Tucked neatly inside Scottsdale's Hotel Valley Ho is Cafe Zuzu (6850 E. Main St., 480-421-7997) -- a cool, retro café and bar filled with the music and décor of the '50s and '60s. Jim Schindel helms this little spaceship, mixing up quick drinks and making nice with the menagerie of characters that pass through the hotel doors. At six feet seven inches tall, watching Schindel create artful cocktails is a bit like watching a galloping giraffe -- an unwieldy creature operating with grace and speed. A member of the U.S. Bartenders' Guild, Schindel knows his liquors, and though he laments on how tough it is to find clothes that fit, it's easy to look good in classic bartender black.
How did you get into craft cocktails?
Our director of mixology came in one day and asked if I wanted to go to this U.S. Bartender's Guild class. Lunch was provided, so I was like, "Ahh, sweet! Free lunch, get to go make some cocktails -- that sounds like a good time." So then they went through all the mixology stuff, we learned about all the spirits, and that's how I really got into it and started going to regular meetings.
What does the guild do?
They just try to get cocktail awareness up in the Valley. There are a bunch of different bartenders from bars all over Arizona. We all meet twice a month and usually have someone come in from the spirits industry, like Maker's Mark or Knob Creek. Last month we had lunch with the master distiller from Jim Beam. We sat down and he talked about bourbon -- it was really cool. Usually we'll bring someone in from like Scotland to talk about scotch. They'll get real in-depth and tell you what it's all about.
Are those popular drinks at Zuzu?
Yeah. You try to get those drinks out, but you'll always have the girls that come in and ask for something fruity. So you need to have those kinds of drinks on the drink list.
Say someone comes up to the bar and they don't know what they want. How would you go about making them a drink?
First I'd ask them what kind of liquor they like. Usually, I try to get them to branch out and try something different. If a person says they hate gin, I say, if you make the right cocktail and balance it out right, it's actually a really good drink. For happy hour, we have a drink called the Bramble on our cocktail list. Everyone's like, Ooh, gin...I don't know... I'm like, just try it. If you don't like it, I'll make you something different. Just try it at least. And they do, and they say, wow this is actually gin? It's pretty cool once people try the new stuff and find out they actually like it.
What's the secret to a good cocktail?
Balance. There can't be too much tartness, too much acidity, too much sweetness. You just have to strike the right balance.
What's the crowd like at Zuzu?
Well, as you can see from the pool party going on...we get that crowd around. We get a lot of out-of-town guests, some locals, a lot of bachelor and bachelorette parties. You always have to have your vodka Red Bulls and Patron ready.
What do you drink yourself when you're out?
Usually bourbon. I love Maker's Mark, or I'll drink Jack, or beer. But when I go out, I don't usually get too crazy. I'll look at the drink list, and if something strikes me, I'll try that. But then I'll usually fall back to Maker's on the rocks.
Since this place is a hotel do you get to meet a lot of interesting characters?
This is a hotel, so you get SO many different people in. I don't have too many regulars; every week we just get different people in from different walks of life. Foreign people are fun. We had a car company here, Ferrari or Lamborghini, all these Italians. We had a little ongoing joke when they were out at the pool, they would all wear their little red Speedos, so we'd say oh, the Italian swim team's out there already!
You have any stories of particulary crazy customers?
Oh, yeah. Wow. Where do I start? We had this one guy who came in -- this 23-year-old kid. He was the strangest kid ever. He drank only vodka Red Bulls in the afternoon, then at night he'd drink champagne. He was running around the bar from table to table buying all these bottles of champagne for everybody. These aren't cheap bottles; he ordered about $1,000 in champagne. We always asked this kid his name, but he wouldn't tell us. He'd say, I'm from Fresno; just call me Fresno. When it was all said and done, in the three days he was here, he spent about $4,000 on champagne. We find out later that it was his dad's credit card and he was only supposed to use it for lunch in the room. He's still kind of a legend around here.
What do you like about bartending?
Not every night is the same night; it's not like the same old grind. You get to have fun with people, you get to joke around, you get to talk. It really doesn't seem like you're working when you're here. Of course, when you're five deep at the bar, then you're like, "This is insane." But when it's nice and slow and you get to talk to people and make cocktails, it's a lot of fun.
What don't you like about it?
I hate having to cut people off. They're you're best friend, having a great time, but then they start slurring their words and falling asleep at the bar, and when they ask for another drink, you have to be like why don't we go with a water? Then you start getting sworn at, and you end up having to call security.
What can a customer do to get into your good graces?
When you come up to the bar, know what you want when you come and get our attention. Especially when we're busy. You're not the only person at the bar; there are like 80 other people here that want drinks, and I don't have four minutes to spend helping you figure out what you want when it's busy.
If there was a drink named after you, what would be in it?
I'm pretty simple, as far as cocktails go. I like bourbon. I'd probably say just Maker's on the rocks. Just nice, simple and easy to drink -- kind of like me.