By now it's fairly clear that the modern speakeasy has become its own antithesis. These dark, precise concepts, like the famed Death & Co. in New York City's West Village or Employees Only in the East Village, have garnered the most attention worldwide, not the least.
The latter of the two, Employees Only, is the project of Dushan Zaric. Both the man and the bar are legendary at this point in the cocktail story. Employees Only has won some serious awards, including Best Cocktail Bar in 2008 from New York Magazine, and Best Cocktail List and World's Best Cocktail Bar at New Orlean's annual Tales of the Cocktail (a major award celebration in the field) in 2011. In short, this place is as good as it gets.
In addition to co-writing two successful book on the trade, Zaric's latest endeavor is as co-owner of The 86 Co., which works with well-established master distillers to create spirits (tequila, rum, gin, and vodka) that intend to "showcase the bartender." The flavor dial is, by design, turned up to 10 — setting bartenders free to use some spirits that, frankly, were never intended to be mixed in cocktails at all.
On Sunday, July 26, Zaric will be slinging dinnertime cocktails from 6 to 8 p.m. at The Upton in Scottsdale. Some cocktails will be made specifically for the evening and following week using his product line. The lineup includes the Bashful Maiden made with gin, falernum, elderflower, lemon juice and cantaloupe puree.
"We're really wanting to be a neighborhood spot, so we're doing something during the summertime that should be really exciting," said Sean Zimmerman, co-owner of The Upton. "Nothing too over-the-top, just a really nice time for the locals. And, since we're a really small space, you'll get to interact with Dushan and just enjoy the evening."
Earlier this week, we got to chat with Zaric about his spirit line and his upcoming cocktail dinner with The Upton.
How are you liking living in Los Angeles?
I’m loving it, I have to say. After 17 years of living in New York this is quite a beautiful change. The weather is predictable, the women are gorgeous, and I live a much healthier lifestyle, I have to say.
It does seem like a lot of people go out there for those reasons.
Yeah, and it’s not like I was really set out to just becoming healthier, but it just sort of happened quite naturally. You just take advantage of all of this nature around you and you go explore. It’s good.
What else is keeping you busy in L.A.?
Well being a co-founder of 86 & Co., I’m in charge of all of the West Coast markets, and Nevada, Arizona, and in the future hopefully Hawaii, too. That would be nice.
That would be nice... From reading up on the spirit line, and having seen Andrew Knowlton’s review in Bon Appétit a while back, the takeaway seems to be that your spirit line is built by bartenders to meet the needs of bartenders: more flavor, more control over drink building, better ergonomics. Why haven’t spirit companies consulted bartenders to this degree in the past?
They did. They did but they never listened. They did. That’s why we would get so frustrated. They’d always include us in the focus groups and to help build the aesthetic, but at the end of the day it was always the marketing team that convinced the producers that consumer appeal is much more important than the professional trade appeal. And you know what? The professional bartenders of today are not the one’s from 10 or 15 years ago. We are a force now. We create trends and we bring trends into life. We can dictate the gastronomical experience as much as the chef does. So it was about time that somebody recognized the need of the professionals.
So who better to do that than the bartenders, and we didn’t do this by ourselves, obviously. We enlisted the help of nearly 250 bartenders to contribute and we set out to find the best distillers who could do these products with us from scratch. We knew we didn’t want to buy somebody’s overstock and slap a label on it. That’s not the point. The point is to create new spirits so that they function as liquid tools, or cocktail components. And when a master distiller creates a spirit, for them, when it’s distilled or aged or whatever, it’s the best it’s ever going to be. But bartenders look at spirits in a different way. We look at them as possible cocktail components or not. And when a spirit works it’s a coincidence, generally. It was never intended to be used that way.
So we wanted to be the first to intend to do that. To really play well with others. And I have to tell you I’m really happy that we achieved that. Bartenders are really our biggest supporters and fans, and precisely for the reason we intended. And with the way that cocktail culture is gaining momentum, purchases intended for bar usage just have to be becoming a bigger and bigger portion of the sales for these spirit companies, right?
You know, it is. We’re sticking to that and that’s also why we created the ergonomic design of the bottle, from scratch as well, for the professional. Like, the bottle is a tool itself, and the spirit is a tool of course, and then on top of that we give you a lot of information about the product that’s printed directly on the label, which becomes another tool. Because when the bartender has useful and relevant information about the spirit and they know how it was made, they can then relay that to the guests, who can then identify with the product and with the story, and with the professionality of the bartender. And then you have a true hospitality experience.
