Over the past five years, Jeffrey Moll has put together some of the most interesting and innovative cocktail menus in the St. Louis area – usually at Mike Randolph's acclaimed concepts, including Randolfi's, The Good Pie and Little Country Gentleman. After Randolfi's closed this fall, Moll has been showing up in guest spots at cocktail favorites like The Libertine; he also created a "dueling" amaro menu for The Gin Room. This month, he's behind the bar at Pig & Pickle as well as the holiday pop-up bar Miracle STL. Moll took a break to give us some home bartending tips, a peek inside his R&D book and the key to a great drink.
What is your favorite ingredient to work with and why? It’s definitely amaro, of course. Amaro is often kind of like a cocktail in a bottle already. There are so many different styles, and they’re all very indicative of their region and showcase the indigenous herbs and fruits and peels and thinks like that. Each one speaks to where it’s produced. They’re also complex; they add really interesting layers to cocktails, even very simple three-ingredient cocktails. An amaro can just set off the flavor profile in numerous different directions. It’s a fun ingredient. It’s very versatile and it hits on all the perfect points of bitter, sweet and herbaceous.
Do you have a secret weapon ingredient/technique? I don’t know if I have a technique per se – I tend to really gravitate more toward stirred drinks, so more often than not all my really great drinks are stirred and amaro-centric. There are a couple different amaros that are like my cure-all, my snake oil secret weapon. I would say one is Amaro Sibilla. Almost every drink I put that in, it becomes amazingly better. And Luxardo Abano is another one that I tend to go for a lot, because it’s got this really nice pepperiness to it, and it’s just sweet enough, [with] a little bit of mintiness.
What’s your perfect day of eating in St. Louis? Holy smokes. I’m so used to working all the time; I’ve never been in a position where I’ve been able to dine out for a whole day! I tend to like the kind of diner-y breakfast, and I’m a stone’s throw from Uncle Bill’s, so it’d be hard for me not to begin my day there, and drink some mediocre diner coffee and eat something that’s probably not very good for me. And then for lunch one of my go-tos has always been Dressel’s. I think they have the best fish and chips in town. At that point I would definitely be ready for a drink – I always like going to Olio. They have the things that really speak to me as far as esoteric liqueurs and bitters and things of that nature. Dinner – that’s a meal I’m not used to having, because as an industry person, I’m usually eating over a trash can or running through the restaurant and snacking. But my ideal dinner would be at Bar Les Frères. St. Louis has some great French bistros and French-inspired places, but a giant lack of full-throttle French food. I think Les Frères isn’t quite “full throttle,” but they’re more than the classic bistro fare, which I love – steak au poivre, duck, lamb chops, soufflé…I’ve never had a disappointing meal there. And then naturally I would probably go somewhere for cocktails after dinner. It’d be a big toss-up between Taste and Planter’s House for sure, or at home drinking my own selection of things.
How has the local cocktail scene evolved over the past year? I’m not a veteran by any stretch; I started working for Mike [Randolph] maybe five years ago. At the time I started, things were – I don’t think they were dark, but maybe they weren’t as inclusive. There wasn’t really a tight-knit community in cocktailing that I notice has [now] grown in a positive way. People are more inclusive in their own beverage scene and aren’t as nose-up-in-the-air. I remember before, people would just guard everything they’d done with so much secrecy. Everyone’s more welcoming and open [now]. I think I see a lot more people sharing spaces with other bartenders, too. From a consumer’s perspective, I think it’s definitely changed a lot. I think the average consumer has become a lot more adventurous, and it puts bartenders in a position where they can be more adventurous with the things they develop and offer. You see a lot more weird and esoteric stuff on the shelves now because people are more familiar with it. People have been actively drinking more and becoming more interested in things that are off the beaten path. It’s definitely changed a lot in terms of just the sheer knowledge and things people are used to, for sure.
