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The Beverage Network’s 2013 10 Mixologists to Watch

Posted on  | August 31, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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text by Jack Robertiello | photography by Andrew Kist

One has a hankering to be a lounge singer; another contemplates life while tending 100,000 bees in her backyard; yet another thinks Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is a killer read. Another makes drinks after consulting with a voodoo priestess.

They are many different things, in other words, but the ten people profiled here in their own words are also great bartenders; in fact, they are Ten Mixologists to Watch, a national assortment of hard-working, fast-pouring drink shakers who, through diligence, inspiration and persistence, have managed to stand out in the crowded contemporary bar scene.

Drawn annually from the list of apprentices who recently did yeoman’s duty chopping ice, juicing fruit and dispatching other behind-the-scenes barback tasks in New Orleans during “Tales of the Cocktail,” these ten exemplify what modern bartending is about: combining basic skills and a deep knowledge of ingredients and drink history with a drive to hone service and the need create something new in the glass.

For the past nine years, The Beverage Network has acknowledged the future of bartending by selecting these Mixologists to Watch. Fittingly, we gathered this year’s coterie just prior to the happy chaos of Tales in the cocktail destination Cure, which is overseen by Neal Bodenheimer and is part of the group that also features Bellocq at the Hotel Modern and the just-launched rum mecca Cane & Table. Since opening in 2009, Cure has become known for its cultured setting, civilized “house rules” and carefully curated cocktails that showcase creativity while paying homage to the craft.


Time to brag: What makes you a good bartender?
I am 100% hospitality first. I take my craft seriously, and I can certainly make a delicious and well-balanced cocktail, but I know my guests come back to me because they have a great experience, not just a great drink.

What’s particularly interesting about the drinks in Boston?
The level of professionalism and care that goes in to the cocktails in Boston continues to blow my mind. The attitude across the board seems to be, if you are going to do something, do it well, and exceed expectations.  

What one thing would you change about bartending in the U.S. today?
It seems really easy to get caught up in the craft, the festivals, the media, and even the new found “idolization” of the bartender. I think it’s super important not to forget why we are all in this in the first place…the guest. I cannot stand sitting in a bar where the bartenders take themselves too seriously and make the guests feel stupid. Unfortunately I see it a lot.

When you work on crafting a new drink, what’s uppermost in your mind?
No matter what the spirit or flavor profile, balance is always the most important thing. Anyone can put booze in a glass and call it a drink, but the addition of balance is what elevates the drink to a proper “cocktail.”

Recent drink innovation that excites you the most?
I have always been a huge fan of Tiki drinks and culture, and I am so glad people aren’t scared to drink umbrella drinks when they aren’t on vacation.

If you weren’t tending bar, what would you be doing?
This started as a joke, but honestly I think I’d make one hell of a lounge singer. No, seriously…if anyone’s looking, let me know.


What makes you a good bartender?
I think I am an affable person, approachable. I like to make my guests feel at ease while they are sitting at my bar. So often in the cocktail setting, if a guest is not experienced, they can be intimidated. I like to take the pretension out. It’s just drinks. Awesome drinks, to be sure. But we’re not at a fine art museum.  

What one thing would you change about the bar business in the U.S. today?
Many bartenders work without health insurance.  I can’t count the number of benefits, Kickstarter campaigns and outright pleas for financial help I’ve seen from our fellow workers who have been injured on the job. It just isn’t right. Most bartenders don’t have sick time, vacation or insurance built into their employment as many other professions do.

When you work on crafting a new drink, what’s uppermost in your mind?
Foremost in my mind is balance. I’ve been known lately for creating “concept drinks,” wherein I take an idea and apply it to drink making. This can be a flavor idea, a cheeky name, what have you. But before the actual mixing comes in, I have an idea of where I want to end up.

Who do you most admire in the restaurant/bar business?
I am a fan of Phil Ward [of Mayahuel]. I was aware of his work before I moved to New York, and have since seen his influence at each establishment where I have worked. He’s a consummate weirdo with an acute palate and a voracious appetite for knowledge.  

Recent drink innovation that excites you the most? That bores you? That makes you scratch your head?
I had a good time this spring clarifying drinks. Barrel-aged drinks bore me. And I’m still trying to figure out why carbonated cocktails were a good idea.

If you weren’t tending bar, what would you be doing?
I prefer not to think about it.


What one thing would you change about bartending in the U.S. today?
I would change the way we stand behind the bar. We should always be facing toward our guest when we are discussing something. Our patrons should never have to call out to us for something. If we are facing them we can anticipate their needs better.

What makes you a good bartender?
I think I offer my guests understanding. The people who love you don’t always understand you, so I think that it is the greatest gift a bartender can give. I listen, without judgment, and find a way to understand my patron’s point of view. Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of kindness to help someone make it through the day.

Recent drink innovation that excites you the most?
Cocktails have been such fun this past year. Sno-cones and push-pops and alco-pops have made me feel like a kid again.

