Wine is great with dinner and beer always brings people together. But there’s something magical about a handcrafted cocktail. In a single sip, a cocktail can transport you to another time and place. It can take you back to a memorable vacation, put you in the middle of a movie scene, or channel a moment decades before your time.
Thankfully, a cocktail is no longer just a slug of liquor, shot from the soda gun and a splash of Rose’s syrup. The modern (yet classically inspired) cocktail scene forgoes mixers for mixology, harkening to a time when speakeasies creatively disguised bathtub gin with fruits, herbs and sugar syrups – and the “cats” on both sides of the bar were “dressed to the nines.” Making these handcrafted cocktails is more of a culinary process, as carefully chosen flavors come together to create something that’s are entirely distinct from its individual parts. So when Aaron Butts and Sean Richardson (then head chef and sous chef at Joseph Decuis, respectively) caught the mixology bug, their culinary background fit the bill.
Before long – along with Aaron’s wife and then Joseph Decuis manager and sommelier Carmen McGee – Aaron and Sean launched The Golden, a pop-up cocktail bar that made periodic appearances at local events. The Golden pop-ups began in June 2014, as fun side project and way to stretch the team’s creativity outside of the kitchen. But last month, Aaron, Sean and Carmen announced their plans to turn The Golden from pop-up to brick-and-mortar – with a full-fledged bar and restaurant inside the under-construction Ash Brokerage Building.
The announcement generated buzz right from the start. After 15 years at Joseph Decuis, Aaron and Carmen have built a loyal following and a reputation for the region’s best farm-to-fork menu and perfectly paired wine list. During that time, Aaron, Carmen and their Joseph Decuis crew earned multiple accolades from the James Beard Foundation, including two guest kitchen stints at the James Beard House. So it goes without saying that The Golden’s menu will shine as brightly as its libations.
Whether they’re in the kitchen or behind the bar, the team doesn’t cut corners. Their inspired and from-scratch ingredients give Old Fashioneds a new vibe and bring Sazaracs back to their roots. As the team prepares and their friends and fans wait patiently (mouths watering), I talked to Aaron, Carmen and Sean about their plans and vision for The Golden.
Q: What attracted you to bartending? Why craft cocktails?
Aaron: Bartending has seen a resurgence in popularity as “new” old drinks were gaining attention. Customers are learning that not all gins are the same and a proper daiquiri is not a frozen slushy with high fructose corn syrup. The craft has been reborn. Everyone took notice, and so did we. It’s a new avenue for us to create. It wasn’t out of boredom in the kitchen. It was just another thing to learn, another feather in our cap.
Sean: I wanted to drink new flavors that I’d never tasted in a beverage before, like really bitter things or really smoky things. My first real attraction to fine spirits was a short seminar I went to about Scotch from the Islay Islands, the real peaty and smoky stuff. I wanted to understand what could be done with all these great spirits.
Q: How did the idea for The Golden come together?
Sean: We both became interested in bitters (what bartenders refer to as the salt and pepper of cocktails). After a bit of research we set out on our first batch of bitters. Aaron made a classic aromatic style bitters, and I went wild and made one we later referred to as Earth bitters – comprised of mushrooms, beets, and even a bit of dirt. At the same time I started reading a lot about chefs doing pop up dinners in bigger cities. The idea that a chef could sort of reinvent his or her identity for one night sounded exciting.
Aaron: Along the process we asked each other why there wasn’t any place in Fort Wayne to get a properly made cocktail. That question hatched the idea of doing “pop-up” events around town. Chefs in bigger cities were doing culinary pop-ups all the time, we wanted to follow that model but with craft cocktails.
Q: In addition to cocktails, talk about the bar experience. What aspects of the pop-ups will carry over?
Aaron: Our cocktail menu will consist of classic drinks, new drinks and our own creations. You can expect to see chef-driven cocktails on the menu, infusions, syrups, fresh juices and a general culinary approach to the cocktails. We’ll have unique spirits available along with all the more recognizable ones. Some of the hits from the pop-ups will definitely make an appearance, but the menu will be constantly evolving. Time will tell what drinks will become signature cocktails and what drinks will be seasonal favorites. You can expect to always find something new or something in its creation phase.
