Posted on | September 1, 2011
Written by | Alia Akkam
Typically, chefs can be found where they feel most at home: in the kitchen. Yet with the advent of the Food Network, it seems they’ve managed to find as much time to stand in front of the camera as behind the stove. As a flood of cookbooks and coveted restaurant reservations reveal, we are still in the throes of the celebrity chef era. And, in recent years, it seems this golden touch has rubbed off on bartenders, too.
Behind the bar will always be a barkeep’s favorite perch, but as Tales of the Cocktail revealed this year, bartenders are fast becoming revered for their dynamic personalities as much as for the innovative libations they are dreaming up.
For the past seven years, The Beverage Network Publications have acknowledged the exciting future of bartending by naming 10 Mixologists to Watch. Once again, for this year’s roster we turned to the extremely talented pool of Tales of the Cocktail apprentices—those dedicated guys and gals who after a night of partying manage to be up at 7 a.m., focused and ready to juice lemons. Whittling down this group to only 10 is quite a task, but we are confident the folks you’ll meet on the following pages—photographed at The Roosevelt Hotel’s elegant Sazerac Bar—are going to take the industry by storm.
While they chat about their passion for the craft, putting in hours with their respective United States Bartenders’ Guild chapters and finding synergy with chefs in the kitchen, this crew understands a bar’s greatest asset: the true meaning of hospitality.
1 David Delaney Jr.
While figuring out what to do with his degree in Computer Information Systems, a decade ago David Delaney, Jr. became a barback. But soon, it became clear making cocktails was in the cards—not technology. “I’ve always needed an outlet for creativity, and the bar became my blank canvas,” he reveals.
Delaney, Jr. has worked for Worcester, MA-based Niche Hospitality Group for six years, helping open a number of different restaurant concepts. Now the BarSmarts alum and USBG Boston member is busy at the group’s wine, cheese and chocolate bar, The Citizen, and full-fledged cocktail lair, Still & Stir. Here, Delaney makes his own rhubarb bitters; ages mezcal/Green Chartreuse/sweet vermouth cocktails in new Kentucky bluegrass barrels; and deconstructs falernum smoke.
Despite his innovative streak, Delaney Jr. is a stickler for hospitality. “Never underestimate the value of a smile or a quick nod. Customers need to know that they have been noticed and that their bartender will be over to help them as soon as possible,” he explains. “Making drinks comes second at my bar; making sure the customer has an overall experience like no other truly needs to be first. I try my absolute hardest to not say ‘no’ at my bar. We serve a lot of rare and unique spirits, most of which people have not heard of, so when I’m approached and asked for a specific brand that I don’t carry, it is imperative that I say ‘I’m sorry I don’t carry brand A, but if you like that, then you have to try brand B.’ Get the customer excited to try something new; gain their trust and they’ll be doing shots of Rittenhouse before you know it.”
2 Maggie Meskey
Maggie Meskey loves Skinos, the Greek liqueur made from resin found on native Mastic trees. “Skinos doesn’t taste like anything else—it’s slightly sweet, earthy, piney and woody. The first time I smelled it I was instantly reminded of waking up on a warm, dewy morning after camping on a soft forest floor,” she reflects. For Meskey, who works behind the small cocktail bar (“virtually no storage space whatsoever”) at Salt of the Earth in Pittsburgh, PA, Skinos is just one offbeat ingredient she likes tinkering with in her cocktails. Vinegar is another, translating to shrub concoctions in flavors of red berry and lavender-peach. “My approach to creating cocktails is strongly influenced by what is going on in the kitchen. We have access to some of the best produce and ingredients, and there is a lot of dialogue between me and Kevin Sousa, the chef and owner.”
Currently, Meskey is most excited about the recent launch of the United States Bartenders’ Guild Pittsburgh chapter, something she and fellow bartenders have longed for: “That is a big indicator of the city’s evolution, and we are all overjoyed to be welcomed to the Guild. In the past year, Pittsburgh has had some great new chef-owned restaurants open, and they are all showing a focus on creative cocktails.”
Because of Salt of the Earth’s diminutively-sized bar (“we only carry one vodka—Boyd & Blair—which is an award-winning and locally produced potato vodka”) sometimes customers are chagrined to learn their favorite bottle is not in stock. “A lot of people are used to ordering the same thing when they go out, and if we don’t have exactly what they want it can be a challenge to get them to try something new,” Meskey shares. “However, I’m passionate about what I do, and am always confident that I can make them something they’ll like. I want people to think about what they are drinking, and why they are drinking. It’s fun to tell them the stories behind some of the spirits and how much thought we put into creating these original cocktails.”
3 Michael Saccone
Michael Saccone is lucky; he gets to work for Todd Thrasher, one of the country’s most prominent bartenders who completely revolutionized the Alexandria, VA, drinking scene with his cocktail programs at Eat Good Food Group establishments such as Restaurant Eve, PX and the Majestic. Saccone started his career at the casual Majestic, and is now in the midst of a decidedly different experience, working under Thrasher’s guidance at the new Virtue Feed & Grain, where beer-infused cocktails strike a chord with guests.
