Q&A With Eli Sanchez
After tending bar at the legendary (and now shuttered) Elbow Room for years, Eli Sanchez honed his mixology skills at a series of hip watering holes until he landed behind the bar at Rook, where he mixes up some of Indy’s most creative gin cocktails. Here, he catches up with us about new trends in cocktails, what the soul of a good bar should be, and what we can expect at The Inferno Room—Ed Rudisell and Chris Coy’s swank new tiki spot where he’ll be consulting on the drinks.
IM: What will your role be at The Inferno Room?
ES: I’ll be helping with the training and with efficiency behind the bar. I’ll work with the bar staff to batch the spirits and get the bottle touches down to a minimum so we can get cocktails out to our guests. I feel like my time at the Elbow Room really taught me how to work at a high volume and quick pace. Just because our drinks will be more complex at Inferno, that doesn’t mean a guest should have to wait forever.
IM: What do you think are the qualities of a good bartender?
ES: I think a bartender should be a true entertainer but shouldn’t be the center of the party. A bartender is there to facilitate the fun and give guests the best drinks possible, but the fun should be for the guests. I actually don’t drink behind the bar, which a lot of people find strange. I also don’t get annoyed with any drink orders. If a customer wants to drink a vodka soda, who am I to say they can’t?
IM: What advice would you give to bar patrons?
ES: Be patient. It takes time to make a great drink. At Rook and Inferno, we’ve put together some of the most interesting drinks in the city, and they have several specially made components that don’t just come together like a Jack and Coke. But your wait will be rewarded.
IM: What’s your tiki experience and what does it mean to you?
ES: I was more familiar with tiki parties at people’s homes than at bars. Then I met Ed, and he really got me into the trend and showed me how big the tiki world is. For me, the drinks are about tropical juices and exotic spices, not to mention big, over-the-top garnishes. And a lot of tiki bartenders use flames in interesting way. I love watching Instagram videos of Jason Alexander from Seattle. He makes big beautiful flames with his cocktails that last forever. But tiki is also about escapism and feeling that you’ve left the world you’re in. So the whole atmosphere has to facilitate that.
IM: How will you do that at The Inferno Room?
ES: We’re definitely working to make the decors as impressive as possible. I’ve been amazed at the carving and painting that Dave Hansen from Lake Tiki Woodcrafts in Milwaukee has done for us. He helped us to put up masks and sliding doors. And Ed [Rudisell] designed our tiki mug himself. We’ll also have custom swizzle sticks. I can’t wait.
IM: You have been in several competitions (Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender, Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience) lately. What have you learned from them?
ES: I really love seeing what other bartenders around the country are doing. Some new trends include using lots of infusions with herbs or even vegetables such as a snap pea vermouth. Some bartenders are using oils like a cayenne pepper and cilantro oil. And I just like seeing how seamless the mixing can be. It really inspires me to up my game.
IM: If you opened your own spot, what would it be?
ES: It would be a neighborhood places where the cocktails would be great but where it would be approachable for guests coming in every day. In all my years at the Elbow Room, I celebrated a lot of firsts—first kid, the lease to my first car, my first mortgage, and my kid’s baby shower. I would want to create a feeling of family where the regulars could celebrate their milestones as well.