How Gratitude's Bar Program Stirs the Imagination of Guests and Staff Alike

Orange County loves its alcohol. I don't say this in any demeaning way; no, I just say it plainly because we do. We love it to the point that purists exist and often tout their expertise (or haughtiness?) to whomever will listen, mixologists run amok with creative disasters and miracles, classic cocktails done right are highly sought after, and sourcing can be a main focus for some restaurants. When Cafe Gratitude of Los Angeles decided to branch out and install an Orange County location, Gratitude, in Newport Beach, they knew our love and employed the innovative and enthusiastic mind of Beverage Director Jason Eisner to cultivate and grow that love even more. We got the chance to hear about the guiding factors for the bar program from Jason himself as well as went behind the bar to make an interesting cocktail with bartender Isle Anderson.

Photograph provided by Gratitude featuring Beverage Director Jason Eisner
What governs the bar program at Gratitude?
"As a Beverage Director, it is my pleasure AND my job to create, curate and govern the Beverage Program at Gratitude Newport. The job of a Beverage Director is similar to that of an Executive Chef. I create recipes and cocktails for the beverage programs of each store as well as curate the wine, beer, and spirits lists. At Gratitude, we have very high standards for all of the products we produce and carry."
The spirits are so unique and organic; there are a number of brands that I had never heard of. Does an element of education come into play for the clientele? The bar staff?
"Absolutely! In fact, I'd say if nothing else, working for me IS an education. I'm a forever student. I'll always be most interested in learning and passing along information that I have acquired to others. I used to be an administrator in a social justice charter school in Los Angeles so I know how differing learning modalities work, how to build a curriculum, and also how to create reachable goals for a variety of people. It makes my job so exciting!"
What inspires the cocktail recipes?
"I'm a giant foodie but my real inspiration is that I truly love seeing people smile. I enjoy watching people be surprised and delighted by something I have created with my own hands. Cocktails are really nothing more than food. Of course, it is food that creates the context for us to experience an altered state of consciousness, but it is sustenance none-the-less.
However, without a doubt, my MUSE is my two year old daughter Maxine. She is so free and alive. She operates with no fear and approaches all new things with wonderment instead of concern, or criticism. It's an incredible reminder to me to stay present and unaffected by my own jaded opinions of how things "should" be and to keep pushing the envelope of what is possible."

What's your favorite spirit and why? Drink?
"My favorite spirit is Mezcal. Agave spirits are varietal based, just like wine, and on a base level the depth of flavor and aroma in each and every bottle is so vast and different. Also, I'm in love with Mexican culture and obsessed with the amount of effort that it takes to produce a single bottle of Mezcal. It is a beautiful process that is almost exclusively handmade. My favorite cocktail of all time is a Negroni. It's herbaceous, bitter, and stimulates appetite. It's perfect."

We didn't get the opportunity to work with Jason behind the bar on any one of his curious concoctions but we did round up the help of bartender Isle Anderson for this task. What is key to note about Gratitude is that it is a plant-based restaurant which surprisingly affects some cocktails that people know and love overall. In this case, we explored how to make a type of sour usually containing egg whites without the egg whites. Well, we still made the foam but the how really highlights Jason's mindset of pushing the envelope and not taking no for an answer.

Gratitude's "Oaxacan Sour" cocktail manipulates aquafaba, chickpea liquid, into foam.

The recent public knowledge of aquafaba's many uses has generated hundreds of ideas from chefs all around on how to use this typically thrown-out residual water from chickpeas. One of these ideas that was thrust onto the cocktail menu was replacing egg whites in drinks with spun aquafaba which created foam. We shook up the drink with a beautiful mezcal and floated on the foam before finishing off with a gorgeous and healthy Mexican sage flower which provided such a luring fragrance.

As we stirred up some fun into the glass, Isle told me about how they really try to frame each cocktail around the spirit itself. Since there is so much thought that goes into bringing these liquors into Gratitude (all organic as well), they do want to make it shine and therefore do not mix up overly sweet drinks. To bring flavor to a forefront, the restaurant occasionally infuses vodka with seasonal ingredients such as fig, cucumber, and dill. They also offer flights of tequila for those inclined to trying out several versions to differentiate regions of origin and production styles. Those wanting wine will find that the wine list had been put together with consultation assistance from Master Sommelier Peter Neptune himself.

Overall, it is quite a robust bar program with quality in mind. What I especially loved about Jason's passion aside from the final products is his voracious hunger for knowledge about spirits and the stories that are associated with each distiller. At a previous dinner, he shared so many fun details about the distillers he was using. I just had to ask.
Do you have a special story about one of your distillers?
"Yes. I love the story of Judah Kuper and his Mezcal, Mezcal Vago. Judah was a surf bum living in Philadelphia and used to regularly pack his bags and head to Oaxaca, a secret surf destination on the boarder of Guatemala and the center of the Universe for Mezcal production. On one of his trips, Judah injured himself badly and needed to be rushed to a medical facility. Judah says "I went into the hospital with a broken leg, but I left with a broken heart," because he fell madly in love with his nurse.
When Judah returned to Philly, he couldn't stop thinking about her. So he sold everything that he owned, packed up his beat up van, and headed back down to Mexico. He arrived, knocked on her door, and when she answered she said "I've been waiting for you." They fell madly in love and now have a family together. Judah also imports her father Aquilino Garcia Lopez' Mezcals to the United States and, wow, are we lucky! They are amazing!
But I think the reason why I am inspired by Judah's story is because he is unaffected by the "what ifs." He fell in love, and his natural reaction to that was that it would be crazy to not pursue it. There is no reward without risk and there is nothing ordinary about life, so I tend to gravitate towards those who get that we are here for a short time. Might as well just fucking go for it!"

If you are planning on visiting Gratitude and take a peek at their cocktail menu, you might be amused by their naming convention. Jason dubs the creations with song references so we thought it fun to get a Beets by J ($12 - tequila anejo, heirloom beet juice, orange juice, dry curacao, lime, and Co2) on Isle's recommendation. Satisfyingly filling but light, this is one swell cocktail. Don't forget to get some of Gratitude's food as well though because they are doing a great thing here in Orange County. We indulged in their Feliz / Coconut Ceviche Tostada ($9 - black bean puree, coleslaw, roasted tomatillo sauce, avocado, and cashew queso fresco) and Fuerte / Tempeh Chorizo Torta ($15 - cilantro pumpkin seed pesto, avocado, chipotle cashew crema, roasted tomatillo sauce, Mexican coleslaw, and wild rice summer bean salad) after the mixing adventure, and boy were we loving both. The robustness of flavors and balance in taste and texture are impressive but seemingly just another day in the life of Gratitude.

Find this plant-based restaurant and its tasty cocktails at 1617 Westcliff Dr #112, Newport Beach, CA 92660, and don't forget to let us know what you think! Our thanks to Gratitude for letting me be a temporary barback/person in the way.

Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.