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Steve Olson Reflects On 1995 and the Magic Of Mezcal For Cherry Heering’s 200 Years

Cherry Heering has turned 200! Like all milestone birthdays, it’s only natural for friends to reminisce on times gone by and look to the future. It is the many bartender ‘friends’ of the brand that have cemented Cherry Heering’s position as the quintessential cherry liqueur and a must-stock for every bar, and hence it’s only natural that they should be the ones to reflect on its rich history. Over the coming weeks, we will share the musings and memories of 20 legends of the bartending trade as they reflect on a particular year in the history of Cherry Heering. As good birthday guests never turn up empty handed, they’ve each also created a bespoke Cherry Heering cocktail to mark the celebration and cheers to another 200 years.

This week, Maguey maven and industry icon Steve Olson celebrates the year Ron Cooper brought artisan mezcal to the US.

Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe

“It was in 1995 that Ron Cooper, an artist with no previous experience whatsoever in our industry, brought his first handcrafted artisanal mezcal to the US: Chichicapa,” recalls veteran drinks industry maven, Steve Olson.

“Within a year he had four different single-village mezcals in the US. For 10 years, there were only four. By about 2015 mezcal was a category; by 2016 we’d gone from four brands to over 200.”

In a year when agave spirits seem set to continue their global explosion, Olson’s cocktail, Gracias Cooper, pays tribute to Ron Cooper and his brand, Del Maguey.

“When I first tasted these mezcals, I freaked out! I went down to one of his villages, found a Zapotec translator and guide, and Jimmy Yeager and I – from Jimmy’s in Aspen – went off into the mountains with my wife,” Olson recalls. “Although I continued consulting with many companies for many, many years, I knew something was about to change – that my life was going to be about preserving the heritage of these people.” Over twenty years later, he is now a partner in Del Maguey.

At first blush, agave from Mexico’s Oaxaca highlands doesn’t seem like a natural partner to cherries nourished in Denmark’s cool orchards, but Olson begs to differ.

“Mezcal and Cherry Heering are a slam dunk,” he says, with an educator’s passion. “The first time I tried mezcal and Cherry Heering, I was screwing around with the Singapore Sling. I stole the Blood & Sand with Mezcal from Charles Joly, and tweaked it for the Sangre y Arena with grapefruit and vermouth…”

To pay tribute to Ron Cooper’s discovery, however, Olson moved away from fruit-led mixes to an Old Fashioned style drink that highlights Chichicapa’s smoke.

“The reason this plays so perfectly is that every one of those ingredients has its roots in Mexico: coffee is grown in Oaxaca, chocolate is native to Oaxaca,” he says. “It’s all from Oaxaca, but I’m Norwegian-Danish so to add a little bit of Cherry Heering to the drink is perfect.”

It was that Scandinavian heritage which gave Olson his start in drinks. His parents took over a store in the little Iowa town where he grew up and turned it into Trollheim (Home of the Trolls), a Nordic wonderland complete with soda fountain, where Olson was ‘soda jerk’. “People would come from miles around to taste my sundaes,” he recalls.

Then a family opened a restaurant across the street, before both the mother and child became sick with leukaemia. “They were spending more and more time in the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and they trusted me, so they gave me the keys,” Olson says. By the time he was 16 he was opening up the kitchen before school, setting up the dining room after school, racing through his homework, then running the bar all night.

“When I got out of school and went to college, it was a no-brainer to become a waiter, then a sommelier, then GM,” Olson recalls. “I was always an operations guy, but I hung behind the bar because I loved it.”

Like his friend Dale DeGroff, however, Olson’s first love was performing arts. By 23, he had graduated in broadcast journalism, was teaching acting classes, directing TV slots for the local news, working on stage, and running his own comedy troupe.

“I was working full-time as a dining room manager of a world-class, five star, five diamond WS Grand Award winning restaurant when I made the decision to focus fully on our profession,” he recalls. “I one day realised that I was going to die. I was getting up at 5am and shooting for the news, going out of there to the restaurants and working till 2am. I realised I couldn’t do both, I needed to focus on one or the other, and I went back to the restaurant business.”

Since then, Olson has opened close to 50 restaurants – including NYC icon Gramercy Tavern – and enjoyed a media profile higher than he could have imagined.

“I started writing and doing articles, speaking on national and international stages: I got a TV show on the Food Network,” he says. “All of the things I really wanted to do I got to do, and I got them by doing what I really love to do, which is the restaurant business.”

At this stage in his career, however, Del Maguey is his focus – and sustainability in particular. Olson is working with a scientist and an architect to revive and modernise the ancient Mesoamerican tradition of making adobe bricks from waste agave fibres.

“If we can get every producer of mezcal in Oaxaca to work with us, you can build literally 3,000 one-bedroom homes,” he explains. “That would be a step to replacing the 20,000-odd homes that were destroyed in the recent rash of earthquakes, and it’s something we can do if we’re smart and we’re working together.”

It might not be the future Olson envisaged when he first went off into the mountains in 1995: yet it’s definitely a vision to be grateful for. Gracias Cooper. Muchas gracias, indeed.

Gracias Cooper

Glass: Double Old Fashioned

Garnish: Wide orange peel

Method: Still all ingredients with ice and strain into an ice-filled glass (preferably over a 2 x 2 cube)

45ml Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal Chichicapa
22.5ml J. Rieger Caffe Amaro
15ml Cherry Heering
2 x Dash Bittermans Xocolatl Mole Bitters