Mixologist David RothDavid Roth is in his groove. The 41-year-old beverage director at Hartford’s Feng Asian Bistro and the Ginza Restaurant Group is talking shop with fellow Connecticut bartenders at a mixer, where they’re picking one another’s brains about proper techniques, utensils, the best ice, new products—all so they can make cocktails that will wow customers the next time they sidle up to the bar.
Mixologist David RothDavid Roth
Roth and his buddies are debating esoteric points like when to use a Hawthorn strainer versus a Julep one, how many times to stir certain drinks, which bitters to use when; about the Japanese “hard shake” technique, when to add a bit of froth and foam, about a hot bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side using absinthe in a spray bottle. They can, and do, go on for hours like this.
Meet Connecticut’s newest breed of bartenders and mixologists. What sets them apart from others in their field is their passion for their art and craft. They thirst to learn ever more about mastering classics like the martini, Manhattan and Negroni, and about creating their own new masterpieces. They are to drink what the state’s best chefs are to food. They are cutting-edge, even geeky, in how thoroughly they can drill down into the world of spirits.
Learn who they are and where they work and you’ll experience cocktails in ways you never knew possible. Not that these bartenders and their bars are undiscovered. Indeed, their growing bands of followers seek them out as others might favorite musicians or chefs.
On a Wednesday night at the sophisticated yet hip 116 Crown in New Haven, eclectic music fills the restaurant and bar space as bartenders mix drinks in cocktail shakers so vigorously they sound like Cuban percussionists. The sound comes from the ice cubes, and not just any ice, but exactly 1.25-inch-full cubes made with pure filtered water, no detail overlooked. Co-owner John Ginnetti, 33, one of the state’s most creative mixologists, wanted a place that excelled not just in food but also in drinks and wine. Most of the 50 drinks on the menu are his inventions, and they show the thought he puts into them.
One, called the Forth & Clyde, gets rave reviews from customers who tell him it’s the best drink they’ve ever had. In it are gin, bourbon, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, lime juice, local honey and Salemme chili flakes from New Haven, and it’s served straight up. “It’s perfectly balanced,” says Ginnetti, defining his main criterion for a cocktail. But he’s taken the balance a step further: the drink fills a chilled martini glass and the finish is the heat of the pepper flakes. Another, called the Gray Lady, which he created in honor of the restaurant’s “Excellent” review in The New York Times, includes gin, crème de violette, organic egg-white foam, lemon juice and simple syrup.
Ginnetti claims that what he and like-minded bartenders are doing is creating art, “the product or process of deliberately arranging items, often with symbolic significance in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions and intellect” (a definition he got from Wikipedia). He presents it to students at the University of New Haven each time he offers his mixology course, believed to be the only such full-credit college class in the state.
“That’s actually what I think about when making drinks,” Ginnetti says. “We’re deliberately arranging things in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses,” he adds, sipping a Chantmé, a cocktail he created with gin, Chartreuse and scotch on the rocks. “It has smell, it has taste—it hits me everywhere.”
Ginnetti, of course, isn’t the only one creating art behind a bar. Denis Hallock, the 42-year-old wine director, restaurant manager and bar manager at Stamford’s Telluride Restaurant, says he has followers so confident in his talent that they say, “Make me anything you want.” That reputation grew from his time in Litchfield, making drinks for the New Yorkers and celebrities weekending in northwestern Connecticut who would stop at the former 3W & the Blue Bar, where he tended bar. These days at Telluride, he’s forever designing new drinks, often attuned to the season or the menu. Last fall, he created a margarita with maple syrup, and a pumpkin martini; last winter he came up with a pear margarita and a pear martini, inspired by a pear salad featured on the menu.
In Old Saybrook, Anthony DeSerio, the 38-year-old operations manager and a bartender at Aspen Restaurant, also designs cocktails for its drink menu. One of his creations, called a “Sapphire Starbust” (a concoction of Bombay Sapphire gin; Aperol, an Italian aperitif; Regan’s Orange Bitters #6 and Ripe agave sour mix), appears in spirit and cocktail expert Gary (“Gaz”) Regan’s Annual Manual for Bartenders, to be released this month. His use of balsamic vinegar in the Bloody Marys he makes at Aspen also won notice from Regan, in his San Francisco Chronicle cocktail column last January.