Sean: The menu will be seasonal, so the drinks will change with the availability of fresh ingredients and what kind of drinks the weather dictates. A daiquiri simply tastes better on a sweltering July day then a hot toddy does, and vise-versa. We’ll also have a fully stocked back bar and will feature certain bottles that probably aren’t circulating around Fort Wayne. The back bar will be focused around the spirits, so our guests will be able to see many different bottles and try many different things with the help of educated bartenders.
Aaron: We’ll also have five or six beers on draft and plenty of cans and bottles. We want to implement a bomber program for 22-ounce beers. We’d like to push the idea of people purchasing and sharing bombers, just like you would with a bottle of wine. We also want to offer cheaper beers. One idea we’re talking about is offering $1 Boxer lagers on Friday nights and calling it Friday Night Fight Night.
Sean: I’m excited to urge guests to try beer bombers. The idea is to saddle up with a friend or two and try a couple different beers that may not be released in a keg, can or bottle. Sharing a bomber opens up conversation between people and makes for a more unique drinking experience.
Q: Talk about your cocktail philosophy. What’s your process?
Aaron: We’re trying to stay true to the way classic cocktails should be made; no shortcuts, no processed mixers. We approach our cocktails the same way we approach our food, using the best ingredients and preparing them in a way that makes them really shine. Our creative process starts with a basic idea and then a dialog back and forth. Typically there is a culinary influence in most of our cocktails, because certain flavor combinations that work in food typically work in cocktails as well – but not always! We’ve had plenty of hits but just as many misses.
Sean: The philosophy has always been to bring something interesting and fun to the bar, but also to lean heavily on proven drink recipes that have withstood the test of time. We want to build menus that feature our own creations, but also give a selection of old recipes from some of the best bartenders throughout history. However, as someone who likes to experiment, I always make room for some of my own ideas. I start with a base spirit and then try to think about what it is that the spirit offers – not just in flavor, but in the creation of the spirit, the location it is from, and any other outside factors that make it what it is. After the spirit has been researched and tasted, the sky’s the limit. I’m not opposed to trying something that could fall right on its face, because sometimes the end product is a bit edgy and original. I try to push my own taste limitations, with the hopes that guests will feel inclined to do the same thing.Q: Will you feature any unique wines, spirits, beers or cocktails?
Aaron: One thing we are excited about is a private bottling of Mead just for The Golden. It’s a collaboration between us and Two EE’s Winery. It’s a Honey Mead aged in a Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon barrel, bottled in half bottles with our custom label. It’s nice because the smaller-sized bottle will make people more apt to buy a bottle to share. We can use the mead in cocktails and the limited bottling will make it truly unique. But once it’s gone it’s gone forever.
Carmen: Millennials are looking for wines with a story, so I’m looking for offbeat varietals and vineyards or wineries that will be interesting to them. It will give me a chance to talk to people about our wine list and why I’ve chosen what we have.
Q: Talk more about the wine list and experience at The Golden.
Carmen: We will have a beautiful exposed wine wall, with a library ladder to access the tall stuff. I plan on having about 50 selections, making it simple, yet perfect. Joseph Decuis has around 400 selections give or take, so paring it down to just 50 options will be a fun challenge I’ve issued to myself.
Q: You spent a long time at Joseph Decuis, and built a unique menu and wine list. What aspects of that experience will you bring to The Golden?
Carmen: It’s all about building on our experiences from Joseph Decuis. Aaron and I have paired dozens of menus, chef’s tastings and special event menus. It’s absolutely second nature for me now to pair his food with wine. I know what’s going to pair well with his creations. I have learned so much and tasted hundreds of wines in 15 years. All my wine knowledge will translate directly to our customers in a way that they can experience great wines at all price points.
