Award-winning mixologist Jonathan Miller Martin at The Phoenician, a Luxury Collection Resort. (Photo: Grace Stufkosky)


Mixologist Jonathan Miller on Cocktails, Competition and Ice as an Artisanal Element

Have you ever really paid attention to the ice cubes floating in your high-end cocktail? You can guarantee that Jonathan Martin Miller has. Nothing drink-related gets by this top-tier mixologist and his keen eye for detail.

Miller currently works as lead bartender in the banquet department at The Phoenician, a Luxury Collection Resort, Scottsdale in Arizona, though he’s been gathering cocktail inspiration since he started bartending after graduating college in Santa Cruz, California.

Miller’s resume is a checklist of trendy cities and hot spots with stops in Las Vegas, Miami and Hollywood (at the A-lister hot spot Warwick). “Every time I was leveling off in learning or experience, I always wanted something new,” says Miller, who also just completed the Sommelier Level 1 certification to expand his wine expertise.

Prior to his work at The Phoenician, Miller landed a choice job and the keys to the kingdom, or at least the bar program, at the award-winning James Republic restaurant at Courtyard by Marriott Long Beach Downtown in Long Beach, California.

“My manager gave me carte blanche access to be creative. We were doing a rotating drink menu, farm-to-shaker drinks, classics, infusions — all really cool stuff. I got to play and express myself and basically notice how creative I can be,” says Miller about his work with famed chef Dean James Max.

(Photos: Grace Stufkosky)

Miller had the opportunity to showcase these skills when he represented The Phoenician at Marriott International’s 2018 Masters of the Craft competition and took home the top prize.

The annual food and beverage event invites more than 2,200 chefs and bartenders from 280 Marriott International properties around the world to pit their talents against one another in challenges incorporating local specialities and surprise ingredients.

One of the best parts of competing, according to Miller? Checking out the competition’s impressive bar studio.

“It had every element you can ever combine for a cocktail — probably 150 different bitters, the most elegant glassware and then this vault of the most ridiculous alcohol and liqueurs, all meticulously organized. It was like I had died and gone to heaven!” laughs Miller.

Miller sat down with Marriott Bonvoy Traveler to talk cocktails, competition and, yes, even how the simple ice cube can make or break the perfect drink.

[Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.]

(Photo: Grace Stufkosky)

The cocktail that brought you through the first few rounds of Masters of the Craft is like a love song to Phoenix. Tell us about it.

The first rounds were recipe-driven, so I started brainstorming, researching and developing. I came up with the History of Phoenix, which has a play on words, “his story of Phoenix.” For me, it was about starting over in this new place. The recipe highlights locality and showcases something local based on the 5 Cs [copper, cattle, cotton, citrus and climate], the things that inspired people to move to Arizona when it first became a state.

I made a Spiced Peaches and Cream Margarita … The local ingredients were peaches and prickly pear syrup that I froze into bright-pink ice cubes. I highlighted climate because it was a sour drink and something refreshing to drink in the sun. I covered the other Cs with fresh lime juice [citrus], extra-heavy cream and some beef jerky on the rim [cattle], and cotton candy garnish [cotton].

I served it in a copper tumbler because copper is a great conductor for keeping drinks cool. I must have made the drink 100 times to find the right balance. It was hard to dial it in so that everything was perfectly balanced.

(Photo: Grace Stufkosky)

Your winning cocktail — the Miami to LA — had to incorporate a secret ingredient: the pineapple tomatillo. Is this something you’ve worked with before?

I had never even heard of a pineapple tomatillo, so it really was a good secret ingredient! I wanted to do something tropical, and I called it Miami to LA because Miami is really where I started thinking about myself as a mixologist.

I started with a dark, aged Dominican rum called Diplomatico. I pick spirits that are going to shine through and add something to the drink instead of hide behind the scenes. I made a fresh banana cream by blending fresh bananas, coconut, coconut milk and cream for a subtle tropical flavor. I added fresh pineapple juice and lime juice for acid.

I saw in my flavor bible that saffron is one of the flavors that pairs well with pineapple, so I made saffron-infused orgeat, which is basically an almond cordial.

Then there’s the pineapple tomatillo. It looks like a yellow grape but has a husk like a tomatillo. The taste is like a very mild tomato meets the end of a piña colada when it’s diluted, light and sweet.

To put my signature on the drink, I included my favorite liqueur, Chartreuse, an herbal liqueur that is kind of an acquired taste. I floated it on top, kind of like you would dark rum in a mai tai, and it added a nice color contrast and a nice aroma.

I knew I was doing OK when the host and emcee took a sip of my drink and said, “Oh my god. I’m going to drink this whole thing. I’m going to need another one.”

(Photos: Grace Stufkosky)

What’s most important to you when crafting the perfect cocktail?

One of the things that I really pay attention to is the ice. At a lot of places, the most creative they will get is a big cube or a big sphere in an old-fashioned or high-priced whiskey.

For me, the ice can change the direction of the drink. It can change the color or give the drink more flavor. It becomes an artisanal element. If the drink is super flavorful, you can use crushed ice because it’s going to melt quicker and subdue the flavor.

Whereas if it’s a real subtle drink, you probably want to have it over one big cube because it can chill the drink so you can enjoy it for longer without it changing the taste.

What trends in cocktails are you most interested in right now?

I’m big into playing with healthy drinks. I do keto spurts where I reduce my sugar down to next to nothing, so I try to make cocktails that are very conscious of sweeteners, calories and carbs.

I have a database on my computer with all of the ingredients that I would ever use in a cocktail and their nutritional profile. The same level of examining food and nutritional contents is not really paid toward the drinks or cocktails or ingredients.

Every once in a while, I post something on Instagram that provides the nutritional content, some instructions for how to do this yourself, and suggestions for how you might possibly order the drink in a bar with bartender lingo.