Shea Cooper of Coppa Talks Barrel-Aged Cocktails and Dramaturgy

Coppa Italian Ristorante had very large shoes to fill when it opened in the old Catalan space. From its dramatic yet understated decor to Chef Brandi Key's fresh take on familiar Italian classics, Coppa seems to be forging its own way in the world quite nicely. I stopped in early on a Sunday afternoon to talk with Shea Cooper behind the bar.

The first thing that caught my eye was a set of three oak barrels sitting on the bar top. On Shea's recommendation, I chose the Hudson Whiskey-based "Catcher in the Rye" cocktail.

Drink in hand, we got down to business.

So tell us more about these barrels sitting in front of us on the bar

This larger one is our barrel-aged spiced Negroni. The Negroni is a really traditional Italian cocktail using Campari, gin and vermouth. Here we are using Tru organic gin, Campari and red vermouth, as well as baked apple bitters and black walnut bitters, which is all then aged in our oak barrels. So you get all these great flavors going on with a twist aged on the oak.

Next is our Sidecar with a twist. It's called the Tennessee Williams. It was originally called the "Sidecar named Desire," but that's just a little too cheesy. It uses Grey Goose Cherry Noir and Leopold Brothers maraschino, which adds this really distinct sour cherry flavor.

Last is our Catcher in the Rye, which is a Hudson Manhattan rye, Marolo Barolo grappa and Bittermens amère nouvelle. It's has all these bold notes that have been softened and blended by the barrel.

So, Coppa is relatively new; how long have you been bartending? Just three weeks, actually. I was waiting tables before and bartending was something I wanted to do, so when the opportunity arose, I jumped at it.

Coppa [along with its sister restaurants Ibiza and Brasserie 19] has a reputation for server nicknames appearing on checks, such as Porkchop or Cougar Bait. What's yours?

I have a background in theater, so mine is "I'm an Artist." Sometimes they will call me Artist or Artichoke.

What exactly do you do as far as theater goes?

My major is history and my minor is in theater. I do freelance dramaturgy. Dramaturgy is a field in theater which is really new, especially in the U.S. So when I work on a show, I look at it as being the playwright's representative, because they are never there. Oftentimes they are dead, so I've got their back. So, I'm an expert on the script. I am a resource for the director, actors and technicians if they have questions about the script. Also, I do outreach so after a show if you ever see talkback, it's usually facilitated by a dramaturge.

Being new to Houston, what's your favorite place you have found so far?

Al's Quick Stop at Waugh and Welch. They have breakfast tacos all day long and I live right next door.

Have any horror stories from your first few weeks behind the bar?

Well, no one had showed me how to use one of these [Cooper displays a speed blade opener] and I was opening a Stella -- the wrong way -- and the whole neck snapped off and I cut myself really badly. That was three weeks ago and it's just now healed.

Swing in and grab a drink from Shea and be sure to check out one of their barrel-aged cocktails. While you are at it, order a plate of the killer Fritto Misto from the kitchen and thank me later.

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Joshua Justice
Contact: Joshua Justice