Aaron: The attention of detail, technique and sourcing of ingredients will be important. We want the space and menu to be very approachable and relaxed, but the food and the service to be top-notch. Awesome, inventive cuisine, a great wine list that includes high-dollar vintages and affordable gems, service that will be like none other in the city, and a cocktail program that is exciting – but not snobby or too theatric.Q: Talk about the food menu. How will you incorporate local ingredients? Will you have any unique features?
Aaron: Hopefully by now our reputation for using locally sourced ingredients is well-known. Our guests can automatically assume that everything we are using is thoughtfully sourced and at its prime. The menu will be fresh, creative, interesting and a welcomed change to the Fort Wayne food scene. We will be working closely with local farms such as Hawkins, Gunthorp, Seven Sons, Traders Point and many other local producers.
Sean: I’m really excited about the food menu and the direction we’re taking it. We have really no limitations to the type or genre of food we are going to be offering. Anything is fair game, as long as the ingredients are top-notch and the preparation and technique are well thought out. Someone could come in one night and order a few small plates, like a salt-roasted beet and fresh ricotta salad, chicken wings or and a pork rillette plate. The next night they could order a large plate of freshly made pasta with some slow braised pork shoulder or a hamburger with fries.
Aaron: I think our charcuterie program will be very popular, along with our house made pickles, fermented vegetables and local cheeses. People are clamoring for a good Sunday brunch spot. I foresee many favorites on that menu, but it won’t be the same old things people have been used to.
Sean: We want guests to understand that when they come to The Golden for a meal, they’re getting ingredients that we have thought over. Everything on the menu will be options that we believe to be sustainable, good for local economy, supportive of local farmers and local agriculture, ethically sound, and most importantly – healthy for our guests.
Q: How would you describe The Golden’s atmosphere?
Aaron: The design of the interior space is a little modern; lots of reclaimed wood, polished concrete floors, subway tile in the kitchen. Very clean, comfortable and warm. The open layout of the kitchen will add to the excitement and the busy vibe of the restaurant.
Sean: We purposely constructed a large bar rail and bar area at The Golden. We want people to have a drink, kick back a bit and communicate with one another. By having a bar rail that can hold around 18 guests, we can create a really fun, active and vibrant bar inside of a great restaurant space.
Aaron: People can expect friendly and attentive service and an approachable atmosphere and creative menu. We want people to feel comfortable in the space, we want people to let loose, have fun, try new things and bring all their friends! We’re trying to create a place where a businessman can come in for a meeting and order a nice bottle of wine and a great dinner – but at the same time a younger couple can come in, sit at the bar, order some beers and snacks and have a great time. Guests will be able to bring their children to The Golden, which I believe will attract many more people, especially for Sunday brunch.
Sean: I also want to carry over the mood we had at the pop-up events. The events were full of energy and I hope that we can capture that in our space. I want nights spent out at The Golden to be a really great party for everyone involved. The space will have large windows that look out into the city, so the hope is that when people look in from the streets they will have no choice but to stop in, make a friend and grab a drink. Of course, once they have a drink, food is soon to follow.
Q: What are you most excited about? What do you predict will become a fan favorite?
Aaron: I’m most excited about getting back in the kitchen and creating. We have some amazing equipment coming and I can’t wait to use it!
Sean: We sought out this brand-new kitchen equipment company out of California called Hestan. I cannot wait to start cooking on that baby!
Aaron: I’m also excited to run my very own place. This is our opportunity to really change the way people eat and change the culture of how a restaurant operates.
Craving a cocktail from The Golden? Visit their next pop-up event:
What: Cocktails & Sweet Deals
Where: Mercantile on Main (1753 W. Main St., Ft. Wayne, 46808)
When: Saturday, Feb. 6th, 5-8 pm
The Golden is hoping to open the restaurant in May 2016. The restaurant will serve dinner Tuesday-Saturday, lunch Tuesday-Friday and Sunday brunch. They will be closed on Mondays. For more info, visit The Golden Facebook page.