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Like other trendsetters, these innovative bartenders are always on the lookout for new products to bring magic to their creations. DeSerio has lately begun designing drinks using Ripe, marketed as the first line of pure-squeezed, all-natural cocktail mixers (shown below). The product, created by Wallingford natives Michel Boissy and Ryan Guimond, launched just a year ago, but is already carried at Whole Foods and many other locations (drinkripe.com). “I was floored by the quality,” says DeSerio. Similarly, when one of Ginnetti’s purveyors mentioned a new maple syrup with a spiked edge and a French chardonnay vinegar with Egyptian lemon called Noble Tonic featured in the Times dining section, Ginnetti had to have them. “I can’t not have them,” he says, promising he’ll find a way to use both.
The spiked interest in mixology didn’t happen overnight. Bartenders and those who write about cocktails and spirits say it started about a decade ago and gained steam from shows like AMC’s “Mad Men,” in which characters always seem to have a cocktail or glass of scotch in their hand.And the more popular cocktails become, the more serious the role of the mix master.
Spend time with any of these bartenders and you appreciate how they thirst to hone their craft. Roth, for example, has been to Japan twice to learn more about sake cocktails from a world-leading sake expert. (“The first time I got to Tokyo, I felt like I was in Lost in Translation,” Roth recalls.) He and others enroll in classes in New York or rigorous online courses like BarSmarts, enter competitions to test their skills and learn from colleagues. And they carry around what they call their “bibles,” books like The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks by David A. Embury, from 1948; Jerry Thomas’ Bartender’s Guide (1887, reprinted in 1928); Dale Degroff’s The Craft of the Cocktail (“everyone has to have that one,” he says); and Gaz Regan’s The Joy of Mixology.
At one competition, Roth met Dimitrios Zahariadis, a former bar manager at Tao Asian Bistro in midtown Manhattan, who had moved home to Connecticut to help his Greek family’s restaurant business. Zahariadis, now bar manager at Waterbury’s La Tavola Ristorante, was a member of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild in New York, but was surprised to learn that there was no chapter anywhere in Connecticut.
Not anymore. With Zahariadis as president and Roth as vice president, the state chapter can claim about 20 members in its first year. “It’s an uphill battle [enrolling members],” says Zahariadis, in part because the guild is new to Connecticut and bartenders tend to know other bartenders in the area where they work, but not elsewhere in the state. (Bartenders, check out Facebook page USBGCT.)
Yet Roth believes that will change as word spreads from one bartender to another, and as they realize the benefits: field trips to innovative bars in Boston or New York perhaps, a road trip to a Philadelphia microdistillery that makes American dry gin and absinthe, get-togethers to talk shop, and shortcourses on making cocktails using, say, Campari, or other specialized ingredients.
With colleagues supporting one another, with the Internet, with the ability to look up virtually anything on a smartphone, Roth maintains that bartenders no longer have an excuse not “to make the best damn drink possible.” He adds: “Make sure the perfect garnish with every drink is a smile,” an aphorism famous in the bartending culture. “If you’re in a good mood and you feel like you’re going to make a great drink, how can you not make a great drink? If you’re in a cranky mood, you don’t want that coming out in your drink,” Roth says, paraphrasing the philosophy of Kazuo Ueda, one of the best-known bartenders in Japan.
In the end, these bartenders say, it’s all about the magic, the spirit, the balance and the art. “A friend of mine once said, ‘The best feeling in the world is having a buzz and your favorite song comes on.’ You just cannot beat that feeling,” says Ginnetti. Perhaps more to the point, he adds, is the sensibility captured in a quote he loves from politico James Carville: “To me, the ultimate feeling in the world is to be about two-thirds of the way through my second martini with people I like. Anything seems possible.”
(This article was originally published on a different platform. Some formatting changes may have occurred.)
This article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Connecticut Magazine