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Know your bartender: Kyle Davidson at Blackbird

Six questions for Kyle Davidson, the new bartender at the West Loop restaurant.

 (Credit: Paul Leddy)
Credit: Paul Leddy

Bartender Kyle Davidson is now running the drink program at Blackbird.

 (Credit: Paul Leddy)
Credit: Paul Leddy

The Ume Klug at Blackbird is made with gin, plum syrup, sake and lemon.

 (Credit: Paul Leddy)
Credit: Paul Leddy

Smoke on the Sour at Blackbird is made with bourbon, smoked meringue, lemon and demerara.

 (Credit: Paul Leddy)
Credit: Paul Leddy

Parasol at Blackbird is made with Cocchi Americano, ginger green tea, lime and Angostura bitters.

 (Credit: Paul Leddy)
Credit: Paul Leddy

Blackbird's Absinthe Frappe is made with Pernod, Cura´┐Żao, orgeat syrup and crushed ice.

Taking over a cocktail program from an acclaimed bartender can be a daunting task. On one hand, you want to honor the approach the former bartender took. On the other, you want to make sure your own voice comes through on the drink menu. That’s the dilemma Kyle Davidson faced when he took over the cocktail program from Lynn House at Blackbird in June.

House, now a brand rep for PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur, was known for her garden-to-glass approach to cocktails in which she utilized the best produce of the season. Davidson, a veteran of the Violet Hour, the Publican and Publican Quality Meats, is also making sure that at least one cocktail on the list contains seasonal elements. For example, his Ume Klug cocktail uses plums from Klug Farm in both whole fruit and syrup form. "The fruit adds a nice texture to the drink as well as flavor," Davidson explains. The plum also adds a speckled effect to the cocktail, which contains gin and lemon and picks up slight floral notes from Junmai Ginjo Sake.

The rest of the drinks on Davidson's menu ascribe to his self-described "East Coast" approach to cocktail-making, which means they’re spirit-focused, balanced and minimalist—most of his drinks have four or fewer ingredients. That doesn't mean he’s afraid to show some whimsy with his cocktails. The Smoke on the Sour cocktail is basically a whiskey sour made with egg whites. The only difference is that Davidson smokes the egg whites with applewood chips and turns them into a meringue to float on top of the cocktail.

Davidson’s menu also includes the Captain's List, a showcase of classic, pre-prohibition cocktails like the Vieux Carré or Jerry Thomas' Real Georgia Mint Julep, which feature the types of spirits and techniques used at the time.

We sat down with Davidson and asked him six questions to learn a little more about his cocktail philosophy.

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Who are your mentors?

There are a number of people who come to mind in terms of mentors. Of course, my parents, as I grew up in the restaurant business. I also learned a lot from Ryan Poli when we worked at Butter, and more recently Michael Rubel and Toby Maloney at the Violet Hour.

What’s your approach to making cocktails? How do you incorporate that style with Blackbird's menu?

My approach is minimal and East Coast-influenced, although at Blackbird we use some techniques and ingredients that would be off limits at the more strictly classical Violet Hour. Similar to chef David Posey's cuisine, we strive to push boundaries, yet remain rooted in classic technique.

What’s the most important skill a bartender should have?

I think it is crucial to be able to be able to read guests, and provide them with the best beverage for their context.

What do you drink on your night off?

Red wine, home brew or whiskey. If it’s a cocktail, I like equal parts Cynar and bourbon on ice—it absolutely cannot be messed up.

What’s trending in the cocktail world?

I see a move towards specialization in cocktails. Whether it is molecular gastronomy-based like the Aviary, tiki-themed like Three Dots and a Dash or classically inspired like the Violet Hour, bars are choosing to pursue particular style of cocktails.

Complete this sentence: Malört is...

Bitter and very occasionally appropriate.