If his snowy beard is any indication, Steve Douds has been in the bartending business for a long time. But with the years comes experience, which Douds uses to great effect, competing in -- and winning -- national bartending competitions.
Douds now employs his wisdom at Scottsdale's Renegade Canteen (9343 E. Shea Blvd., 480-614-9400), where he's been crafting cocktails since the restaurant opened in June.
Chat with Douds for just a few minutes and he'll share his encyclopedic knowledge of alcohol, regaling you with the history of Inuit natives in Alaska distilling spirits from lichen, how a doctor first attempted to sell gin as a blood purifier, or how scientists have discovered monkeys in Borneo that leave fruit out in the sun, letting it ferment before eating it. "Even monkeys have figured out how to make booze!" Douds says. Just don't get him started on flavored vodkas.
How did you get into bartending?
My family had been in the restaurant business since I was born. My uncle started the Cork & Cleaver restaurants way back when. So I just always grew up around the restaurant business. I was interested in cooking and bartending, but cooking's too much work. I started pretty much right out of high school at a place in Scottsdale called the Glass Door. It was a continental cuisine kind of restaurant and I had a friend working there.
How long have you been bartending?
Since 1981. A long, long time. I was taller and less gray when I started.
Any training in mixology?
Not really. No formal classes or anything like that. I've been in a number of competitions that allow me to see what other people are doing, but I'm really more of an old-school standard guy. I like the classic cocktails. I don't think you need the micro-blending and foams and things like that. I'm not even a big fan of flavored vodkas. I think that's sort of cheating.
Cheating? How so?
Take orange vodka. If you're at a bar, you probably have an orange. I can sort of understand when flavors get more exotic, like pomegranate. But things like bubble gum and cotton candy, I just don't understand the need for. But bartenders, buildings and hookers all get more respectable with age. Maybe in 50 years, I'll respect it.
You concocted the entire drink menu here at Renegade. How do you go about creating new drinks?
I really try to just do little bends on the classics. There's an old drink called a French 75 from back around WWI. It's champagne mixed with brandy, because they liked the champagne but it needed a little more kick. It also has lemon juice. I took that one and called it a Winchester 73. We do it with Apple Jack whiskey and kava -- a Spanish champagne -- plus some orange bitters.
I made another one based on a drink called the Moscow Mule, which is made with ginger beer, vodka and lime juice. I just substituted tequila for vodka and called it the Tijuana Donkey. Little slants like that.
I also go through old cocktail books from the beginning, when the cocktail was basically invented, because liquor was so bad that they had to mix it with things to make it taste good. Now liquor's so clean. They used to add vermouth to vodka and gin because vermouth would make the horrible liquor taste better. That's where martinis come from. Now, gin's so good there isn't that much need for vermouth anymore. Vodka's the same.
So can you still serve a martini the same way?
There's an old story: when they first carried out the tests for the atomic bomb, the scientists were martini drinkers, and at ground zero one of them accidentally left a bottle of vermouth. The bomb went off with the bottle there, and to this day, there's a thin layer of vermouth floating in the atmosphere that's actually the perfect amount for the martini.
You've been in several bartending competitions. How do they work?
E3 was a national competition between bartenders from different states who had won regional contests. Basically, they gave you a complete bar of liquors. You could bring anything you wanted except liquor, and they'd give you a secret ingredient, sort of like an Iron Chef kind of thing, and you had three minutes to come up with a cocktail. That was a lot of fun.
Have you won any?
Oh yeah. I've been in 10 to 12, and I'd say I've won more than half. In fact, I have a few bartenders that work for me here who came in to interview and said, "You beat me in that bartending contest." I won one that got me a trip to Napa and a tour of a distillery there. The last one I was in I was judging at a culinary festival, so now I guess I'm retired.
Can you match a drink to someone's personality?
Jeff Spence, whom I used to work with at Los Sombreros, wrote a cookbook that has a little blurb about me that says I could talk to someone for five minutes and let them know what tequila they wanted. Beth from the KEZ show Beth & Friends asked me to come up with a cocktail after Bill Austin retired from the show. I reached into my druid background for that one and made a drink with Crème de Violet, a flower that symbolizes patience, a rosemary sprig to symbolize remembrance, and lots of vodka to symbolize Beth. It just comes from years of knowing what the flavors of the liquors are and getting to know the customer.
Do you have a drink that you consider your masterpiece?
When people ask which is my favorite tequila, I always say it's like my favorite woman or my favorite barbecue -- whatever's in front of me at the time.