Matt Hunter is the resident “Booze Enchanter” at Rustic Root in San Diego’s Gaslamp district. If you’ve never heard a title like that, it’s because you’ve never met someone like Hunter. When he came on board with Rustic Root, he brought years of bar and managerial experience, including a stint at URBN. Hunter recently gave us a chance to pick his brain. Check out what we learned.
What were your influences when curating Rustic Root’s cocktail menu?
We wanted to create a cocktail menu that had craft elements, yet also a classic theme. All the cocktails on our original menu were cocktails that most customers had heard of or tried before. We just hid the names in the form of years.
How did you get into bartending?
My first bartending experience was when I was 18 years old, working for a friend’s high-end, rent-a-bartender, catering-type company based in Los Angeles. I had no clue what I was doing, but had a blast. It helped lay the groundwork for where I am now – 14 years later.
What is your current drink of choice?
Right now I’m drinking a lot of RGF (Ramos Gin Fizz). My favorite of our own drinks is currently the Palabra Final.
How does the atmosphere have a correlation to your creativity behind the bar?
You have to bartend for your crowd and capacity level. If it’s 11pm and we are in the trenches getting slammed then I probably won’t be suggesting a 6-ingredient egg white cocktail. At that point it is high quality turn and burn. That doesn’t mean I won’t make you the cocktail you ask for, but I just won’t suggest something that will back me up and cause other customers to get antsy.
Most cocktails at Rustic Root feature names referencing years in the past. What is your process of naming a cocktail? What are the year references represent?
In terms of the cocktails on our Timeless Cocktail menu we came up with drinks according to the year they were originally created. We ran through a ton of original and well known classic cocktails when building our menu. Then came the research behind the drinks to find when the drinks were first made. The year references are an ode to the past creators of our most influential drinks today. It’s a history lesson in every drink.
What are some trends we should expect to see in the upcoming year (e.g. cocktails, beers, garnishes, bar atmosphere, etc.)?
There’s a lot of savory-profile drinks coming out lately. A mashup of culinary and mixology, which is fascinating and very fun. When done right, savory cocktails are great. I think there will be even more vegetable and herbal forward cocktails coming out as the bar scene gets more comfortable and pressured to come up with new flavors for their clientele. The bar world is ever changing and it’s due to the plain-Jane drinkers expanding their horizons. I used to have people only order two-ingredient cocktails (i.e. vodka soda/rum coke) and now those people are drinking Moscow Mules and Boulevardiers.
What are some of your suggestions when ordering a drink at a bar?
Know what kind of liquor you want. For example, Martini is such a broad term and if you say dealer’s choice then it’s helpful to know whether you want vodka or mezcal, whether you want your cocktail spirit forward, balanced, or sweet. One friend of mine has a pet peeve of when people order the mixer first. So, when you’re ordering your next drink keep in mind “vodka soda” as opposed to “soda with vodka”.
What’s your ideal cocktail + atmosphere mashup?
I’m a huge fan of high-volume craft bartending and bars. That’s the ultimate test for any barman/barwoman. Sure, some people can sling Redbull-vodka and gin and tonic all night, while others create a nuanced, 50-ingredient drink that blows your mind. But can they make the mind-blowing drinks fast and accurate enough to keep the party rocking in a slammed bar? That’s the true test.
Photography by Sergey Kolivayko/Field Guide.