When Austin Carson, general manager and wine director of Bonanno Concepts, arrived in Denver in 2006, he didn’t intend to stay. He was moving from his hometown of Edmond (outside of Oklahoma City) to Seattle when he ran out of money. Eleven years later, Colorado is his home—and he still hasn’t been to Seattle.
Carson comes from the wine side of the business; when he was first hired at Mizuna four-plus years ago, he worked the door and filled in for then-wine director Kelly Wooldridge as sommelier. But when a bartending position opened up, Carson found himself behind the stick mixing—and dreaming up—drinks for the first time. “Never before had I realized how important it was to have a creative outlet at work,” Carson says. “My brain is pretty obsessive and when I get into things I go over the top in pursuit. I’ve benefited tremendously [from this transition].” Not the least of which was meeting his wife, Mizuna’s lead server.
Carson, who continues to oversee the wine program for Bonanno Concepts, mixes some of the most interesting cocktails in town (with ingredients like whey, banana liqueur, yerba mate, and coconut water). As for what he drinks when sitting at the bar? “I like low ABV [alcohol by volume] cocktails. Vermouth and tonic is my favorite thing to drink, and sherry cobblers.” For three more things you likely didn’t know about Carson, read on:
1. On inspiration… Cookbooks are a big one. I have way too many cookbooks for the amount that I cook. I love the way chefs approach food and I’m envious of things they have available to them like texture and plating. Books like Eleven Madison Park tend to be the type of cookbook I look at, although most recently it’s been Mexico from Inside Out by Enrique Olvera. I work my way through the ingredients and see how [the chef] combines flavors. It’s usually a sauce or a coulis that strikes a chord and then I run with it.
2. On family ties… I’ve been reading a lot of 19th century American history and digging into different Native American influences like Kit Carson, he’s actually where my last name came from. He was my grandfather’s great great—and possibly great great great—uncle. I’m reading Blood and Thunder and it has triggered interesting perspective on 19th century history. It’s not without controversy and I’m trying to understand circumstance. I’m also a registered Choctaw tribe member and have Chickasaw blood, which has been a point to research and draw inspiration.
3. On creating cocktails… The way I approach this is very organic. Ideas usually come from a “what would happen if” and then I start building. I’m really bad about building a cocktail around a base spirit. My brain doesn’t work that way. When I have an idea I’ll go about making a syrup or a bitters and shape it around that. I try to keep myself from building from classic cocktail specs. There’s a bigger creative reward at the end of that rainbow.