it.
What does it taste like? Kind of like a licorice, but real nice and sweet. I sweetened it with local honey.
What do you wish people drank more of? Fresh ingredients, things that digest in your body properly.
So, you're trying to make drinking healthy? Yes. You're kind of canceling the bad with the good. Balance is key. Every syrup we have, which I'm trying to call "extracts" now because "syrup" has such a negative connotation, uses either stuff we have growing outside, or stevia, or honey. There are lots of ways to add sweetness, even brown sugar, or unrefined sugar that's not been bleached. It's still sugar, but it digests better.
Do you hate the order, "I don't know what I want, just surprise me"? No, I love it. I get to open their minds.
Do you start with any specific questions? Yeah, I ask them if they're allergic to anything.
Pictured above: Apple of my Eye, muddled apples, pumpkin and nutmeg-infused vodka, Gran Classico, lemon, spiced syrup. Served in a martini glass with a garnish of dried apple.
That's very mom of you ... Yeah, right? Surprisingly even things like our house-made grenadine that has pomegranate in it. People who are allergic to pomegranate -- it's as bad as shellfish.
What if they tell you they hate something? If they absolutely hate something, and whatever it is, I make them something with that ingredient that will just knock their socks off. I want to open their minds, and I promise to give them their money back if they don't like it.
Have you ever given anyone their money back? Nope.
What are you tired of serving? Vodka.
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What's the deal with vodka? I think it's because it's like a blank canvas. You can put anything on it ... It's safe. So, that's where we get to play and open peoples' minds up. If we can make something as smooth as a vodka cocktail, people are going to be happy.
What's an underrated liquor? I'd have to go with a mezcal or grappa. I feel like those are kind of unappreciated. The way the distilling process works now is completely different. Both of those really use to be bottom of the barrel, but now with the way the distilling process works, they're much nicer spirits.
We have a cocktail called humo verde cocktail that has a very small amount of mezcal. We muddle some cilantro with some house-made ginger. It makes people stop and think about that what the flavor is ...
Has the Dallas drinking scene changed lately? Absolutely. Cocktails with fresh ingredients are really taking off. Tastes are really changing and customers are also willing to try new things.