What drink concepts do you hope to see added or expanded in St. Louis? I would like to see more drink-centric places pop up. When you think about places that have really, really good cocktails, they’re more often than not a bar that’s within a restaurant. Which is not a bad thing at all – I think that’s a great thing. That didn’t used to be such a focus, and now it is, but I do kind of miss the straight-up cocktail experience. Taste has always been a good model of this, where they’re drinks first and food second. And everything’s great. I’d like to see more places like that. I would kind of like to see – but secretly I don’t want anyone to do it before me – I would love to see an amaro bar pop up in St. Louis, just because that’s something that’s near and dear to me, and a lot of people’s palates have shifted towards bitter [ingredients]. So I think that’s the one big thing that people want and maybe they don’t realize it yet.
What do you drink at home or on your day off? I drink a lot of straight spirits. I’ve always got a decanter, sitting next to a chair and my record player, that I’ll drink whiskey out of or something. There’s almost never a night that goes by that I’m not drinking some amaro that’s on my shelf. My home bar is almost a mirror of what Randolfi’s was, so I’ve got a lot to choose from. Definitely something with a little bit of whiskey or pour of Fernet or something to sip on.
If you could tell home bartenders one thing, what would it be? Definitely get a set of proper tools, and don’t be afraid of building a bar. I know it’s a very intimidating process, and a lot of people I talk to don’t seem to know where to start. There are a lot of good articles and books that walk you through it; just having the right essentials and the right bar tools goes a long way. A drink’s only as good as its weakest link, and that could be a bad ingredient, but more often than not, I feel like it’s a bad set of tools that facilitate sub-par technique in a drink. And I think it's amazing that you can make the same drink at a well-equipped bar, and it’s very good, and then you try to make the same drink at home and it’s like ehh, not as good. So tools for sure.
What's the most intriguing drink you've made recently and why? I’ve got a little R&D book around here somewhere. I’ve been trying to do stuff at home and keep my creativity in check. There was one drink I made that I thought was really good – it was gin and aquavit with dry curaçao, Amaro Nardini – which is kind of a more orange-y version of [Amaro] Averna – and I thought that was really good. It was the one drink I went back to several times. That, and I’ve definitely got a taste for the more fine things, so another thing I like to drink at home a lot is Lagavulin Nocino and Amaro Nonino in equal parts. It’s this nice, Scotch-y, rich, nutty, orange-y drink. I would say the latter is the most intriguing one I’ve made for sure.
What inspires your cocktails? How do you approach R&D? I guess a number of ways. I usually tend to choose a base flavor. I’ve always treated cocktail ingredients in spirits as a culinary thing, in a sense that you break down what the flavor profile of each ingredient is. So like when I make a bourbon whiskey drink, bourbons tend to be very big and vanilla-y, so I start to think, what goes with vanilla? Then you build off of that. That’s one way I do it. Of course, an amaro gets thrown in there to tie everything together as long as it complements the rest of the flavors. One thing I definitely do a lot – and a lot of people I’ve worked with can attest to this – I always have wacky builds on my drinks. I didn’t really realize this until I read an article recently on the Fibonacci sequence in cocktailing. I’ll build a lot of drinks with five ingredients, and start with a couple of really intense ingredients. So the sequence would go ¼ ounce, ¼ ounce, ½ ounce, ¾ ounce, and 1¼ ounce. So the ratio is 1:1:2:3:5. So a lot of times I’ll build drinks in that fashion, and as long as the ingredients make sense together, you end up with a very good drink. It’s a very forgiving ratio for drink-building. It’s really fun with the biggest measure if you pick something like a fortified wine, like a vermouth or a really light sherry, and then start with a whiskey or a rum or a gin, and then the last three you do as maybe liqueurs, really high-intensity things. The more intense something is, the less you’re going to need in the cocktail. So a good example would be like, 1¼ ounce of oloroso sherry – that’s a really nice nutty flavor. Oloroso works really well with whiskey and Scotch, so let’s use ¾ ounce of a nice, peaty Scotch, and then you have more freedom to throw a grab-bag [item in], like an orange liqueur, and then designate the last ¼ ounce ingredients to be something like green Chartreuse and Campari. And I bet you nine times out of 10 that drink will be absolutely amazing.
Pig & Pickle, 5513 Pershing Ave., Skinker-DeBaliviere, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.349.1697, pigandpickleeatery.com