Blackhawk Grille’s master mixologist, Rob Hayes, changes up the cocktail game and shares his favorite summer drinks.
It's Saturday night at Danville’s Blackhawk Grille, and the bar is a flurry of motion. Sprigs of rosemary get charred on an open flame before they’re floated atop cocktails. Droppers of aromatic essential oils are painstakingly squeezed over martinis. And on rare occasions, actual flint—shaved over the glass—lends a smoky mineral quality to bourbon.
For more than 15 years, Blackhawk Grille’s lead mixologist, Rob Hayes, has been honing his craft, and as the cocktail culture has exploded, demand for his small-batch, personalized concoctions continues to climb. Garnishes are an art form for Hayes, who can spend hours—if not days—prepping final touches for drinks consumed in mere minutes.
“The cocktail has to look good, but garnishes can be used in a really functional way to enhance the palate,” says Hayes. “You want to take your time and do them the right way, which a lot of bartenders don’t want to do.”
Most of Hayes’ drinks don’t appear on the menu, which means he spends time tailoring each tipple to the individual and the circumstances. Has it been a long day at work? He may go for a riff on the scotch-based Rob Roy. Feeling excited for the weekend? Hayes can produce a lighter, brighter cocktail with gin, citrus, and cucumber.
“Be vocal about what you want,” advises Hayes. “You came in—you’re already adventurous. And if you’re super adventurous, I can go off the wall but still have it feel comfortable.”
In addition to inventing cocktails for everything from the weather to people’s moods—plus introducing a drink and food pairing program at Blackhawk Grille on Thursday nights—Hayes chronicles his boundary-busting beverages on Instagram (@justrobber), and on his blog, Scotch and Hops (scotchandhops.com). And as if spending hours prepping chocolate-dipped orange peels and barrel-aged infusions wasn’t enough, Hayes is also working on a collection of Manhattan recipes for more than 60 neighborhoods in New York City, from Little Italy to SoHo.
“I come into work with my bar bag full of stuff—25 different bitters and six zesting knives—and people realize this is a craft,” says Hayes. “I think it’s what people want. It’s what I want, but thank God other people want it, too.” Catch Hayes behind the bar Thurs.–Sat., blackhawkgrille.com.
We asked Hayes to share some of his favorite summer cocktails. To read recipes for Hayes’ drinks, scroll down.
1. Walking Stick
“I wanted a fresh oak- infused bourbon that would create a balance for the charred barrel flavor the bourbon picks up while aging. I smoke the cocktail with the same oak that the bourbon was infused with. This drink utilizes fire in three different ways: through smoke, open flame, and natural mineral reaction.”
2 oz oak-infused Knob Creek whiskey
0.75 oz double rich simple syrup
1 dash orange flower water
1 dash Peychaud's bitters
5 drops cherry bark vanilla bitters
Squeeze 1/4 lemon, 1/4 orange
Smoke in shaker with bourbon-infused oak. Add ice and shake. Pour over fresh ice, spark flint over the top, and add 1-2 more drops of orange flower water.
2. Educated Float
“For this vodka-based cocktail, I use vanilla bean–infused cream, Frangelico, and spiked root beer with some gum arabic. I was feeling like the hot weather was coming and wanted to be ready for my first root beer float of the year.”
1 oz Frangelico
1 oz Tito’s Handmade Vodka
1 oz vanilla bean-infused half and half
0.5 oz double rich simple syrup
Shake, strain, and top with spiked root beer.
3. Cuban Lisa
“This is a smooth and refreshing libation. The top is an egg white cloud of citrus, rosewater, and elderflower brightened by lime. I wanted to make an approachable drink to help people see how beautiful and light egg white cocktails can be.”
1 egg white
3 small bar spoons of sugar
0.5 oz lime juice
1.5 oz Bacardi
0.75 oz St. Germaine
3-4 mint leaves
2-3 drops of rose water
1. Separate one egg white. (Do this first just in case you get yolk or shell.)
2. Add Bacardi, St. Germaine, and sugar. Slap the mint, add, then dry.
3. Shake for 10-15 seconds.
4. Open. Make sure it's frothy!
5. Add lime and ice. Fill the shaker with ice two inches past the top of the liquid.
6. Shake again till the tin is frosty.
7. Double strain into a coupe glass!
8. Add three drops of rose water on the top.
9. Garnish with mint or lime.
4. Lenox Hill
“This is a Rob Roy interpretation—a modernization of the blast from the past. I oak age this cocktail, once prepared, for at least 10 days. Scotch plays a main role here supported by maraschino liqueur and Cointreau. I also use orange oils and Aztec chocolate. This is part of my New Manhattan Project, and I really wanted to make the Rob Roy a drink for people to reconsider as an option.”
2 oz Macallan 12-year-old scotch
0.5oz Maraschino liqueur
1 dash Aztec chocolate bitters
1 dash Hella Aromatic bitters
1. In a mixing glass, add the Macallan the Cointreau and the Luxardo maraschino.
2. Add ice—generously—possibly 4 inches above the liquid. A firm ice formation is important!
3. Dash both bitters over the top of the ice. (Usually I would add the ice last, but not only does seeing the bitters run down the veins of the ice look cool, it seems to somehow calm down the potent effect of the chocolate bitters on the nose of the cocktail.)
4. Stir. (Use a stir spoon of you have one.) The sleek design, and shallow depth of the spoon itself, creates the least disturbance in the cocktail. Slide the spoon down the side and move the ice gently around the liquid keeping the back side of the spoon on the inside of your mixing glass. Move the ice not the liquid.
5. Strain into a martini glass garnish with an orange peel (garnish can be chocolate coated) and Luxardo cherry. Or a burnt orange peel works well with this one also.
4 cucumber half moons
2 oz Hendricks gin
4 drops rosewater
2 drops rhubarb bitters
0.5 oz lime juice
1 drop of orange essential oil
0.5 oz cranberry
0.5 oz double rich simple syrup
1. Combine all ingredients except for gin and ice in shaker and muddle. Don't pulverize, just push and turn.
2. Add gin and then add ice to above liquid line and shake until frosty.
3. Double strain and garnish with cucumber ribbon, raspberry, and mint sprig.