How did you get your start in the beverage industry?
I started bartending in Pittsburgh at a young age. I needed to find a job during my freshman year of college. I was always interested in food and beverage, so applied to a laundry list of restaurants with no experience. Of the twenty or so restaurants, one made the mistake of calling me back. I started as a busboy, then bar back. Shortly thereafter, there was a pretty crazy run of new restaurant openings in Pittsburgh, which resulted in a mass exodus of bartenders from our staff. So, I showed up to work one day and was told that I was now bartending. I feel so terribly for whoever was sitting in front of me in those early years, but it was a pretty phenomenal experience to learn.
How long have you been in the beverage industry?
I guess it’s been 10 years now.
Can you tell us about the vibe and cocktail program at your bar?
Our cocktail program definitely focuses on technique and presentation, coupled with an uncompromising priority to always have fun with what we’re doing. I guess we tend to write menus a bit backward. We always start with the name and its corresponding ingredients. If the drink doesn’t look appealing written on the menu, then – truly – it doesn’t matter how good it is because nobody will order it. Then, we focus on the presentation. We’ve embraced the idea that the modern bar guest tends to taste with their eyes (or, phone) first. If it looks good on their Instagram story, then we’ve won. As a team, we’re confident in our ability to make a great cocktail, but maybe that’s just not enough anymore? I think food and beverage is getting better everywhere. It’s hard to distinguish oneself from all of the other tasty cocktails everywhere else, so we always push to be different. Funky glassware, ice, clarified milk punches, centrifuged cocktails, fat washes, mini turkey sandwich garnishes, Drake’s face on top of a cocktail, lavender-infused balloons clipped onto glasses, flowering herbs, anything, and everything.
What’s your favorite part of your position/bartending?
My favorite part about my position is being able to work with my super talented team every day. I frequently employ the cliche that a team is only as strong as its weakest member, and we don’t have one. We’re all young. We’ve known/worked with one another for quite some time. And, we have a ton of fun and truly care about one another. We’ve grown a lot together as a program over the past few years, and I’m excited to continue that forward progress.
What cocktail is your pride and joy that you presented or made in general?
TURDUCKEN: Duck Fat Washed Wild Turkey 101 Rye Whiskey, Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy, Local Apple Cider, Sage Infused Maple Syrup, Lemon.
This cocktail is a reoccurring guest on our menu. We first had this beautifully serendipitous moment three or four years ago. We started playing around with clarified milk punches. Here – we take a citrus-forward punch, then wash it with boiling milk. The milk will instantly curdle, straining out whatever astringencies are present in the cocktail, while also clarifying the batch. Our chef at the time was using a lot of duck fat in the kitchen and challenged us with finding some way to repurpose it. We quickly jumped to washing rye whiskey. When we’re making whiskey cocktails, I think we always try to keep the non-whiskey drinker in mind. We want to find a way to make the – at times – harsher flavors of whiskey a bit more palatable for the less adventurous bar guest. Fat washing definitely helps to achieve that dynamic. Wild Turkey was one of our partners for that quarter, so with the holidays approaching, the name sort of made itself. But, I couldn’t figure out the chicken component. I was working on some finishing touches for the menu at my house one night, and my lovely dog wasn’t being super cooperative. He proceeded to bring out all of his toys in an attempt to lure me into playing with him. One of his favorite toys is this squeaky rubber chicken. Just as I was struggling with completing this cocktail, he dropped the toy on my keyboard. So, I guess he actually was helping. I found this website that sold little rubber chickens, which we then clipped onto the side of the glass. The garnish has been quite the hit and has provided many jokes around the bar.
Is there a classic cocktail that you like to modify to your own liking that you served to your guests?
DRAKE AND EGGS: Wigle Organic Single Barrel Canadian Rye Whiskey, Hennessy VSOP, Dom Pérignon 2006 Vintage Brut Reduction, Lemon, Blood Orange, Maple Meringue, Tears.
I guess this guy is loosely based on a whiskey sour. I think I speak for the rest of our team when I say that we’re pretty big Drake fans at The Commoner. When one of our local distilleries, Wigle Whiskey, contacted me about a project that they had been working on with a rye producer from Canada, I think we instantly decided that we needed to make a cocktail for Canada’s chosen son, Drake. The name came easily, which sort of shaped the direction of the cocktail. In Drake fashion, we wanted to make it bougie. Drake is a huge advocate of a 24-hour champagne diet, so we reduced down Vintage Dom Perignon with Canadian Maple Syrup as the sweetening agent for the cocktail. Obviously we had to include his favorite – Hennessy. Then add a splash of saline (namely, tears) to tie everything together. I wanted to find a way to put Drake’s face on top of the egg white foam. Fortunately, I found a woman on Etsy who made different stencils with a laser cutter. So, she made us a stencil of the Six God’s face. We take an atomizer of Angostura Bitters and spray on his face. It’s delicate and soft, just like the drink’s namesake.
What are some of your favorite flavors to work with?
I love any sort of high/low appeal. Taking a seemingly inferior ingredient and elevating it to something that we feel good serving in our bar. At The Biergarten, we do a couple of really interesting slushies.
THERE IS NO MIKE: Espolon Blanco, Mike’s Harder Mango Lemonade, Sour Mango Nectar, Agave Nectar, Lime, Fresno Chilis.
WATER IS BETTER: Skittles Infused Grey Goose Vodka, Gatorade Glacier Freeze, Blue Raspberry Pedialyte Reduction, Clarified Pineapple, Lemon.
I guess this sort of returns to our focus on always having fun, and trying to be a little bit different. I think there’s an appeal to nostalgia, and offering some sort of helping hand to the less informed guest. We want everyone to feel comfortable and have a great time. I think the first step in achieving that dynamic is ensuring that we’re doing the same.
What is your go-to drink?
Margarita. Hands down. Literally anywhere. My favorite guilty pleasure cocktail is an early morning margarita at the TGI Friday’s bar in the Pittsburgh Airport. Margaritas are good when they’re good, and they’re still pretty good when they suck.
What continues to motivate or inspire you in this industry?
I still really enjoy making somebody’s evening. Not in a vain or conceited way. I just think as bartenders, we’re in the privileged position to make memories for the guests in front of us. And, I try to always respect that responsibility. I often think about everything that it takes for our guests to ultimately get to that barstool. Babysitters, Ubers, endless choices of restaurants, financial concerns, scheduling concerns, etc. In many cases, there’s a lot at stake in that interaction. That guest is trusting us to provide them with a great time, and I always want to deliver.
Returning to my conversation about food and beverage getting better everywhere – food and beverage is getting better everywhere. But, thoughtful service is what can separate us from everyone else. The service industry offers what I feel is a rewarding dynamic of being instantly assessed of your job performance after every single interaction. That reality doesn’t happen in many professions. And, I’m continually motivated by providing the best experience that I can for whoever is sitting in front of me.
What product, spirit or tool do you highly recommend?
Booker and Dax Spinzall Centrifuge. This has completely changed the way we approach cocktails/batching/service execution.