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  • Writer's pictureJarnard Sutton

Behind the Stick with Jeff MacKay of Monkey King

Jeff MacKay got his start in Las Vegas in the '90s and hasn't stopped crafting cocktails since. On this edition of Behind the Stick, we talked with MacKay about his start in the industry and how it has changed over the 18 years. He also shows us how to make Monkey King's spicy, citrusy cocktail called The Ring of Fire.

Ring of Fire


1 oz Ketel One

1 oz Effen cucumber

1 oz Lemon juice

1 oz Simple syrup

.5 oz Lime juice

.5 oz Agave

Muddled cucumber and jalapeno

Served over ice with a tajin rim

What's the story behind the Ring of Fire?

Most jalapeno drinks are made with tequila. I wanted to create a fresh and spicy cocktail with vodka since it's definitely the most popular spirit. The name Ring of Fire is pertaining to a string of volcanoes in the basin of the Pacific ocean. Since the cocktail is spicy and highlighted with the red, tajin rim, the name seemed to fit perfectly. Thanks to Matt Compton!

Describe the taste.

It's the perfect balance of fresh citrus and spice which disguises the strength of the vodka.

What's the key component of this drink?

The key to this drink is the proportion of the ingredients. There needed to be the perfect balance of the lemon, lime, simple and agave.

What flavors does the Ketel One and Effen Cucumber bring to the drink?

I originally created the drink with just Ketel One. Another bartender mentioned that it tasted even better when they tried it with half Effen Cucumber. At first I thought that it would overpower the drink but once I tried it, I was totally wrong. It tasted amazing!

What reactions do you get from customers when they try this cocktail for the first time?

This is definitely one of my favorite parts! I love watching them take the first sip because it's always followed by wide open eyes and raising eyebrows. It assures me that they'll be ordering a second one!

If you had to pair this cocktail with a dish, what would you pair it with?

No doubt the hoisin BBQ ribs!

Watch Jeff MacKay craft up his refreshing, spicy libation called Ring of Fire.

What kind of experience can guests get at Monkey King?

The atmosphere itself is just amazing! It's the perfect balance of greenery, LED lighting and incredible music that pulls it all together. You can expect to be welcomed with warm smiles by each staff member within your presence. Chef Nick Urbanske created an awesome modern Chinese menu which forced me to create amazing cocktails to match. The overall positive vibe within our venue definitely enables us to stand out within the Gaslamp Quarter!

About Jeff MacKay

Are you from San Diego?

Yes. I was born and raised in Spring Valley and graduated from Monte Vista High.

How has your journey been leading up to your role at Monkey King?

The journey has been incredible! When I first moved to Vegas, I would have never imagined becoming a bartender and being lucky enough to sustain 12 years at the Ghostbar. I still look back in disbelief at the type of lifestyle I was fortunate to experience. When moving back to SD I was ready to take it down a few notches and really had no intentions of working in the Gaslamp Quarter. But when Matt Compton (Monkey King GM) got a hold of me, I came in right away to see him. Matt and I worked together at Ghostbar in the early 2000's and I have incredible respect for him! As soon as I walked in and saw the bar and the atmosphere, I immediately wanted the job! I absolutely love this place!

What's your favorite cocktail on the menu?

Besides the Ring Of Fire of course, I really love the Jade Mule. It's made with a great Kombucha that is grown and bottled here in San Diego by a highly respected chef. When I first tried a sample of the Kombucha, I immediately knew I could create a great cocktail with it.

Define the perfect cocktail.

The perfect cocktail is when the taste and presentation come together perfectly. From the first sip a guest should recognize and appreciate the pride and joy that was put into making it

What are some cocktail trends you are noticing in San Diego?

I'm so amazed by the innovations that bartenders and mixologists are creating with cocktails in San Diego! I love the concept of infusing spirits and syrups in order to create individual tastes that are unique to their venue. But I still keep the old school classics close to heart.

How different is the cocktail scene here in San Diego compared to Las Vegas?

I definitely think bartenders in San Diego tend to take more pride in their craft. Customers in Vegas are so distracted by everything else that making drinks becomes repetitious and the primary focus is just slinging them out as fast as possible.

What's your favorite drink to make behind the bar?

For whatever reason, I still love making the Mai Tai I put on our menu. There's just something about the way the colors transition in the layers that make it so much fun for me to make.

What's your favorite spirit?

Chilled Ketel One Oranje

What should everyone stock in their home bar?

Mixing tins, stir spoon, muddler and a strainer with a sign that reads Dare To Create! What do you do in your spare time when you're not creating cocktails?

I fish and golf as much as possible. When you constantly work in a fast paced environment it's extremely important to be outdoors in a relaxing atmosphere to balance everything out.

What's next for you?

I was in the process of opening my own venue but I really love the concept of Monkey King and want to stay committed to it's success throughout the busy season. I'll reevaluate at that time but am very curious to see how far we can take our brand.

Monkey King

467 Fifth Ave., downtown San Diego. (619) 359-8897 or

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