He may be a bar expert now, but David Needham, manager of Vista Lounge at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa, got his start as a culinary student at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park in New York. Not that he didn't always enjoy cocktails, though. The 32-year-old Boston native grew up with several bartenders in his family, so concocting drinks is in his blood--and now he even brews his own beer.
At the JW Marriott, Needham is constantly trying to come up with innovative twists on classics and new drinks that will keep customers coming back. He shared some of his experiences behind the bar with us.
When was your first drink? My first mixed drink was probably when I was 18 on a trip to Canada. I was in Calgary, Alberta. I had a Seven and Seven.
How did going to culinary school help you as a bartender? They teach you about different spirits and different liquors and wine. I won a trip to Bourdeaux (France) for 2 weeks because of my accomplishments in school with wine and other alcohol-related stuff, so the bar arts came real naturally to me.
What trends do you see in bartending these days? Embracing my culinary side behind the bar is the best part. Bartenders are becoming more like chefs these days. Everything's basically already been done, so making everything that's been done taste better and fresher and giving a new twist on it by adding fresh herbs and fresh fruit is becoming popular.
What's your favorite drink to drink? Anything with tequila. I really embraced it when I came down here. On the east coast, it's hard to find a good tequila. It's not nearly the exposure you get here.
What's your least favorite drink? Probably Jäegermeister, because that's where the night's going south. As soon as someone says, 'Let's do Jäeger shots!', it's like, 'Oh, gosh. Call me a taxi.' Other than that, anything low-quality liquor.
What would you recommend for at-home drinkers on a budget? If you're on a budget, there's lots of liquors out there you can buy that are cheap. The biggest thing is to stay away from plastic bottles. Alcohol and plastic don't mix. Shop around. There's a great selection these days. When I came here 4 years ago, it was hard to find a liqour store. Creating a home bar isn't the commitment it was in the past.
What's your favorite drink to make? Margaritas.
Is there a drink you hate to make? A lot of people would say the mojito, but I disagree. I'm part Cuban, and I love the mojito. Most drinks are pretty easy to make.
What's the weirdest customer request you've ever received? The weirdest drink for me is a white wine spritzer, but we're pushing ourselves so much, that there aren't any real weird requests anymore.
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Who's been your most memorable customer? There was a chef from school who came in. The bartender and myself made a whole bunch of drinks for him because we were curious how he thought we integrated culinary aspects with bar arts. Believe it or not, he had never had a fresh squeezed screwdriver, and even that was something that really made a difference to him. That was memorable to me because you spend 4 years at culinary school being bombarded with information, and here's one of the deans coming in, asking you about trends in the bar and what I've learned since I've been out. It was special for me.
What's the oddest ingredient you've used in a drink? I've used caviar, I've used raw fish, I've used all different types of things. We made sake martinis with an ahi sashimi garnish. It's something where the guest tries it, and the flavors melt together, and it's really special. The sky's the limit. There's no garnish you wouldn't want to use it.
What your favorite drink you've created? A Rosemary Lemon Drop. It's a basic Lemon Drop (fresh lemon juice, simple syrup and vodka), and we add rosemary to it and garnish it with dried-up rosemary. We make a rosemary powder and infuse it with sugar and rim a little bit of the glass with it. It's not super-sweet. It's a nice, middle-of-the-road drink as far as how it affects your palate. If you want a cocktail before you eat, it's a great drink because it stimulates your appetite.
What's the best hangover remedy? Sleep.