By Michael Benninger
Photos by Kate and Michael Auda
Once upon a time (true story, by the way), in a land far, far away (New Hampshire), the regular bartender showed up for work drunk one fortuitous evening. Coming to the rescue, the then 17- year-old Cory Alberto jumped into action at his father's establishment - and he's been behind the bar, happily, ever after.
Regarded by enthusiasts as something of a cocktail hero, Alberto has since made a name for himself by pioneering innovative drinks at esteemed San Diego establishments including Table No. 10 in East Village , where his electric-purple Flux Capacitor was the talk (and drink) of the town last summer.
Today, Alberto is the new Chef de Bar at Grant Grill, the snazzy restaurant and lounge at downtown's famed U.S. Grant Hotel, where his new Fall lineup of drinks - let's call them fairy 'tails - are poised to propel many happy endings.
PacificSD: Where are you from and where do you live now?
CORY ALBERTO: I grew up in coastal New Hampshire, in a little town called Portsmouth. I moved to San Diego in 2008 and live in Bankers Hill. I love the neighborhood's cool people, amazing views and proximity to everything. There isn't a bad restaurant, bar or deli anywhere.
Describe the vibe and menu at Grant Grill.
Think James Bond, Connery Bond, especially when we have live jazz. As far as the menu goes, it's truly world-class modern California cuisine. I would put our kitchen staff up against anyone with total confidence.
What's your role there?
I'm Chef de Bar-slash-Food and Beverage Supervisor, with all focus on the bar and lounge. My typical day involves poking around the kitchens and dry storage to find things to play with and spark creativity. I experiment a lot and hang out with chefs to pick their brains. I have always looked at the bar as an extension of the kitchen, so it's only natural I hang with the kitchen people a lot.
What drives you to continue innovating?
Knowing that I have people from all over the world coming to try my creations keeps me motivated, and I find inspiration absolutely everywhere. One of the cocktails featured on the new menu actually came to me while walking in Balboa Park. The sound of dried maple leaves crackling under my feet, and the smell they gave off, instantly reminded me of my childhood in New Hampshire, hence the name "Fall in New England."
What's your bartending style?
I'm big on Omakase style [a Japanese term meaning, "I'll leave it to you"] and would love to custom-create a drink for anyone who walks through the door. So don't be shy about telling me what you like.
What are some of your new drinks on the menu at the Grill?
Fall in New England pays homage to my childhood. The goal is to bring people to the classic time of autumn, when leaves are changing, and winter is on its way. In that cocktail, I have cold-smoked apple juice with Irish whiskey, Vermont maple liquor, Alpine walnut and cinnamon bitters.
Another drink I'm doing is a play on one of my favorite beverages, root beer. I'm calling it The Levee was Rye, and it's a base of rye whiskey combined with a toasted sarsaparilla syrup I make, maraschino liquor, Cynar and soda water.
La Paloma Peligrosa is my tribute to San Diego in the fall. In that drink, I'm utilizing more indigenous fall flavors: tequila, Ancho Reyes [spicy chili liqueur], local honey, Aperol [Italian aperitif ] and a grapefruit reduction.
What unusual elements or ingredients do you incorporate in your drinks?
I come from a culinary background and understand flavors differently than some bartenders. I'll use things like Peruvian mint and tarragon, extracts and reductions, and molecular creations like alcoholic caviar and compressions. Smoke and fire have always been part of my repertoire. I like to incorporate food in my drinks when I can and sometimes push the boundaries of getting weird.
PacificSD wrote about your Flux Capacitor drink last year. Will you serve that at Grant Grill?
It's not on the menu, but you shouldn't be shocked to see it make an appearance in the future.
What drink personifies you?
Scotch. It's smoky, yet sweet; harsh, yet refined. I think scotch and I share a lot of things.
Where do you like to unwind?
My home away from home is the Lion's Share [in downtown's Marina District]. The place is super cool, from the artwork to the taxidermy. Cocktails are over the top. Other than that, I'm totally a dive bar kind of guy. Give me a heavy pour in a dark, somewhat-grimy bar, and I'm in heaven.
If you have a special someone in your life, what's that person's favorite drink you pour?
I am currently single, but if anyone is interested, come by, and I'll make something extra special just for you.
What are you most grateful for?
Friends, family and mezcal.
The U.S. Grant
326 Broadway, Gaslamp