Tony Rials behind the bar at Bourbon and Butter. Photo by Joe Cascio.
Tony Rials behind the bar at Bourbon and Butter. Photo by Joe Cascio.

Spotlight: Tony Rials

by / Jun. 17, 2015 12am EST

When it comes to the craft cocktail renaissance in Buffalo, consider Tony Rials, beverage director of Bourbon and Butter, a key player. With more than 10 years of experience under his belt and a certificate from the court of master sommeliers, Rials approaches his craft like a chef—or a mad scientist. Whether it be pairing wines, concocting original creations, or nailing classic cocktail recipes, the hefty amount of labor and fierce attention to detail is aimed at one rather simple objective: to exhilarate the palate of the consumer and achieve that moment when, in his own words, “really awesome flavors come together.” In this interview, the beverage savant talks about his inspirations, the ever-evolving bar scene in Buffalo, and summer takeaways.

Who or what are your influences? They always change. At certain points in time it was people. Very specific people, the first restaurant job, the first crazy chef I worked for, the first manager that spent time with me teaching me about wine and making sure I got to taste along with him. Then it became experiences—going to a four-star restaurant in New York City or San Francisco and hanging out there. That became a key thing, experiencing the whole restaurant and what they do and how they help their guests experience the event. That became important to learn from. The last time I went to San Fran, I was checking out cocktail bars that were just unreal and watching what they do and how they do it, how they set up their back bars. Not only are these guys artists at what they do, they are dedicated. Every day it is just them working as hard as possible. I get a lot of inspiration from great chefs; they’re conscientious of farms and of the restaurant as a whole picture, how it fits into the environment and people’s lives. You can pull little bits and pieces from all these intensely talented people and learn from their example. 

What’s your view on the cocktail scene in Buffalo? It’s really neat to see it progressing. There are so many people who are really doing it very well. That’s nice to see from five years ago to three years ago, when I first moved here. The number of places we have, even if someone is not calling it a cocktail bar, they’re doing very well balanced and classic drinks. It’s also cool to see everyone’s palates changing—whether it’s the bartender, the owner, or our guests. Everyone is becoming more educated and it leads to us being able to be more creative and give them better products.The difference between a $5 cocktail and a $10 cocktail is pretty drastic. 

As far as just the whole scene in Buffalo goes, it’s on the rise and finally drawing attention, and I think there are a lot of very talented people. The best part is everyone has their own style. People talk about how schools and the medical community drive business, but close to that is the restaurant scene. It’s such a big thing in this city and the bar is a major part of that. Many people are opening up restaurants and they’re going to need a good bar program now.

How would you characterize Bourbon and Butter’s approach? Our style is more savory. Pretty much everything we do is an infusion. We try to amplify the flavors without adding more liquid, essentially. For instance we’ll take a gin and we’ll infuse it with eucalyptus, cucumber, and vanilla, and that becomes a super flavorful, compact gin. We just add two or three other ingredients to your cocktail and it’s done. It’s just really intensely flavored and layered and fun. Our approach to cocktails is like wine: Wine has the aesthetic—the coloring, the aroma, what it smells like, and the flavor profile, the texture on the palate. All of these things we pay a lot of attention to. Everything we do has an infusion, which is very labor-intensive as far the stuff we have to prep and the technical stuff we do. We sous-vide most of our cocktails: We put it into a plastic bag, vacuum seal it, and we let it sit on the shelf, then we throw it into a waterbath at 140 degrees to draw the flavors out. That keeps them very bright and fresh. With our ice we aim for large, perfectly clear cubes. No discoloration or cloudiness. No bubbles. It serves a purpose—it keeps your drink cooler—but it’s also more aesthetically pleasing. Three hours a week cutting giant pieces of ice. 

What are some of your favorite summer flavor profiles? That’s kind of the fun thing around here. New York is known for its agriculture so we have really incredible fruit and produce to work with. I like really ripe, big flavors during the summer that could be paired with things that are really refreshing as well. We’re working on a lot of non-alcoholic things this summer: For instance, I used the liquid from pickled strawberries and added soda water to it. Clean and fresh flavors are what we’re going for for the summer, things that aren’t cloyingly sweet or really heavy on your palate. Raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, and currants you can play around with. We’re lucky to be working with Full Moon Farms. Flowers are cool to work with in the summer—anise hyssop for instance.  We’re going to do a lot with tonics; they’re rich and herbal but also refreshing and clean. We’re doing stuff with watermelon.

Is it tough to work bourbon into a summery drink? The easiest way is to add citrus to it, that really brightens and lightens it. Citrus is good in that way, to make everything more tart. It also makes your palate water and cools you off. Also I like to mix bourbon with teas—herbal tea is a great way to do it. Tea adds obviously water but also that herbal component, and that lightens the spirit and makes it more refreshing and more interesting—deep as well. 

What’s your ideal summer poolside cocktail? Negronis are pretty great; that’s my go-to drink. It’s old school and traditional, equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth, with some bitters added to it. Also, gin and tonic with a strawberry tonic would be a perfect cocktail for summer. The tonic we made used tree bark from a cinchona tree. We shaved that up and steeped that in the water with other herbs, flowers, and citrus. It was the perfect soda water.

Lastly, what are some of your favorite summer wines? Rosé, from from the Loire valley, like Muscadet. Also Spanish wines, like Alboriño. Chablis is really fun as well, super minerally driven, like kind of chalky. But that makes it incredibly lively on the palate. And champagne, always champagne.