The Art of Craft Cocktails

By Beacon Staff

nwitting patrons who order a cocktail from Crush Lounge’s head mixologist Dillon James might think they’ve wandered into an apothecary rather than a bar.

He’s not your average local drink slinger, and while $2 PBRs and shots of Fireball are always on hand (and perfectly acceptable requests), James’ preferred bill of fare features his own inspired spread of craft cocktails — complex elixirs that bring to bear sterling spirits, esoteric, house-made ingredients, and even a history lesson.

James subscribes to the classic cocktail model of mixology, a throwback to the elaborately constructed drinks that characterized the teetotaling period of American history from 1919 to 1933, and a formula that became diluted following the end of Prohibition.

“That’s when a lot of the cocktail world got lost,” said James, sporting a Pancho Villa mustache and wearing the fedora and black vest of a speakeasy barkeep.

But a resurgence in quality drinks has emerged in recent years and cocktail culture is thriving in major metro areas, due in part to a passionate contingent of bartenders and mixologists who understand when certain drinks should be shaken or stirred (James Bond got it wrong with the martini) and whose palates can detect a difference in acidity when lime juice is fresh-pressed or hours-old.

The revival hasn’t eluded Whitefish, where James has designed cocktail menus for the Lodge at Whitefish Lake and Café Kandahar’s Snug Bar, where he previously worked, and most recently for Crush Lounge, where he employs the technique of “Barchitecture: The art or practice of designing and constructing beautifully balanced cocktails.”

“The menu has gotten a great response,” he said. “I’ve been able to make the drinks a lot more complex and aggressive and take the time to explain those complexities to our customers.”

The ingredients on James’ hand-styled menu are creative and daring, and his tireless work ethic regarding cocktail research is evident as he builds classic drinks with a twist. His repertoire includes drinks like the Future Fashioned, an adaptation of the Old Fashioned containing Neversweat Bourbon, house-made dark cherry syrup, house-made aromatic bitters and soda; and the Zombeet, with its house-infused ginger vodka, fresh-squeezed apple and beet juice, and ginger simple syrup.

He makes his own bitters, a process that requires three months, as well as all of the menu’s syrups and infused liquors, using fresh ingredients and, in the bitters, full-grain alcohol. James is currently creating the “Man Bitters,” a formula that includes leather, tobacco and peppercorn — “really earthy flavors,” he said.

In his bitters, which are essentially bitter and aromatic herbs and spices infused or tinctured in spirits, James uses Everclear to preserve the fresh ingredients, like orange peel.

“I use fresh ingredients so you have much more brightness of flavor,” he said.

His favorite cocktail is called the Bar None, “because,” he said, “it is bar none the best cocktail I’ve ever created.”

The Bar None has Corbel brandy, Grand Marnier, Fernet Branca, house-made citrus bitters, burnt orange, sugar cube and soda.

Part of the appeal of James’ cocktails is the presentation, and the vibrant aesthetic of the syrups and infusions refracting off the colossal ice cubes is enhanced when he flames a spritz of orange peel over the glass, sending a tiny fireball into the dimly lit romantic space at Crush.

A cocktail made with vodka, Midori, lemon and pineapple juice at Crush Lounge. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

“Presentation is a flavor. It really affects the way that you taste food and drink,” he said.

When James worked at the Snug Bar, which, true to its name, provides patrons with a small, cozy space but can’t accommodate more than 10 customers at a time, he built drinks like the Foie Gras-tini, a decadent drink that combines sweet and savory flavors, and worked with Executive Chef Andy Blanton to offer craft cocktail course pairings with the Kandahar menu.

At Crush, which will celebrate its one-year anniversary with a party and live music on March 1, James might have to contend with 150 customers on a given night, forcing him to strike a balance between complexity and efficiency.

To that end, he takes care to build infusions and syrups in advance to maximize the output without compromising the integrity of his signature drinks.

“It’s like a puzzle balancing high-class with high-volume,” he said. “Making nice drinks is a lot more difficult than throwing together sweet and sour mixers, so I do a lot of prep work to create syrups, bitters and juices that utilize more complex flavors.”

He’s even writing a book about mixology that will include recipes featuring fresh juices and ingredients, house made syrups and infused liquors, and bartending advice that he hopes will help continue to revive the craft cocktail movement.

His passion for cocktails and his creativity has been encouraged by Crush owner Megan Grunow, who gave James carte blanche freedom to design the cocktail menu, which is available online at

“Megan’s been very supportive in allowing me to display my art in here,” he said. “I love making good drinks. I prefer that over making whiskey cokes any day.”

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