Ever wish you could get to know some of the people around town who create and serve up your favorite drinks without it being a little awkward? Welcome to drink insider. We sit down with some of the biggest names in the craft beer, distilled spirits, and bartending scene in Little Rock and ask them some of the questions you only ask before the cab comes.
This time up, Merrick Fagan, go-to cocktail creator at Trio’s.
Tell me where you’re from and what your background is.
Born and raised in Little Rock, I left for the Chicago area to pursue a college education in music. After some time in the city and mostly fruitless efforts at being a rock star, I returned to Arkansas.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
At what age? As a young child I had a dinosaur phase (paleontologist), a rock phase (geologist), a critter phase (entomologist or herpetologist), a space phase (astronomer, because I knew someone with eyesight as bad as mine wouldn’t be allowed to fly spaceships). In middle school I was sure I would be a software engineer – after all, what else would the sort of kid who codes for fun do as an adult? By high school, I was convinced I would be a musician, if not a writer, or maybe a translator. Even in college, I majored in “music and….” – music and Spanish, music and English, music and philosophy. Even well into my twenties, I remained the quintessential incontrovertible dabbler, getting a post-baccalaureate degree in linguistics.
How did you first get into bartending?
In a story not too dissimilar to that of David Kaplan, of Death & Co. in New York, I started bartending by running a speakeasy in my dorm room college. The drinks were primarily neon, caffeinated, sugar bombs (I like to think my palate is a bit more sophisticated these days), and I got in no small amount of trouble, but it was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed making my own recipes from day one.
Are there certain spirits you like working with?
Oh yes, just about all of them! In case you couldn’t tell from my last answer, I’m very much a “variety is the spice of life” kind of guy. Whiskey was the first spirit I learned to love, and all of the great whiskey cocktails are a great introduction to cocktails for the sort of men who think way too much about how other people perceive their drink. Gin is incredibly versatile, and has a tremendously wide variety of applications in the cocktail world – I like to tell people who say they don’t like gin that they’ve either been drinking the wrong gin, or drinking the gin wrong (and sometimes both). Rum, rum, rum. I had to say it multiple times because more rums are better than one – the collaborative efforts of multiple styles of rums form the backbone of tiki drinks, for which I have a particular fondness. Brandy, I think, does not get nearly the recognition it deserves in the 21st century, and I’m particularly fond of rich Spanish brandies. Agave spirits can be a bit trickier to work with, but a well-balanced tequila or mezcal cocktail can be truly inspired. As for vodka, well…I appreciate silence in music, and negative space in design, but I’m still working on my appreciation for vodka.
Talk to me about your process for naming cocktails.
Hm, where to begin? I love puns, and allusions, and most who know me well would tell you that I’m too clever for my own good. I don’t have any one-size-fits-all strategy for naming cocktails, and sometimes the name comes first (the B Student on the Trio’s menu, with bourbon, Benedictine, and Becherovka, was a concept cocktail: all ingredients that start with “B”). There are literary (Eve’s Temptation, A Dream of Spring, Tennessee Williams [which also references the provenance of two thirds of the ingredients]) and musical (Otis Rojando) allusions. Sometimes the name is intended to evoke the experience of the cocktail itself, as in the Fireside Lullaby, which is soothing and warming, and just a bit smoky. Often the name refers to one or more ingredients in the drink in some way, as in the Daily Rind; sometimes my linguistic punning obfuscates this semiotic relationship, however, as in the Kingston Garden, which is likely to reappear in spring or summer – it features a rosemary-hibiscus simple syrup, and “jamaica” is the Spanish word for hibiscus. I enjoy names that are simply fun to say sometimes – I hope that people found that the names of the Mulligan Again and Autumn Not-a-rita, from our fall menu, were as delightful leaving the lips as the libations were on entering them. (I could go on…)
How do you feel about the local cocktail scene here?
There’s room for growth and improvement, to be sure, as is the case in anything, really, but I think Little Rock is years ahead of many similarly sized cities. When I was last in Fort Worth, TX, I was blown away that a city that’s ahead of us in many ways (a mayor that supports biking and other carless transit alternatives, and rapid growth facilitated by the proximity of Dallas), would be so far behind in terms of cocktail culture. There were three cocktail bars, all from within the last three years, and the most recent one is the only one I plan on returning to. Whereas here, we’ve had places like the Capital Bar and Grill, South on Main, and the Pantry peddling artisanal and craft cocktails for years – and the scene has grown so much even in the past two. I’d be remiss not to tip my proverbial hat towards 109 & Co. and Yellow Rocket Concepts, especially Big Orange Midtown, both of which are introducing people to a wide array of classic cocktails and proffering novel offerings for the quaffing of the adventuresome.
Do you think we’re lacking anything? What would you like to see more of?
There’s lots of things I’d like to see, but I just don’t know if this market is forward-thinking enough to embrace them, or large enough to sustain them (or if our sometimes labyrinthine liquor laws would permit them). I’d love to see a well-done tiki bar, and I know at least a half dozen others who would be thrilled, but that’s hardly a substantial base of clientele. I know “pop-up” bars are big in the trendier cities, but there’s plenty of reasons they probably wouldn’t work here, at least for now. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing more of a culture of collaboration. And I could stand to step my own game up significantly in this regard, but I’d love to see someone local with presentations that are half as creative and interesting as some of the cutting edge places around the world – Linwood Essentials in Toronto comes to mind. For example, they serve a variation on the classic Last Word cocktail called the Zymurgy, which comes in a dictionary. I could go on about their brilliant presentations.
What are you plans for the future?
In the immediate future, Trio’s is hosting a Tiki Night on March 10, so I’ve got plenty of planning and preparation to do for that. And with warmer weather around the corner, it’s time to start developing the spring seasonal menu. Long term, I’ve thought about starting a distillery or liqueur company or bar of my own, but business ownership still seems awfully daunting to me. Medium term? Keep learning, keep growing, keep experimenting, and keep sharing my love of a well-crafted cocktail.