Thomas Merolla moved to Miami from Providence, Rhode Island sixteen years ago looking for something new and different. He was only 18 but his first job, bartending at the then newly openedDelano Hotel
, marked the beginning of a career creating cocktails for some of the hottest spots in South Beach.
The 33-year-old is charismatic and speaks with a Rhode Island accent. He compares mixology to cooking - something he started doing at 13 - and stresses the importance of knowing how flavors and ingredients work together to make a good cocktail.
The cocktail list he recently launched for Solea at the W Hotel, where he runs the bar of the restaurant and the Living Room bar, includes drinks like the Wild Flower - a concoction of lavender gin, strawberry yuzu, orange blossom honey, basil and floral bitters - and the Rainbow Tribe - gin, ginger root, yuzu, simple syrup, cucumber and celery bitters.
Merolla has also served his libations at the Sunset Lounge at the Mondrian and B Bar at the Betsy Hotel, where he created the cocktail program and still works as a mixologist. He enjoys consulting and is part of Splash Cocktail, a beverage consulting company, with friends Robert Ortenzio (currently at Sra. Martinez and Meat Market) and Paul Sevigny (The Florida Room).
"My favorite part about consulting is the creative part," Merolla told Short Order. "Taking the base of a business and growing it into a great mixology bar."
At the W, his job entails creating seasonal cocktail menus, ordering and working the bar at the Living Room a few nights a week. Short Order talked to Merolla and tried one of his tasty creations. Read on and check back tomorrow for his "Old World Fashioned" recipe.
New Times: What are the latest trends in cocktails?
Thomas Merolla: Definitely market fresh ingredients - vegetables, herbs or fresh fruits - and a resurgence of the classics.
How do you stay on top of trends?
A lot of people I know talk shop; we try drinks, read, check out menus. The trends around the country are different. In New York and San Francisco, it's all about the classics, and in Miami, it's about culinary fresh ingredients along with classics.
Many people complain that they can't get a good cocktail in Miami...
You have to know where to go but it's pretty much going mainstream now.
So where can you find a good cocktail?
B Bar at The Betsy, The Florida Room, Solea and The Living Room.
Is there anything that you see bars around town doing wrong?
Pretty much two things: places call themselves cocktail bars but don't use fresh ingredients, they buy lime juice, and they don't jigger [measure].
What inspires your cocktails?
A lot of my ideas come from food, dishes or regions. I look at spirits in that region and that's the base I experiment from. If you can cook, you can make a good drink. A lot of good mixologists are big foodies.
What's the most unusual drink you've made?
One of my drinks is called the Smoky Mirror. It has avocado, cilantro, jalapeño, pineapple, agave, lime juice and reposado tequila topped with pink peppercorn. It has a spiciness and the avocado gives it a great texture.
Do you make yourself cocktails at home?
Yes, on my days off I make three meals and cocktails.
What do you like to drink?
Gin cocktails, tequila cocktails, bourbon cocktails. Any cocktails with those spirits.
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What would you say are the traits of a good mixologist?
There's always a learning curve so you have to be humble enough to listen and learn, and have confidence to execute. It comes down to understanding ingredients and how they play off and balance each other.
What's next for you?
I want to open my own mixology bar with light fare. It's always been a dream of mine since I was 18. And remain doing some consulting.