Tiffany Eldredge gets teased for the amount of amaretto she burns through at The Still, a speakeasy-style cocktail bar tucked away in the restaurant Vero Amore, where Eldredge runs the bar and curates a rotating list of classic cocktails. The liquor rep laughs at Eldredge. She sells more amaretto to her than to any other bartender in Tucson.
“That’s what people come back for,” says Eldredge. “My amaretto sour is far and away my most popular cocktail in here. We joke and say it pays the bills, but it really does.” The much-maligned amaretto sour is all too often what Eldredge rightfully describes as “just amaretto and sour mix, which is heinous. It’s just grosser than hell.” It’s the stuff of bad wedding open bars and your great aunt from New Jersey. In Eldredge’s hands, the drink is a revelation.
“It’s like I just showed them electricity or fire for the first time,” says Eldredge of patrons when they taste her versions of notorious drinks like amaretto and whiskey sours. “I can’t take credit for it because I did not invent the whiskey sour,” she says.
Eldredge situates herself squarely in a tradition of renowned, classically trained bartenders and she has the chops to back it up. Her sister Amy Eldredge, whom Tiffany calls “a very gifted bartender,” apprenticed with the late Sasha Petraske, craft cocktail pioneer and owner of famed New York City bars like Milk & Honey, Little Branch, and Dutch Kills. When the folks at Vero Amore decided to open a cocktail bar, it only made sense to send Tiffany to train with her sister.
“She made me do these really intense drills. It was Karate Kid type stuff,” says Tiffany of her time studying with Amy. “She’d make me hold bottles and pour to build up my arm strength and muscle memory. After two days I couldn’t even lift my arms up to wash my hair.” The in-person instruction with her sister came after months of what Tiffany calls “nose in books” studying.
“She basically said if you’re going to be my lineage … you need to be as good as I am,” recalls Tiffany. While Tiffany’s legacy in bartending is quite literally familial, she also strives to uphold her pedigree working in the tradition of Petraske. She explains that by training with her sister who had trained with him, “essentially, I’m taking Sasha’s name, so I can’t mess up his reputation.”
Tiffany traces her initial love of craft cocktails back to Amy, who would call to report, “This is the craziest thing. We’re making our own ice … we have these huge ice cubes and we cut them ourselves,” Eldredge says. The idea of using a pick to chisel off exactly the right size and shape ice for each drink was foreign to Eldredge, and opened her eyes to a different way of making cocktails. As a result, she says, “I got really excited about these kinds of drinks really early on.”
The types of drinks that Eldredge makes at The Still are a product of Petraske’s “branch system,” a series of precise ratios and techniques for crafting balanced, consistent, and delicious cocktails. “It’s a very strict style of bartending,” says Eldredge. Made up of 14 branches—sours, nontraditional sours, martinis, and bucks (drinks with ginger beer on top), for example—the branches are divided by how the drink is made—say, shaken or stirred—and the measurements used to make it. Eldredge compares it to a “mental flow chart.”
Her ability to play within the structure of the branch system informs how she develops cocktail recipes for The Still’s menu, which changes every two weeks. When Eldredge builds a new cocktail, it starts with a single ingredient. “Every time that I start my new cocktail menu, I basically just pick ingredients that I like and then I plug them into these branches to see which ratio and which style fits best. I know off the top of my head that some of the branches are super boozy—kind of a more stiff drink—and some of the branches are more citrusy, sweet, or floral. I can think of a flavor profile and a style that I want and then I’ll just plug it into these branches and see which one works best.” When she makes new drinks she rearranges flavors, incorporating seasonal ingredients around set ratios. The branch system allows for plenty of creativity, but doesn’t leave a lot of room for error.
Eldredge knows the sound the ice makes when it shatters and how it feels in her hand, even through the tin.
“It’s very meticulous,” she admits. “It’s for a very pedantic type of person.” She likens what she does to baking rather than cooking. “If you were making a cake, you wouldn’t freehand anything because it’s going to taste terrible,” she says. “There’s a precise amount of ice I have to use, a precise amount of time I have to shake it for, a precise amount of stirs, so that I can get it as cold as I need it and get as much water dilution in it as I want.”
This results in popular drinks like The Old Money, an old-fashioned variation that features walnut bitters and an allspice rinse, named for the fact that it tastes like it ought to be sipped in a study on an estate, while wearing a jacket and smoking a pipe.
She manipulates a series of ratios, to be sure, but it’s the human on the other side of the weighted Japanese cocktail tin that ultimately makes the drink successful. “I don’t count how many times I stir. It’s really a matter of senses, listening for it and watching it,” she says. Eldredge knows the sound the ice makes when it shatters and how it feels in her hand, even through the tin. This attention results in a cocktail that is as balanced and as good as it could be, every single time.
Eldredge loves “introducing people to this kind of drinking that’s not a race to get drunk, essentially. It’s not a vodka soda that is thrown together and thrown back.” She’s proud of the number of folks who come into the bar cursing gin because it tastes like pine trees—a surprisingly common complaint—who she then converts to full-on gin drinkers with cocktails like her gimlet variation, which features gin, fresh cucumbers, and cracked black pepper. The novelty of how enamored customers are when she cracks an egg into a drink, thwacks her ice bag with a mallet “caveman style,” or brings out a traditional absinthe fountain still hasn’t worn off for Eldredge.
Eldredge says it’s her commitment to these classic techniques and ingredients that helps define The Still as a speakeasy—that, and the fact that the bar is hidden. “I think people think it’s a lot harder to get in than it is,” she says, addressing the misconception that The Still is trying to be snobby or exclusive. There’s no dress code and she’ll make customers whatever drink they want, as long as she has the ingredients.
Although she confesses to “cheating” by using an electric juicer to juice things like carrots and celery for her cocktails, “for the most part we stay pretty close to the old school styles of bartending,” she says, which means things like no foams, no infusions, and no blenders. “It’s basically just presenting cocktails the way they were originally meant to be.”
The Still is open Friday and Saturday nights by reservation. For directions and to make a reservation, text 520.909.6299. ✜
Vero Amore. 2920 N. Swan Road. 520.325.4122. VeroAmorePizza.com.
Autumn Giles is a freelance writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in Modern Farmer and Punch. Her first book, Beyond Canning: New Techniques, Ingredients, and Flavors to Preserve, Pickle, and Ferment Like Never Before, will be out in February.