Alexis Brown, a Chicago native, fell in love with craft cocktail culture four years ago after joining the United States Bartenders Guild, seeing the documentary Hey Bartender, and attending Tales of the Cocktail—all in one year. Though Brown had tended bar for four years before that, she was immediately rapt by the artistry she saw in this new wave of craft cocktail bartenders. “I started getting involved, applying to all the competitions, challenging myself,” she says. “I really just dove right into the industry.” Brown is now working to make the drinks industry more inclusive and diverse through Causing a Stir, the nonprofit she cofounded with Ariel Neal in 2016, while racking up national recognition for her drink-making skills.
At The Drifter in Chicago, where Brown has tended bar for nearly a year, she applies the same obsessive attention to detail that first attracted her to cocktail bartending to her shift each night. In the original ’20s-era speakeasy cocktail bar, bartenders work in tight quarters to serve an ever-shuffling cocktail menu (literally—the nightly menu is drawn from a 100-card “tarot deck” of drinks). With only two wells, there isn’t much room for more than a couple of barkeeps at a time, let alone extra equipment or bells and whistles. But no matter what, Brown always has her tea strainer on hand during service.
Brown uses a fine, conical metal sieve strainer during service to prevent tiny flecks of ice or pulp from diluting or muddying an otherwise perfect cocktail. She buys her strainers through a wholesale restaurant supply store in Chicago but says that Cocktail Kingdom’s CoCo Strainer is a close match. “At The Drifter,” Brown says, “we are very detail oriented.” While juices and house-made cordials are typically strained through a chinois during prep, Brown says the additional filtering she achieves with the tea strainer ensures that a martini won’t become diluted by small shards of ice in the glass, or that a rye drink made with the bar’s house porcini mushroom cordial won’t be sullied with mushroom sediment.
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Beyond producing clearer drinks, the tea strainer has another function: It’s Brown’s secret to perfect egg white cocktails. She picked up the tip from Liz Pearce, the bar’s owner. “Liz said I needed to strain my egg whites [so that] when I do my foam art, it would stick better and it wouldn’t dissipate,” explains Brown. This method, she says, yields a clear demarcation between cocktail and foam, rather than the latter melting into the former. “The foam isn’t all bubbly,” Brown says. “It just sets very nicely, so when you do a garnish you can set it right on top.”
Brown uses the strainer when serving drinks like the Dose of the Balmy, a vodka, passionfruit, and egg white cocktail finished with a splash of saffron bitters and a fennel frond resting atop the drink’s foam. After dry-shaking her ingredients and then shaking them with ice, Brown funnels the drink through the tea strainer, which gives her firm, meringue-like peaks sturdy enough to support a garnish—or serve as a canvas for a pop of color. Using this method, Brown says, “I can definitely see a change when I’m putting my bitters on top and trying to create some defined artwork.”
And, much like the elegance of Francesco Lafranconi’s silver tongs, the strainer, Brown says, has another, less obvious job: It quietly communicates to guests that their drinks are being made with the utmost care and attention. In fact, Brown says, it’s not uncommon for curious and admiring guests to comment on the strainer as she’s using it to prepare their drink. “When they see you really dialed in, it makes them appreciate the product a little bit more—they can see how much work and care you’re putting into it,” she says. That’s the attention to detail and the level of finesse that drew Brown to the craft in the first place. “It’s not as essential as your shaker or your Hawthorne strainer, but when it comes to details and fine-tuning, then it’s a necessary tool,” she says. “If your overall goal is being polished, then you can’t do without it.”
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Gray Chapman is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes about spirits, beauty, and culture; she was formerly the managing editor of Tales of the Cocktail. Follow her on Twitter.