From your experience with the spirit line, what are some cocktails, classic or not, that really benefit from these exaggerated flavor profiles?
Well, you know, that’s a great question. It’s a tool, and it was designed to showcase you as a bartender. You can think of it as an electric guitar. You know, it can sounds like BB King is playing it, or it can sounds like fucking Angus Young is playing it. You know, you give it to the bartender, it’s still the same guitar, it’s the same bottle, but they can produce any sounds they want with it.
But the volume is turned up.
I really like to make that analogy. It really showcases the versatility available. They were really designed in the development stage to really work with certain groups of cocktails. With the rum, for instance, with every batch we made I had to make daiquiris right there on the spot, because we had to make sure it performed with the simplest of drinks. You know, with the daiquiri you have your sweet, you sour, and your strong, and those simplest drinks can come out full, complex, beautiful, so that you can rediscover it with every sip. Then, you can do all sorts of things with it. And then the more complexity will just be better, you know?
And with the gin we really wanted to cater to bartenders specifically. They needed a gin that could go well with all of the classic gin cocktails equally well. When you look at the great gin houses, they all really make one gin cocktail really well. For example. the gins with higher juniper content make great martinis, and the ones with lower juniper content make excellent negronis. So the bartenders asked for a gin that could work equally well with lemon or lime juice, which when you test all of the good gins, none of them really do both. So we had to do that, which was a challenge. We focused on gimlets, the Tom Collins, the negroni, and the martini. With the tequila, it was the of course the margarita and the paloma. And for the vodka, we had to just make sure the vodka paired well with food.
Yeah so was that tough, then, making the vodka? Because to the general public that’s almost a spirit that’s known for its lack of flavor, and that’s where it’s usefulness lies most often, it seems.
Yeah, no, that’s a misconception I think. That’s what the marketing teams want us to believe, I think, that vodka is better if it tastes like nothing, or that it’s just cold water with a kick. But that’s not what vodka traditionally is.
What do you look for out of a great vodka?
Grain. I look for the taste of grain. And I look for a lack of charcoal vodka, which ends up removing all of the flavor and ends up tasting like ethanol. I worked at a restaurant in the 90’s where I had to learn about vodka. I had to learn all about vodka. Vodka was, and few people know this in the West, developed as a food spirit. It was never intended to go into cocktails. It developed with the cuisines of the countries pairing it with the food. And it really works if it’s enhancing the flavor of the food you are eating, but if it’s just numbing your tongue then it doesn’t really work out. It’s not a good vodka.
So speaking of pairing alcohol with food, how do you go about pairing cocktails with food? Is there a progression or a pattern?
You know, I’m desperately classic in that respect. More European, if you will. I do not pair cocktails with food. I think that’s why we have wine. But with appetizers, I certainly like to pair aperitif cocktails or just the spirits themselves, neat. Like vodka (laughs). Tequila.
What can we expect then for the dinner Sunday?
Well, we will just be making cocktails, having fun. There will be no kind of formal pacing going on. We will probably go through the basics of the 86 & Co. portfolio and then we’ll just kind of open it up and bang out some drinks.
Good, sounds like fun. One more question: we’ve talked about ergonomic designs and spirit lines like yours really catering to the bartender so that they can have more control, but what’s the evolution for bartenders, or the next step? What’s going on out there?
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Well, you know, and please don’t hold it against me, but I don’t think anyone truly knows where we are going. I could sit here and philosophize, but if someone told be 10 years ago I’d be able to sip on some cocktails that taste like liquid bliss, you know, and that bartender would start using all of these techniques and procedures, bars like The Aviary, or that people who barrel age cocktails would then have them on tap, ready to drink, or that there would be mass-production of bartenders bitters and homemade ingredients — I just think bartenders will continue to develop the craft in every way. And there are a lot of facets you hear more talk of these days, like of hospitality, and I think that’s a beautiful thing and certainly in line with our lineage. And, you know, you never know. But if we can judge by the past then we are in for a hell of a ride.
You can catch Zaric at The Upton in Scottsdale this Sunday, July 26 from 6 to 8 p.m. Reservations are required and can be made online or by calling 480-991-6887.