This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in January 2016.
If good cheer had a taste, I imagine it would be a lot like the #5 cocktail at Birch restaurant in Hollywood. A mix of vodka, cranberry, sloe plum, and allspice, the cocktail is a take on a Cosmopolitan, except that it’s stirred, not shaken. And it’s made with pinecone.
Afternoon light floods through Birch’s garage door wall. Behind the grey marble countertop, Gabriella Mlynarczyk assembles the #5. The New Jersey-born, UK-raised bar manager consistently manages to surprise and delight with bar innovations in a time when everything seems to have been done.
She didn’t plan on being in the bar world, though she always has been.
“I’ve been bartending since 1986, since I was in high school—because in the UK, you can bartend at 18,” she said.
After she graduated from college in the UK, Mlynarczyk moved to New York to pursue a career in the cutthroat fashion industry. While working at Victoria’s Secret, she made a sign to remind herself that the lingerie business was not brain surgery.
“I wrote ‘It’s only underwear’ and had that hanging above my desk,” she explained. “I got fired for it.”
So it was back to bartending. She enrolled in art school to study printmaking, but supported herself with bar work. Mlynarczyk went from bartending to bar management and finally to bar ownership before she decided to head to the West Coast.
“I had a run of bad luck in New York. I had been there for 17 years and was really over it,” she said. “It just destroyed my soul a little bit and I needed a change, so I moved out to LA in 2011.”
It was in Los Angeles that Mlynarczyk started turning to the back-of-the-house for cocktail inspiration.
“I started hanging out with one of the chefs in the kitchen, watching the ingredients he was working with, and seeing if I could make a drink out of it,” she said. “It kind of started from there. Then, when I moved to Ink, it just exploded. There was so much product that I was allowed to touch and use. I went a little bit bonkers.”
After hopping around a few other bars in town, Mlynarczyk joined the Birch team full-time in April 2015, where she continues to employ her art and fashion talents to design drinkable novelties. She’s mastered flamed frankincense, fat-washed simple syrups, and a vegan sour that uses chickpea water.
“I almost think about them as installations,” she said of her cocktails. “It’s like a drinkable sculpture or something.”
As with any person pressured to create, Mlynarczyk admits that the job doesn’t always come easy.
“Each time after I’ve done a menu or a round of drinks, I worry about where the next round of inspiration is going to come from,” she says. “Will I get inspired by something? What am I doing? It gets scary sometimes.
“Sometimes, the muse doesn’t quite hit you and you produce just a bunch of shit, and it’s the same with drinks.”
To overcome inspiration obstacles, Mlynarczyk starts with a storyboard when making new drinks, filling it with colors, ingredients, and cuisines. She scours international markets for unusual flavors and aromatics. She searches for themes to follow and brings together similar ingredients.
With the #9, she paired the milky Japanese soda Calpico with milky Japanese Nigori sake. The floral #7 features both bee pollen and honey.
“I try and take everything apart and then put it back together in a new way,” she said.
Such was the case with the #5. She knew she wanted to recreate a Cosmopolitan based on a martini using Ransom sweet vermouth, but that innovation wasn’t enough. Fortunately, she had recently made a sprayable tincture from sticky pinecone extract and everclear in an attempt to create something new for the holidays.
“I had the spray with me and I spritzed it on the top and I’m like, ‘That’s it, it’s solved.’ Just the combination of the allspice, the fir, and the cranberry—it was a beautiful marriage.”
As Mlynarczyk moves on from the #5 to work on drinks for Valentine’s Day, she starts delicately pulling out marinated starfruit from a jar. They’ve been soaking in vinegar, sugar, mulberries, and rose water, and now they may be the finishing touch on yet another aesthetically pleasing Birch cocktail.
She places the starfruit atop a cherubic pink drink to test whether the garnish will sink. It doesn’t. And yet another beautiful marriage is born.