By Christina-Lauren Pollack | Photos by Manny Espinoza

Upon entering Montrio Bistro, a popular restaurant and bar in Monterey, California that gives off a swanky, urban vibe, one of the first things to capture your attention is the man behind the bar. Wearing a custom-designed, hand-crafted leather apron (inspired by the television show, Forged in Fire), mixologist Anthony Vitacca, sets the stage for a captivating presentation that combines cocktail craftsmanship with an acute attention to detail.

After getting an undergraduate degree in law, Vitacca planned to go on to law school, eventually. In search of a “good time” after college, Vitacca traveled the globe, ending up in Japan for a 3-month stint which led to his early experiences in the F&B industry, working his way up from a bouncer to a bartender. After this excursion, he headed back to the USA, stopping in Hawaii for a few months, which ultimately changed the direction of his life. While he planned to go back to Japan, he unexpectedly met a woman (who he fell in love with and went on to marry). After spending several years in Hawaii together, the couple decided it was time for a change. They sold-off all their belongings, packed their bags, and decided to move to Monterey in 2002.

One day, while walking around historic old Monterey, Vitacca came across a sophisticated restaurant that instantly drew him in. After speaking with the former GM, he started working at Montrio Bistro as a bartender. Fast-forward 14 years, and Vitacca has become known locally as one of the master mixologists (or “SpiritSmith”, as his business card reads) in the area. To celebrate the restaurant’s 15th Anniversary, he was given the creative freedom to completely re-envision the drink menu, coming up with a variety of uniquely flavorful drinks.

Vitacca calls the drinks on his menu “eclectic, esoteric, original, and good-tasting.” He says that the “signature cocktail at Montrio Bistro is Saving Private Ryan, which includes brown butter-infused bourbon, walnut liqueur, chicory pecan bitters, and house smoked ice.” While this cocktail is “complex and intimidating to make,” its unique flavors make it ideal for “pairing with a heavy dish, such as short ribs or steak, or enjoyed by itself. “

Since he often finds inspiration in the kitchen, he worked with the restaurant’s executive chef, Tony Baker, to create smoked ice (which includes a laborious process of using a block of distilled water in a tray, put into a smoker, and drained by way of a hose, so that the smoke gets absorbed into the ice), imparting an earthy, smoky aroma into the drink. He also infuses the bourbon with browned butter (a process called “fat-washing”) to add a nutty richness.

In addition to Saving Private Ryan, he’s also conjured up a variety of drinks that would satiate any patron. “Since a ‘cocktailian’ appreciates a unique, diverse list of cocktails, I had to create an array of traditional inspired cocktails with unique drinks, to satisfy a diverse audience.”  For these reasons, they offer drinks named  “Cool Runnings, the Mexican Manhattan, and the “Blushing Lady”, to name a few.

With the passion to raise the bar and make Montrio Bistro the place to come for cocktails in Monterey, Vitacca takes the word ‘mixologist’ to a whole new level. His craftsman-like approach to creating a cocktail and the way he wields his arsenal of bartending tools, explains why he’s called the SpiritSmith.

I admit I’m a “tool whore”, as I love mixing glasses, shakers, etc. To be a really good bartender, it comes down to detail

Signature drink of the moment? 

Saving Private Ryan.

Fave current cocktail trend?

Batch cocktails (which are pre-made, ready-to-go drinks) is a great current trend, as it’s quicker, more efficient, and provides more consistency. I also like bitters, as they’re like adding salt & pepper to a dish.

Biggest bar behavior pet peeve?

When my “SpiritSmith” apron is on, I want guests to relax, knowing they are in good hands. I admit I’m a ‘tool whore,” as I love mixing glasses, shakers, etc. To be a really good bartender, it comes down to details.

Fave atypical ingredient?

I used to make a drink with beet juice, but took it off the menu as it was so labor intensive to make (roasting and skinning the beats and then juicing). But the flavor it imparts is delicious, as it gives off a vegetal, earthy, semi-sweet flavor. That’s why guests still come into the bar asking for that drink.

Preferred home cocktail?

A Manhattan is the ultimate, classic cocktail that I always find inspiration from, as it’s based on 3 simple, but effective, ingredients.

Best advice to give to an up-and-coming bartender?

Have fun. This is my career, so I’m very involved in this bar, and have become well-known here. My desire is to make Montrio a cocktail destination for people coming from all over. That’s why it’s important to have fun.

Best tip for a cocktail connoisseur?

Experiment. Don’t complicate it. Keep it simple. Don’t be afraid to try new ingredients.

Favorite cocktail-centric movie?

Casablanca. >

More at montrio.com

“Experiment. Don’t complicate it. Keep it simple.” – Anthony Vitacca