Q&A: The Ritz-Carlton bartender who made a $600 drink

Q&A: The Ritz-Carlton bartender who made a $600 drink

Our interview with Courtney Messam, the guy who created The Six, the city's most expensive cocktail

To celebrate its sixth anniversary, the Ritz introduced a menu of limited edition cocktails, including The Six, a six-ingredient sipper featuring premium spirits, edible gold leaf and a seriously substantial price tag: $600. It’s the creation of the Ritz’ mix master–in-chief, Courtney Messam, who chatted with TL while stirring TIFF’s (and Toronto’s) most extravagant drink of the moment.

Messem at work making The Six, adding the final touch of edible gold leaf. Messem at work making The Six, adding the final touch of edible gold leaf.
 

What was the the inspiration behind this rather extravagant tipple?
We’re celebrating the hotel’s sixth year and our sixth year being part of TIFF, so we wanted to make a big impact. I can’t take total credit, though. I brainstormed with John Neill, another Ritz bartender, and my manager. We had a lot of ideas, even one where we infused a tomato with booze—it was a lot of fun. I go to bed thinking about cocktails and what kind of things I want to try. I dream about it, too, and sometimes I’ll wake up and write things down right away so I don’t forget. I keep a notepad right beside my bed.

So like a dream journal, but for cocktails?
Exactly!

When did you know you wanted to be a professional mix master?
My dad’s an artist, so mixing things and putting colours together was part of my childhood in Jamaica. I always wanted to follow my own ideas in the kitchen, rather than a recipe. Even just doing jerk chicken, I want to do my own jerk chicken. When I worked on a cruise ship, I would always get behind the bar and mix things up. And when I came to the Ritz, I started working on the floor and covering for the bartender when they needed me.

Do you have any moves? You know, like Tom Cruise in Cocktail?
No, here it’s all about safety first. At home I’ll try things out, but the most important thing is the cocktail—not the show. The show is just a distraction.

Tell me exactly what goes into a $600 drink.
We start with two ounces of 100-year-old Rémy Martin Louis XIII Cognac, which is $250 an ounce. We chose it because we wanted the drink be smooth and elegant. Then, to add some edge, we add a quarter-ounce of 30-year-old Johnny Walker Blue Label Scotch, which has has a nice bite. Then we add a half-ounce of Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth and six drops of Peychaud’s Bitters, which are floral and less aggressive than other bitters. We wanted something in the cocktail that says “Ritz Carlton”, so we created a house-made vanilla rooibos tea syrup, and in goes a quarter-ounce of that. Then we add ice and stir—six times clockwise and six times counter-clockwise. You have to stir very gently so the spirits aren’t bruised.

If someone were to shake it instead of stirring it, would the drink taste differently?
Oh, absolutely. It would be very, very watered down—like skim milk. The final ingredient is edible gold leaf. I call it the golden touch. We wanted something to take it to the next level. If there were diamond leaves, we would have used them. Okay, it’s ready.

And here it is. And here it is.
 

I guess this is the moment. Cheers!
Don’t be nervous. Just sip, enjoy and relax. It’s not a drink to be rushed.

Wow, this is delicious. It’s really, really smooth. Do you ever worry that it’s so smooth that people won’t realize how much booze they’re consuming and get absolutely blotto?
People who order this drink know quality so they’re not going to chug it. That’s why we use a big ice cube that melts slowly, so you can take your time.

Deliciousness aside, $600 is still a kind of insane amount to spend on a drink. Have you sold any?
I’ve sold two so far—and I know you’ll probably be back for another. The reaction has been great. People want to have their pictures taken with the cocktail.

Have you had any celebrity sippers?
I’m not at liberty to disclose.

So you could tell me, but you’d have to kill me.
Exactly. At the Ritz, everyone who comes in here is a VIP. Everyone should be treated like a celebrity.

We are all Clooney!
Right.