When did you first start bartending?
I was never really into food or drinks in college. In my early 20s, I drank vodka and Busch Light. I was never into spirits or anything like that. The craft beer movement came after my time in college. A little over three years ago, I decided that I wanted to get into the restaurant industry, so I became a server at Sel de la Terre, where I was taught about hospitality and learned a lot. I left there because I realized that I wanted to be behind the bar, and I found it to be more of a career choice. I came to Hops N Scotch when we opened two years ago, and I started to develop a passion for scotch and other liquors. That passion has carried me through to this point where I just took over as bar manager.
What do you like most about being behind the bar?
I've worked in offices before, and I've never enjoyed it. I like that bartending is a hands-on job. I don't know if it's cliche to say that I like people, and I love challenging them and introducing them to new spirits that they may have never had before. There are certain people who will drink particular items because of marketing or because that's what they've always had, and I like introducing them to small-batch beverages, which offer more flavor. I didn't realize how much I'd like to be behind that bar until I started, but it's like a stage. Because I do stand-up comedy as a hobby, I love being back there. I think restaurants and bars in general are sort of like being in a show, and you're onstage all the time.
Tell me a little about Hops. What do you think are its greatest strengths, and what is the bar program trying to achieve?
"Sometimes people have the false idea that all scotch smells like turpentine."
I think immediately the name is clever. Many people will come in and say, "Oh, I guess I should have scotch or an I.P.A." I think that many people can get a little intimidated by long lists of beverages, and I like to break them down and talk to them about different flavor profiles. Sometimes people have the false idea that all scotch smells like turpentine, but there are so many wonderful flavors. On the beer side, it's cool too, because they are doing things like taking whiskey barrels and aging beer in them. It's just a really great community.
My goal, when I took over as bar manager here, was to bring back the hops to Hops N Scotch. Also, at the root of it, it's a neighborhood bar. It's not some dark speakeasy where it can be a little intimidating. First and foremost, it's all about hospitality, and I want to make drinks that I like and also recreate other drinks that I've read about. It's exciting to introduce someone to a new drink. We have 40 beers on draft, and we're constantly changing things up. We started a section called "Neighborhood Favorites" to tell people what's most popular now. We also have beers on tap that will only be around for about a week so that when people come in and ask what's new, we always have something.
Do you find that people come in with a specific cocktail or drink in mind, or do they look more to you for advice?
I think what's great about food and drinking right now is that people are open to trying new things. I usually like to feel out how open people are and then pick drinks for them from that. To give you an example, this guy came in the other day and asked for a Maker's Mark old fashioned. I told him that you could find that drink in any bar, and I suggested that he try a rum old fashioned, made from a rum that was aged in bourbon barrels. He absolutely loved it. That's the fun for me.
With new cocktails and craft spirits and beers becoming more available all the time, how do you stay up-to-date on all of it?
"If you use shitty vermouth, it's going to taste shitty."
I think that Twitter is amazing. I follow all of these cocktail gurus and all of these pioneers of mixology, and I admire their work. I spend a lot of time on cocktail blogs as well. I also really try to master the classic drinks. For example, if you take a Manhattan, it's really just the sum of its parts. If you use shitty vermouth, it's going to taste shitty. There are nice domestic vermouths that have some gorgeous flavors. I try to create the classics as well as I can. Also, similar to how you eat with your eyes, you drink with your eyes too, so I try to make sure things are aesthetically pleasing. I make sure things like our ice cubeslook good. It's important to have herbs for aromatics and have our garnishes looking nice and fresh.
How often do you plan to change the bar menu?
We definitely do it seasonally, but we change things a lot too. If we have a drink on the menu that's just not selling, we'll either change it up or get rid of it. We try to have fun with it too. Right now, all of our drinks on the menu are named after songs. We have a drink called Sex and Candy, you know, from that old Marcy Playground song. It's a good cocktail — pumpkin beer, cider, and vanilla vodka with brown sugar simple syrup and a sugared rim. It's just a pleasing drink. And it's fun to order too.
Do you think you can judge a person by the cocktail that they order?
Oh, definitely. It's maybe not fair, but I do. What someone orders tells me how much they're into drinks. Someone who orders a vodka soda tells me that they aren't into drinking, because there isn't much flavor and personality to it.
What's your favorite drink on the menu right now?
I have a play off of a whiskey sour on the menu, which is great because it already has sweet and sour notes. I made a simple syrup with tamarind and cardamom with some lemon juice, and I use Four Roses whiskey. I just think it's an all-around great drink and a nice introduction to whiskey for those who may not be familiar with drinking it.
What advice would you have for someone looking to learn more about craft beers and spirits?
I get this question a lot, actually, and I recommend The Bar Book, which is a book on technique. It includes infusions and shrubs and things that are relatively easy for someone to do at home. That's also a fast way to impress friends. I would recommend that someone get themselves a good bar spoon, nothing too fancy, but also a shaker and a hawthorne strainer and a julep strainer. Maybe a nice muddler, too. But other than that, no need to get too crazy. I also tell people just to come in and ask questions of bartenders. They're usually very happy to talk about things.
What are your plans for your future as bar manager?
"It's so true that fresh and local is better than beer that has to travel a way."
I'm trying to really stay on top of making great cocktails. I also want to introduce new trends and technology, but I want things to be very approachable. I also want to establish relationships with local brewers and distillers. We've been doing a lot of events; the other day we had Clown Shoes brewery come in and do a tap takeover. It's so true that fresh and local is better than beer that has to travel a way.
How's the expansion to Inman Square going?
Good. I'm told it's going to be happening soon. I don't have an exact date yet, but look to expect some of the same great selection of beers and whiskeys.