THE CRAFT COCKTAIL MOVEMENT has created a handful of superstar bartenders, but none quite approach the mad genius of Matthew Biancaniello. Who else would think up drinks made with arugula, candy cap mushrooms, squid ink, sea urchin and emu egg foam?
Biancaniello, who prefers the term "cocktail chef," began bartending six years ago. His stint at the Roosevelt Hotel’s Library Bar in Los Angeles left him with a cult following for his dreamlike cocktails based on homemade syrups and seasonal organic ingredients culled from visits to farmers markets, foraging in the Santa Monica mountains, his own beekeeping and his plot in a local community garden.
Today, he consults for a half-dozen top LA bars. His envelope-pushing concoctions include the Fish Out of Water, made with bonito-infused Famous Grouse scotch, agave syrup, lemon, and shiso, and the Uni, which combines sea urchin, 123 Tequila Reposado tequila, roasted nori, cumin simple syrup, and smoked salt. His goal when creating a new cocktail: "I want to turn people on to something they’ve never had. I want to introduce flavors that don’t exist in the encyclopedia of their heads."
Biancaniello’s life outside the bar is just as creative as his cocktails. He’s father to 6-month-old twin sons, is working on a coffee table cocktail book that will be published by Chronicle Books and has a bar of his own in the works slated to open later this year. He’s also focusing more and more on private events, which have become fresh inspiration.
Biancaniello doesn’t cut corners when he’s serving hundreds, but he does rely on more prep work. For a party of 700 for the cable TV network TBS, he juiced 30 flats of passion fruit juice, four cases of limes and four cases of lemons before he started mixing. He’s also savvy about making sure nobody spends time in a line while they’re waiting for a customized cocktail. He’ll have multiple bars set up and a customized punch to greet guests when they arrive. At the TBS fete, it was his Jamaican Waiting Punch-a blend of Smith & Cross rum, Batavia arrack, blood orange juice, lemon and nutmeg. He also limits the bar menu to three or four cocktails and has a VIP bar where he mans the cocktail shaker himself. "I try to create a conversation with my cocktails," Biancaniello muses, "and what’s exciting about corporate events is it allows me to chat with people I’d otherwise never meet."