Behind Bars

Five Questions for the Bartender: Jon Christiansen

The creator of Monsoon East’s sparkly new cocktail program talks centrifuges and vodka soda.

By Allecia Vermillion June 12, 2012

Monsoon East’s Jon Christiansen’s new cocktail program packs plenty of heat, smoke, carbonation, and fancy ice. Photo by the talented Geoffrey Smith.

About two months ago, Jon Christiansen arrived at his job as bar manager at Monsoon East to find a very riled up Eric Banh awaiting him.

"Jon, I’m very angry," Christiansen recalls his boss telling him. “But this makes me happy. Because greatest inspiration comes from three things: anger, loneliness, and…I forget the other one.”

The source of Banh’s heightened emotions: the restaurant’s cocktail list. Since opening his more casual Ba Bar last year, Banh has undergone a trial by fire in cocktail programs (and the individuals who create them) and had decided he wanted his restaurants to have some of the most impressive libations in the region.

This edict basically resulted in a carte blanche for Christiansen to overhaul the drinks at Monsoon East. He hired barman Noah Momyer from MistralKitchen, tinkered, learned, carbonated, and made syrups. Recently he debuted a staggering new list of “house specials and classic remedies” that reads like a primer on current cocktail trends. Eastsiders, this is your new destination for “carbonated coolers” served in wee glass bottles with a straw, and barrel-aged cocktails served over a giant ice cube (Christiansen purchases his ice from MistralKitchen).

Here, a few questions for Jon Christiansen.

Who’s drinking at Monsoon East?
Our clientele is generally 30s and older. They’re not necessarily 12th and Pike drinkers. They have good palates, but the cocktail culture isn’t necessarily on their minds.

Maxime [Bilet] from Modernist Cuisine, he comes into Monsoon a lot and we’ve become friends. I’ve bounced questions off him a lot; he had me try to make a drink with pea essence for a dinner he was doing in San Francisco. It was basically the cocktail version of Iron Chef, special ingredient: pea. We used a centrifuge; he’s got carbonation equipment there too. I’ve been there [to the Bellevue lab] a couple of times; he likes me to come play because basically I make drinks and everyone samples them. It’s incredible the stuff they have there. Besides the machinery, they have a wall of tinctures, oils, and vinegars. It’s 30 feet long. There are acids, like citric, malic acid, lactic acid and so on; you don’t actually have to squeeze lime into a drink; you can use citric acid so you get that acidity without the lime flavor. The range of flavors is infinite, really.

Do you try to influence people to get more adventurous with their drink orders?

I just want people to come in and enjoy them. I used to hear stories about bartenders sneering at people who came in and asked for a vodka soda and I thought, “yeah, you’ve got to give people what they want, and god bless the person who asks for a vodka soda when you’re head’s down and you’re busy smashing something with a pestle. But I understand a little better now because I have put an enormous amount of effort into this awesome menu, and I want people to become fans. If somebody comes in and asks for a vodka soda I’m like, “good lord, did you see how hard I worked on this?”

How is your list different from drink menus at other cocktail spots?

The difference for Monsoon is, if you come in anytime after four, our clientele is mostly women at the bar. Between that and the food we serve and just the feminine look of the place, it makes sense for me to have bright colors, bright flavors, and more subtle drinks. I’m not catering to people needing to fill their mouths with smoke and whiskey. It’s earlier in the day.

Do you have problems keeping up with drink orders now that the offerings are more involved?

I was basically willing to sweat myself into frustration every night. I’m not your friendly corner bartender; I’m just going. I like that physical challenge, anyway. If you’re sitting at the bar, we might not exchange names or become friends. I’m just going to give you what you ask for.

Usually in these interviews we ask where you like to eat.

Mistral every day, if I found a suitcase full of money, and taco trucks.

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