“Working for Todd has been a great experience; he has high expectations and will push you on a daily basis to be better,” Saccone reflects. “It is nice being able to bounce ideas off of him, and he is always open to letting you try something new and different—but he will also be the first one to tell you how bad it is if it doesn’t turn out well.”
Saccone’s inventive predilections have paid off. Earlier this year, he snagged Best Presentation Award in Macchu Pisco’s D.C. competition for the “Centennial Macchu Pisco Sour” with the “Punjabi Sour,” his Indian-inspired concoction made with carrot juice and housemade garam masala-coconut syrup. “I find that with pisco, people either love it or have no idea what it is, so I love using a Pisco Sour as a way to introduce them,” he points out.
4 Fable Thomas Jeon
After film school, Fable Jeon started tending bar as a means to support himself while “struggling to make headway as a professional photographer. My binding obsessions with precision and detail, hard-earned and hard-won sentiment and storied narratives made me focus sharply on the unsung barkeep. I just gravitated to the heritage and lore of the craft. Standing behind that stick cuts the romantic against my working class roots to where it just fits.”
Atlanta-based Jeon may be best known for The Last Scofflaw, what he deems “a transient experiment” in cocktail parties. In the past he had dreamed up various concepts for a number of private drinking socials, but “having thrown some considerable off-the-grid cocktail functions in Atlanta, these Scofflaw parties were a different way of wearing an old hat. We delivered ambitious, elevated cocktails within the scope of very specific environments,” he explains. One of The Last Scofflaw events this spring even attracted Dale DeGroff.
Now, Jeon has formed Gentlemen of Spirit with fellow bartender Eric Simpkins. “Events and consulting are central focuses moving forward. There are some early discussions about contributing to a column for a local publication, which could be a really enjoyable enterprise. I’m keeping the crowd in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward from going thirsty on Friday and Saturday nights, with slow-paced cocktails and conversations during the week,” Jeon says. “I’m revisiting the fundamentals of what makes a sip from your tried and true bar so much better than any other swig from anywhere else. Crafting the perfect cocktail, while perhaps structured in technique, is contained by more than just the glass.”
5 Logan Lavachek
Graduating with a finance degree in the midst of an economic meltdown propelled Logan Lavachek to make a career change. She’s worked in bars ever since she was an 18-year-old food runner, so Lavachek’s next steps were clear: “Behind the bar is cramped, but nowhere near as cramped as an office cubicle.”
Lavachek, who most recently did double duty tending bar at two disparate Chicago hotspots, the restaurant Sepia and the clubby Double A, can now be found at the flashy ROOF, atop The Wit hotel, where the classic martini, thanks to her dad’s love of Tanqueray, remains her favorite drink. “I’m a better bartender because I worked at two completely different places simultaneously,” she shares. “I found myself using ideas I’d come up with at one bar for the other the next week, or finding customers would follow me to either place to see what I was doing that night.”
As a former bartender enrichment brand educator for Cointreau throughout Chicago, Lavachek has a particularly keen perspective on the industry. “While a bartender should always keep their customer in mind, this job required me to really think about my customer’s customer,” she explains. “What are these bars trying to accomplish and how can we help them do that? How can I share as much information as possible about the brands they support to give them the tools they need to make sure everyone who leaves that bar absolutely loved their cocktail experience?”
All this insight has helped Lavachek accelerate her own evolution as a bartender: “First you do everything the hard way, each drink is its own challenge—until you realize you don’t have to re-invent the wheel for every customer; that’s when the fun part comes in.”
6 Justin Lane Briggs
Brooklyn, New York
Applewood opened on a sleepy residential block of Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood back in 2004. At the time, Chef David Shea’s farm-to-table approach to cooking was quite progressive. When Justin Lane Briggs was hired, he realized while a solid bar program was in place, it didn’t engage “with the restaurant’s concept the way it really could.”
Briggs’ first move “upon grabbing the reigns was to ensure that everything we poured, from wine to beer to spirits, was small-batch, local or sustainable—more in keeping with the restaurant’s goals. My second was to develop a bar program that kept pace with the kitchen. The menu changes so frequently because local agriculture can change from week to week; from day to day, in fact. We often don’t even know what ingredients will arrive until a few hours before service. When all I have is roots in the winter, what do I do with, say, turnips? A caramelized turnip-madeira reduction, paired with agave nectar and Tequila, makes for an earthy, vegetal agave take on the Old-Fashioned.”
And so infusions were introduced, along with homemade syrups and bitters (like the notorious smoked salmon variety) to “float in and out of traditional and original recipes the same way ingredients were traded between fish, salad, grill and pastry in Applewood’s mightily creative kitchen.”
The parings, then, are inevitably natural: “The same hands grew the rosemary in my cocktail that grew the tarragon on tonight’s lobster dish.”
