Looking for creative holiday cheer? If you want drinks done right, head to Vera (220 Lexington Ave.) where owner Cameron Rector said he has perfected the art of drink-making with a process that ensures his bar staff gets it right.
Rector moved to Buffalo in 2001 from downstate and opened Vera about six and a half years ago. The winter season is one of the busiest at the craft cocktail bar as patrons line up for hot, seasonal drinks.
Rector shares some of his theories on what makes the best craft cocktail to toast the holiday season.
Question: When do you start to roll out the winter-style drinks?
Rector: We started in the fall with hot buttered rum and as it progressively gets colder we roll into the more festive wintery, Christmas drinks. We do a Glogg – that’s a Christmas Scandinavian mulled wine. We take red wine we add a little bit of spices, cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and heat it all up and let it simmer and infuse with that. Mulled wines are popular in Europe and a Scandinavian tradition.
Q: Do the seasonal drinks draw customers?
A: Most definitely. They’re super popular. Hot buttered rum will kick off the fall season. It’s just like an added treat. We drink cold cocktails all year long so it’s nice to have warm, soul-hugging cocktails. One that’s very popular is a white hot chocolate with cognac and we top it with a marshmallow.
Q: How do you adapt the menu to complement the drinks?
A: We change our menu every 90 days, our food menu and cocktail menu, so everything is geared toward the season. We make sure the cocktail list coincides and pairs with what’s on the dinner menu. There are some staples like pizzas, but we try to change up all of our, or quite a bit of our, menu and we use seasonal ingredients from local farms as much as we possibly can.
Q: What inspires your ideas?
A: We have fun with it. We’ll have a crazy Caribbean drink in the middle of winter to take minds off of what is outside and put them somewhere else. My guys are versed in hundreds of cocktails and they let their talents shine.
Q: How do you find such qualified bartenders?
A: We have quite an extensive training process. We start everyone at the bottom even if you’ve been bartending 20 years. You set up the bar, make mixes, cut fruit, everything we make in house.
If you want a rum and coke, that’s great, but it’s our house-made cola syrup and our juices are squeezed fresh every day.
It’s a hard, thankless job and then you move up with hard work and dedication. We encourage our prep guys to see how drinks are made and to read up on them. We make it a show, but it has a purpose first and foremost. Yes, we have an art and flair to stirring or shaking a drink, but there’s a reason for it, function before form.
Q: Why did you want to bring this model to Buffalo?
A: That was my whole thing when I moved here in 2001 and started working in restaurants. I constantly educated myself.
Everyone was like, "Buffalo wants their martinis and their cosmos," and I said, “I think we’re getting more educated here.” I’d travel and see cocktail bars and said, “That is what I’m going to do.”
Q: Has Buffalo embraced the concept?
A: It was a hit from day one. The ingredients speak for themselves. Do you want a jug of OJ? Or want me to squeeze fresh orange juice? I think 99 percent would say fresh. That set us apart from the get go. We approach the bar the same way a fine-dining chef would approach a kitchen.
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