Chicago bartender Nick Kokonas has worked for some of the city’s most influential bars and restaurants, achieved international success in cocktail competitions, and most recently authored his first book, Something & Tonic. The book, which features the history of tonic water “from bark to bottle” as well as 60 creative tonic-based cocktails (with lovely photography), was born of a weekly rotating cocktail menu he developed at the former The Heritage restaurant in Forest Park, IL called Something & Tonic. Over the course of his work on this project, Nick developed dozens of tonic-based recipes that would eventually make their way into his book.
We had the privilege of talking recently with Nick live on Highballs at High Noon. Watch our live Instagram session with him here to learn more about his new book, then check out his recipe for the drink that started it all, the very first Something & Tonic (plus bonus spirit-free version)!
Q: What was it that first got you into cocktails?
Nick Kokonas: One of my first jobs in the industry was as a server at a microbrewery. I started there when I was 20 years old, and the bar manager and I became good friends. She let me borrow Bartender’s Guide by Trader Vic, and as soon as I turned 21, I hit the ground running.
Q: What new cocktail discoveries are you exploring right now?
NK: It’s been a wild ride lately. I haven’t been behind a bar since mid-March of 2020, and my focus has been on my book project Something & Tonic (available now). I’m hoping to get back behind the stick soon and planning to get out on the road for a pop-up bar book tour. I’m excited to see what has been happening within the industry and new cocktails around the country.
Q: Why do you think people at home might be intimidated by making cocktails?
NK: I think it is easy to become intimidated by making cocktails. Like a lot of endeavors, there can arise a fear of failure. We have a large pallet behind the bar and can play around with R&D. If we make a terrible cocktail, which happens more often than you would imagine, we dump it and try again. At home, you are monetarily committed. I always say life is too short to drink a cocktail you don’t like. So, the best way to get over any anxiety around drink-making is to get a good cocktail book and start mixing.
Q: What are some of your favorite cocktails to make at home?
NK: I do a lot of highballs with amaro or vermouth for something light and refreshing. For bolder drinks, I typically go with a Manhattan or Negroni.
Q: What do you take to a party?
NK: Summer: White port and tonic
Winter: Bubbles and whiskey
Q: Where do you think the cocktail and bar industry is headed?
NK: That’s hard to tell right now. I think once we are out of the pandemic and everything is open 100%, the industry as a whole is going to have to take a look at the model of how bars and restaurants have been operating.
Q: What has the pandemic taught you?
NK: How incredibly resilient we are as humans. This has been an enormously challenging year for everybody, and it’s not over yet. Overall, I’ve learned how important community is and look forward to going back to cultivating positive, safe spaces for those that need it.
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