What’s particularly interesting about the drinks in Los Angeles?
I happen to have a huge crush on the cocktail community in LA. People are taking risks; sometimes we fail, but when we succeed it is spectacular. This is a city that isn’t afraid to have a point of view when it comes to drink making and we have a group of people who encourage one another to keep trying. I am so very proud to work with these people that I find it hard not to gush about their collective awesomeness.

Who do you most admire in the restaurant/bar business?
The bartender I am most in awe of would be Julio Cabrera. Watching him work is like seeing someone control time itself. If it is someone who can inspire a city to change the way it makes drinks it would be Vincenzo Marianella. LA has a lot to thank that man for, and I am grateful beyond measure that I get to call him a friend.


What are your career goals?
I wouldn’t want to do anything that would take me out of Indianapolis permanently. I love it here and I believe in what we’re doing here. I would love to spend more time educating young bartenders who are just venturing into the field and being a mentor. If I can do something to impact my market in a positive way I will. I’ve always loved to write and have often thought about being a cocktail writer.  

Who do you most admire in the restaurant/bar business?
People like Dale DeGroff, who brought bartending back from the dark ages and carried the torch forward; David Wondrich, who taught us the history of our craft and found many of the recipes once thought lost to the ages; and Charles Joly, who has shown us that humility and hospitality can still go hand and hand even with one the most intricate beverage programs in the world. But at the end of the day, the answer to that question is my owner and close friend, Nicole Harlan-Oprisu. If it wasn’t for the support she’s given me in my career, I wouldn’t be answering this question right now.

Recent drink innovation that excites you  the most?
Quality syrups right now are pretty exciting and a great time saver.  My friends at Indianapolis-based Wilks & Wilson are doing a great job producing great-quality, fresh syrups that really work well in a lot of cocktails.

If you weren’t tending bar, what would  you be doing?
I would probably be working for some economic think tank or in academia. I went to school for economics and unlike most people actually enjoyed it. My friends say I must have had a depressing childhood when I tell them The Wealth of Nations is one of my favorite books of all time.


What’s particularly interesting about the drinks in Portland?
Consumers here have created an environment that demands food and drink be local, fresh, seasonal and sustainable. We have an amazing beer scene, numerous micro-distilleries, are in the middle of one of the most lush wine-producing regions in the U.S. and have arguably the best coffee in the country. When it comes to cocktails, consumers don’t lower their standards. Because of that, bars and restaurants are constantly pushing forward with new innovations, new ice programs, new techniques.  

Who do you most admire in the restaurant/bar business?
I really admire the Bon Vivants of San Francisco. They’ve forced us to think of an industry that revolves around indulgence as a vehicle for charity and positive change. They’ve inspired bartenders to give back to our communities and invest in the young people around us.  

Recent drink innovation that excites you the most?
I’m happy to see that it’s no longer cool to hate vodka. I’m glad to see that craft bartenders are no longer ignoring the largest-selling spirit in the world. It can be a vehicle for so many interesting flavors and I’m excited to see what shows up on cocktail menus around the country.

Your biggest non-hospitality related hobby or pastime is…?
I currently have two beehives and close to 100,000 bees in my backyard. I collect their honey and use it in cocktails throughout the year. No matter how many books you read or blogs you subscribe to, the bees will always teach you. You learn a lot about yourself when you’re surrounded by thousands of bees. Nothing else matters in those moments. There’s no room for worries or “what ifs” or living in the past. The world is very real and you are incredibly vulnerable and powerful at the same time.


What makes you a good bartender?
If I’m a good bartender, it’s because I love every aspect of it.  I love the adrenaline rush of being slammed with customers.  I love when it’s slow and I can just talk to people. I love learning about and teaching about new products and drinks and techniques. I love getting paid to hang out with people, especially in the French Quarter where you never know who is going to walk through the door. I love spending weeks perfecting a drink and then watching people’s reactions to it.  

When you craft a new drink, what’s uppermost in your mind?
When tasting a new combination of ingredients that don’t quite work, there are only two questions to ask: Are the flavors off, or is the balance off? If the flavor is off, you’ve got to find out what ingredients to add or subtract. If the balance is off, you have to adjust proportions. That’s the art. It’s so subjective but at the same time it’s so black and white—the drink will either sell or it won’t.
Who outside the drink business influences your work?
Sallie Ann Glassman is a voodoo priestess who actually doesn’t even drink. There is such a rich history of both voodoo and bartending in New Orleans, but it’s difficult to find much interaction between the two. So I go to her for ideas and inspiration. She pulls down this herb or that resin and tells me about the magical properties. I take the ingredients and try to create tasty drinks while still respecting the religion. I still have a world to learn about voodoo, but I think there is an intriguing potential relationship there and I’m hoping to pursue it further.  
Your biggest non-hospitality related hobby or pastime is…?
Playing the piano. I’ve played since my grandmother started teaching me at age 5. I always did classical, but recently I’ve been getting into jazz.


What makes you a good bartender?
I take pride in making someone else’s night better. Making connections with guests, getting an insight into what they enjoy, and crafting drinks from that information in the forms of classic and custom drinks makes my night. Having a person leave happier than when they arrived, that’s the point of what we do. Them really digging on the drinks–that’s the icing on the cake.

