Steve Douds remembers when his bar was a line of identical men in suits. Brick-sized cell phones and gin and tonics sat in front of them in a neat row.
"Scottsdale used to be a town of conspicuous consumption," he says. "It was big glasses of vodka and little old ladies who would come in on a Saturday afternoon and have three martinis before they'd look at a menu."
A Scottsdale native and truly a veteran behind the bar (he's been on the job since 1982, and he was "literally born into the business," he says), Douds is a self-proclaimed "old-school bartender." And, in a bar scene packed with star-tenders, flair-tenders and mixologists, we are ready for the throwback.
Douds is a vocal proponent of back to the basics when it comes to drinks (he gives no quarter to the flavored vodka phenomena, preferring natural juices), and he holds certain values higher than panache when he's designing a really good drink. For him it's all about balance and proportion.
When he talks about the perfect drink, he does so with near religious awe.
"There's something so sublime about a vodka martini that's nothing more than really good vodka, shaken really well over really clean, hard ice and put into a clean glass," he says. "It seems like nothing, but that's perfection."
At his current bar, on the back patio at Los Sombreros in South Scottsdale, Douds' signature margarita includes just three things: good tequila, fresh-squeezed lime juice and sugar. If you want to get really crazy, he adds something he calls a "liason," like an orange liqueur or Grand Marnier.
"As long as you're doing things right, you don't have to grab onto every new trend," he says.
The list of bars this man has, well, manned over the past two-and-a-half decades is like a who's who of Scottsdale's restaurant history: He started at the now defunct Glass Door on 69th St. and Main when he was still in high school. When he moved on, it was to be trained by a Trader Vic's bartender. He was the first employee at the Sugar Shack and worked at D.J.'s, both in Old Town, before hopping over to Roaring Fork and, later, to work for Mark Tarbell at Barmouche. "And there were a couple of other places in between," he says.
Over all those years, in all those places, Douds has learned a thing or two about what it takes to succeed in this business.
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"You can go to bartending school, you can have a catalogue of thousands of drinks," he says. "But if you can't talk to a customer or listen to a customer or keep a customer's secrets, you're not gonna make it."
After a quarter of a century mixing, shaking, concocting and pouring, this is a guy who has become who he is because of what he does. Or maybe it's the other way around.
Check back on Friday to get the recipe for a Moscow Mule turned into a Tijuana Donkey, courtesy of Douds.