Bradford Tolleson is the man behind the drinks at Pura Vida. He spends hours researching what goes into a certain cocktail and why, so that he can refine it to perfection and put it on his well-crafted menu. The Poncey-Highland bartender— "that's all I necessarily want to be called," he says— has been at Pura Vida since April of last year and recently stepped up to take over the program after Paul Calvert left to open Paper Plane. Here, he talks (and owner Hector Santiago joins in) about how the bar is an extension of the kitchen, the importance of making things in-house, and more.
How did you get your start?
BT: I was a college bartender at University of Georgia. I started bartending there while I was in journalism school, and, you know, it was college bartending— popping beers and shots and stuff. I got jobs at a few newspapers and magazines, and then I eventually got laid off from the newspaper I was working for in 2007, and the next day I started working fulltime as the bar manager of Churchill Grounds. I spent five years as the general manager of the jazz club and really enjoyed it, but eventually I wanted more. I came here right when Paul [Calvert] came. He showed me how to turn all this knowledge of customers and bartending into an art. I started getting really into mixing and seeing what kind of flavors I could create.
How did you learn to pair cocktails with food? Why is it important?
BT: It didn't start with cocktails but with pairing liquor and food. I started with scotch, I had conversations with master distillers and really thought about flavors and how they mix. It wasn't anything other than a customer service thing then, because this is really the first chef-driven restaurant that I've been a part of.
When I came to Pura Vida, I just took the knowledge I had and tried to wrap my head around this cuisine and tried to use all the resources in the kitchen, because this is an extension of the kitchen. Right now I have two drinks with Falernum on the menu, which goes with great with the cuisine and is great in the fall. It's this nutty, kind of spicy and dry drink with all these Latin American flavors. So I'll either have a cocktail in mind and make it work with the dishes or I'll have some dishes in mind and try to make a cocktail out of them. It also really depends on what the customer wants and likes. I just made one drink, the Chicha-Chaufa, that incorporates this really funky corn cider made from malted corn. It's found all over Latin America but it's really popular in Peru, so we pair it with a dish that's traditionally Peruvian. The drink also uses a five-spice that Hector created after visiting markets in Peru.
HS: It's a chaufa spice. We use it in the kitchen to give a Chinese flavor to our food. This dish is almost something you would find in a Chinese restaurant in Peru. The chicha is Peruvian, the spice is Chinese.
How do you balance out flavors?
BT: There are really two ways you can go. You can balance spice out with a dry quality, but you can also go with something sweeter or something that has spice to it but is much mellower. It depends on the dish and what qualities it has— if it's bright and spicy, you want to go with something sweeter, if it's thick or smoky, you might want a drink that will stand up to it, like a mezcal. That's one thing that I created with the Dia Del Muerto, which is a super leathery, smoky cocktail. I made it to go with pork and beef dishes so that it will stand up to all those flavors. And sometimes it's the subtlety of a dish that you want to accentuate.
If it's a dessert like the flan, I think a drier sherry goes really well. Or even an egg white drink— I think the Falernum Flip is a great dessert drink, because it's slightly sweet and a little frothy, but it still has a good bit of juice in it to make it a little tart.
Where do you draw inspiration from with your drink names?
BT: It comes from everywhere. The O ¡Tierra, espérame! came from reading Pablo Neruda. I decided I wanted a drink that kind of tasted like that poem— that sounds a little weird, but the inspiration came out of that. Otherwise, just research, researching where a drink came from, why I made it— I made the Cielo Azul on the 41st anniversary of the recording of "Blue Sky." I'm a huge Allman Brothers fan, but it's also a riff on an Aviation, and it's also, you know, I wanted to make something that reflected the jewel blue skies outside in the fall. Most of the time the drink and the name kind of happen in tandem. Most of the drinks I make are heavily, heavily researched beforehand, so while I'm doing that research, I'm reading about culture and everything else, so it's kind of an organic process.
Another cocktail came out of the Vieux Carre, which is a really peculiar drink. It's a classic cocktail, and I wanted to refine it and make it distinctly Latin American. It's called El Moderno. I wanted to name it "the hipster"— Vieux Carre means Old Square, and this is the the new, modern interpretation of the Old Square.
Why is it important to make your own ciders and syrups?
HS: For us, it's just like in the kitchen— we try to make everything here. 95% of the stuff gets made here in house. From day one in here, we've always made everything, just like it's an extension of the kitchen. Orgeat, hibiscus bitters, cola syrup, ginger beer. Really, we control the flavor that we want that way. If you buy something, it has the flavor that person wanted to put in there. We make something, it has the flavor we want.
Do you have an opinion on the bartender vs mixologist debate?
BT: I think it's a compliment to be called a mixologist, but, you know, I do this because I'm a bartender, and I just try to make really delicious stuff. I think the term mixologist is overused and a little banal; I just like being called a bartender, because that's what I do.
What's your favorite drink on the menu?
BT: The O ¡Tierra, espérame!— I probably spent 30 or 40 hours researching the drink before I ever touched a bottle of liquor. I love sherry, and I think that everybody should drink sherry, so I knew I wanted to make a sherry drink. When I came here, I felt really confined and restricted to making drinks that were intrinsically Latin America, just because it was a little foreign, but as I started learning more, it opened up my creativity. There's this view of this world that, especially in cocktail culture, is kind of resigned to margaritas, pisco sours, and sangria. I'm trying to expand it, to make it something else and evolve the whole concept of what we're doing into something that is not only Latin American but also Pura Vida.
How do you feel about the cocktail scene in Atlanta?
BT: I love every single part of it. There are some great cocktail bars, obviously, in Buckhead, you've got Holeman & Finch, you've got Tom McGuire who's doing great stuff, but I wish that more restaurants and food reviewers would hold bartenders and mixologists up to the same standards that they would a chef, because that's the way that the culture going to promote itself. There's one restaurant that just opened and the food menu looks amazing, but the drinks suck. The first six or so use flavored vodkas. I think it's because food critics aren't necessarily willing to look at cocktails in the same way that they do food, and chefs won't necessarily hire someone who's culinary behind a bar, they want someone who's fast and who's going to make a lot of money. What Atlanta needs to become is a place where you can go into any little hole in the wall and get a well-crafted, well-thought out cocktail. On the other hand, there are so many cocktails, and not everybody is going to appreciate every drink that you make. You have to be accessible, because people are scared to order drinks if they don't know what's in them, but there are drinks for those people too. There's actually only one tequila drink on our menu, which isn't something that I planned, but it happened, and when it did, it made sense. Tequila in Latin American restaurants is like vodka, and there are so many better, more complex things that I can tell people about instead. I was trying to do something different, out of the box, but also approachable.