7 Mike Henderson
Undoubtedly, Denver’s a beer city, but since 2007, when the Colorado chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild was first formed, the cocktail scene has made great strides. “We’ve got a group of about 20-30 professional bartenders all working very hard to put Denver on the cocktail map,” assures the Guild’s president, Mike Henderson, who can be found behind the stick at Root Down. “We have places like Steuben’s, The Bitter Bar and Colt & Gray all serving up ‘classically oriented cocktails’ and at the same time places like Linger, TAG, Chloe and Root Down serving up the more modern ‘market fresh cocktails.’ All in all, the cocktail movement has changed the face of bar programs across this city for the better and it’s still growing; I’m very proud of where we started and where we’ve gone.”
At Root Down, the growth of culinary cocktails is one of Henderson’s favorite trends. “When putting a new menu together the first person I go talk to is our chef to see what he’s going to be bringing in for the new season, what’s abundant, and affordable, and what he’s going to have extra of that I can utilize,” Henderson shares.
Henderson began his career in Madison, WI, when as doorman at a bar he was called in to help the short-staffed crew inside make drinks, eventually becoming a regional brand ambassador for St-Germain. His penchant, however, for education remains: “Within the trade it’s probably the single most important aspect to keeping our industry going.”
8 Katie Emmerson
New York, New York
When she first started working at Raines Law Room in New York City, Katie Emmerson was “an eager waitress who loved Manhattans” and customers weren’t thrilled at the thought of switching out their favorite cocktail for one more adventurous. “Two years ago it was nearly impossible for me to convince someone to try something new,” she recalls.
A lot has changed since then. For starters, Emmerson sees customers “starting to pay attention to what they are drinking, almost in a similar way to food.” She also now spends her time holding court at the bars of the esteemed Death & Co. and Lantern’s Keep, the intimate hideaway in the back of New York’s Iroquois Hotel. “Both have been incredible learning experiences. Death & Co. already has such a solid reputation so we are always pushing ourselves and each other to grow and make it even better,” she notes. “Splitting my time over at Lantern’s has been the perfect balance. There we have a space to grow as young bartenders and develop our own ideas under the wing of Meaghan Dorman, our mother hen.”
Guiding both Emmerson’s bartending jobs is her passion for classic cocktails. “There’s a reason these drinks have been around for so long and they’re always a good jumping-off point. Trying a new rum? See how it holds up in a Daiquiri and then go from there,” she says. The appeal of the classics is particularly strong at a hotel bar like Lantern’s Keep where Emmerson says “it can be a challenge to get people to try something outside of their comfort zone. However, that’s what makes it all the more rewarding when you can. People come in drinking vodka-tonics and leave drinking Old-Fashioneds and Negronis. It’s pretty spectacular.”
9 Ali Tahsini
San Francisco, California
Don’t misunderstand Ali Tahsini. He certainly has a lot of fun making cocktails at the renowned Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco, but the 13-year industry vet would also like “to see the bartender be put back behind the bar again.” As he explains, “With the cocktail renaissance we have witnessed over the years, I am seeing people enter the bartending game with a focus on cocktails at the expense of focusing on their guests. A bar should be a place where one can enter and celebrate, leave their worries behind and ultimately have a great time, and the bartender is the facilitator of this experience.”
Along with his affinity for a proper dose of hospitality, Tahsini, as you would expect of any Bourbon & Branch barkeep, is devoted to the craft of the cocktail. Right now, for example, he’s tinkering with ingredients such as tarragon, lavender and saffron in his creations. A predilection for the exotic is nothing new for Tahsini, who grew up surrounded by his family’s native Persian foods—dates, orange blossom water, pomegranate. Still, Tahsini has a reverence for classics such as the Old-Fashioned: “It’s simple yet dynamic, strong and straight to the point; it’s a cocktail with limitless class.”
10 Sean Thibodeaux
New Orleans, Louisiana
Sean Thibodeaux, like all good New Orleans bartenders, loves the Sazerac, the first craft cocktail he ever made. “As the most debated cocktail, everyone has an opinion and mine is that it’s easy to learn but difficult to master. It began with ingredients that were only available in New Orleans and has pretty much kept its same form for at least 140 years,” notes the bartender at Loa, inside the International House Hotel. “When we find something we like down here we don’t mess with it. It’s a tradition and we honor that every time we make one. And by the way, I still toss my glass to rinse it.”
These classics, according to Thibodeaux, are the foundation of modern mixology. “As bartenders we’re all walking on the shoulders of giants. We look at what people were stirring and shaking 150 years ago and use it as a guideline,” he points out. That said, it doesn’t stop Thibodeaux from playing with Champagne–vinegar gastriques, acid phosphates and mineral salts, or writing recipes built around seasonal, local culinary pairings. For example, he makes a gazpacho-inspired version of the Daiquiri using watermelon, jalapeno and cucumber.
“When I’m bartending, it really is the smile on a guest’s face or turning someone’s day around that inspires me to keep on making drinks night in and night out,” he shares. “This is the hospitality industry, and everyone who walks in is my guest, and I am their host.”