“Did you know Joe is a jazz pianist?” Slightly bleary eyed after a night spent sipping Grey Goose cocktails, I roll over in bed to see Simon scrolling through his phone, firing off random facts about Joe McCanta, Global Ambassador for Grey Goose. “And he was a founding member in a band that went on to open for Lady Gaga after he left?” Yes, Simon is smitten.
And to be fair, it’s not hard to see why. Joe has that easy-going American charm that instantly lifts a room – and he’s pedaling premium French vodka. Joe’s covetable role sees him skipping across the globe, sharing tips with the bartending cognoscenti and sniffing out the latest cocktail trends.
TASTE BY APPOINTMENT
During his flying visit to Melbourne this past week, Joe and his Sydney counterpart James Wynn-Williams hosted a series of intimate Taste By Appointment masterclasses at Thomas Olive, that sexy gem of a bar above Saint Crispin in Collingwood. Simon and I were lucky enough to be invited along on Thursday night, where we were greeted by Joe and his Le Fizz cocktail, a crisp blend of Grey Goose vodka, St Germain elderflower liqueur, lime juice and soda.
“It’s designed to take the place of champagne and awaken the palate,” he explains, as we clink glasses. “The St Germain lends a floral character, the lime gives it those citrus notes and the wheat-based vodka adds a bready accent.”
As far as aperitifs go, this is a cracker. It’s lively, refreshing and perhaps a little too easy to drink. I’m well into my second by the time we’re ushered next door to the dining room.
Here we’re seated at tables topped with half-size bottles of Grey Goose, pots of sugar, petite jugs of lemon juice and apothecary-style vials of bitters. Before we can play with the ingredients, however, our starter is served – a trio of tastes from Saint Crispin’s Joe Grbac designed to show whether we lean towards sweet, sour or bitter flavours. Bannockburn chicken terrine comes topped with a juicy-sweet dollop of golden raisin jam; hapuka ceviche delivers a bold lime twang; and ocean trout gets a bitter kick from blood orange and endive.
As black coffee, negronis and young rieslings are my go-to drinks, it comes as no surprise to me that my preference lies in the sour-bitter space. But now comes the fun part. Joe instructs us to fill our glasses with ice and free-pour in as much Grey Goose as we’d like. No need to tell us twice.
While we’re pouring, Joe talks us through the production of Grey Goose. This top-shelf vodka is crafted in Picardy, north of Paris, using locally grown wheat. Unlike less-pure ingredients, which require a triple-distillation process, Grey Goose is distilled just once. The spirit is then blended with pure spring water and bottled in the Cognac region, proving once again that the French just do things better.
Next, we add lemon juice and sugar in equal measures, then start to dabble with the levels (more lemon juice for me) before balancing things out with a few drops of bitters. A twist of lemon peel and I’m done.
Before we can make much headway on our bespoke drinks, we’re moving on to the umami component of the night. Here James delivers his signature cocktail, a heady blend of Grey Goose washed with black truffle butter and plum vinegar, stirred with dry vermouth and a savoury lick of Worcestershire sauce. It’s a dirty, full-bodied brew, perhaps not one you’d order on its own, but it’s a triumph with the umami-bomb that is the main course: wagyu beef cheek and rump with miso eggplant, a jumble of mushrooms and lip-smacking parmesan gel and soil. As far as food and drink pairing goes, it’s faultless.
Dessert is a tile of creamy hazelnut and honey parfait, sandwiched between crunchy leaves of filo pastry, topped with caramelised pear and dabs of almond gel, matched with the floral notes of Anjou pears in the fragrant Grey Goose La Poire. Even our end-of-meal espresso gets a Grey Goose makeover, as Joe liberally splashes in L’Orange, made using oranges from Florida.
Then it’s back to the bar at Thomas Olive, where Joe joins Andy Wren and the Thomas Olive team to whip up custom-made martinis – think cherry tomato and shiitake, or lemon, grapefruit and honey.
Part of Joe’s role as the blue-suited ambassador is predicting and shaping cocktail trends, so he’s well placed to tell us what we’ll be sipping this summer. “Bartenders, like chefs, are starting to use more local, seasonal ingredients in innovative ways,” he says. “And we’re seeing a lot of fruits juiced to order, either cold-pressed or using a centripetal juicer. When you make something that fresh it makes a huge difference to the drink. Keep an eye out for fruits such as pear, guava and yuzu.”
And what’s on the way out? “Thankfully, we’ll be seeing less of those sickly sweet cocktails with sugary syrups and brightly coloured liqueurs,” says Joe.
When asked what his favourite cocktail is, Joe’s quick chime in: “The next one,” he laughs. “Seriously though, I like a twist on a classic negroni, substituting Grey Goose L’Orange for the gin, swapping the Campari for Amer Picon bitters, and adding a splash of Noilly Prat Rouge. Finish it with a twist of pink grapefruit. It’s slightly lighter than your standard negroni.” Sold.
I have to laugh when I ask Joe if he has any tips for making cocktails at home. “Any bartender will tell you that plenty of ice is the most important ingredient, and it’s really easy to make it yourself at home,” says Joe. Come on Joe, any old fool can make ice! Ahh, but he’s talking special ice…
“Bring a kettle to the boil, pour the water into a large Tupperware container, then cover and freeze it. The heat prevents the ice freezing too quickly, so you’ll end up with much clearer ice. Then use a wooden spoon to chip off large chunks for your built drinks or smaller shards for shaken cocktails.”
And on that note, it’s time for a drink.
Photography: Tim Grey