What are your career goals?
I am working with others to get the Virginia chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild up and running. We’re almost there. I take a considerable amount of pride in what we do and that we get to teach others. I’ve also completed distillery school. I’d really like to begin making my own spirits in the future.

When crafting a new drink, what’s uppermost in your mind?
Balance, time, place, inspiration, weather, the person or establishment that I am making it for. I see drinks as I see painting or music. Just about every tint or hue has been blended; all arrangements have been scored. Our history in the craft has set our color wheel or taught us what chords sound well together. It’s up to us to paint the picture, if you will. Take the ingredients and make them shine in new lights and familiar ones as well.  

When not drinking cocktails, what are you drinking?
Agave spirits, High Life or Modelo, coconut water, and lots of micronutrient-rich, slow-extracted juice. Lots of it.

If you weren’t tending bar, what would you be doing?
I’d probably be on a skiff in the Chesapeake Bay studying the ecosystem or doing something with animals… something along those lines.


What’s particularly interesting about making drinks in Hawaii?  
I love the fact that I am in a tropical and somewhat exotic location. I absolutely love to use local fresh ingredients and some of my favorite shopping is done in our Honolulu Chinatown and at the Farmer’s Markets. I get to use fresh local ingredients like lilikoi, soursop, mango, guava, sugar cane, lychee, even cacao grown on the Big Island. And of course, you can’t beat the sweet ripe flavor of the Maui Gold pineapples.

What one thing would you change about bartending or the bar business in the U.S. today?  
The pretentiousness. I do a good deal of traveling and it seems that some are just taking things too seriously. Just have fun with it, be creative, and make a darn good cocktail! What I also can’t stand seeing is reading a menu and knowing that drinks are just put on there with no thought at all—just a salesperson trying to push product.
When you work on crafting a new drink, what’s uppermost in your mind?  
What hasn’t been done yet. I like to use a lot of herbs and savory ingredients–things that normally someone wouldn’t think of finding in their drink, but when they taste it they think Why haven’t I thought of this before?

Recent drink innovation that excites you the most? That bores you?
All things Tiki! I have started to collect vintage Tiki stuff and really just love the nostalgia.  I am dying to open a Tiki bar!
I think what bores me the most is classic cocktails. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy them and definitely enjoy a good Sidecar and Negroni, but I much more enjoy the innovation of using homemade ingredients in ways that aren’t expected.

Finish this sentence: “By the time I’m 40, I’ll be…”  
Just getting started!


What’s particularly interesting about the drinks in the places and city where you work?
I’ve worked really hard to get to the places where I currently work, which are regarded as two of the best bars in the city. That being said, what’s particularly interesting about the cocktails at Death and Co. is the amount of work that goes into every menu that we put out. Individually we present our drinks, and as a team we perfect them. And I’m very humbled to work with such amazing palates.

When you work on crafting a new drink, what’s uppermost in your mind?
Well, I always start with one ingredient that I’m excited about, whether I have been dying to make up a new Calvados-based cocktail or one with a new ingredient that has gotten me excited, like Dolin Génépi. From there, based on that particular juice I try and play off of its nuances.

Time to brag: What makes you a good bartender?
Honestly, I think that my ability to multi-task and do it quickly while still being able to engage my guests makes me not only a great bartender to sit in front of but also a great co-worker.

Who or what outside the drinks business influences your work and how?
Chefs. I try and read about food and their recipes and the extremely complex flavor profiles they work with and try to make drinks influenced by that.

Who do you most admire in the restaurant/bar business?
Someone that I think is completely fantastic is Julie Reiner. I have not had the pleasure of working for her. But she’s a strong female role model in the industry who’s extremely successful and whom I know I can always ask for advice from. I can only strive to be as amazing or as well respected as she is.

Your biggest non-hospitality related hobby or pastime is…?
I’m currently trying to be a roadie for The National. Ha!


What are your career goals?
The first is to run my own bar program and, more importantly, be successful at it. After I am able to run a bar for a few years, I want to step into an ownership role at a bar. This is my ultimate goal and I have been reading and soaking up info from some of my peers here in Chicago on how to approach this goal so it doesn’t end up being just a wish.  

Who do you admire most in the restaurant/bar business?
Mike Ryan, the head bartender at Sable, who has been my mentor in everything cocktail-related. Mike has accomplished a lot in the three-plus years Sable has been around,  plus he makes me look forward to work every day. I admire  his ability to make the changes and tough decisions that need to be made to evolve as a bar and become better with every menu change.

Recent drink innovation that makes you scratch your head?
Cocktails on tap for me water down the whole experience of being at a bar, because a lot of the entertainment is watching the skill of the bartender.

If you weren’t tending bar, what would you be doing?
Doing improv or doing something else that demands a lot of attention.  I am a middle kid so I have that whole “look at me, look at me” complex going.

Finish this sentence: “By the time I’m 40, I’ll be…”  
Part owner of two bars. That or be the host of a show that tours bars around the world and talks about why people should go there. Kind of like a Guy Fieri but without all of the hair dye and terrible shirts. Do people from Food Network read this?  


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