Behind the Bar: J.K. Grence at Trader Vic's

J.K. Grence has big dreams.

He's planned out the ideal bar -- the one he would like to open one day in the distant, fuzzy future.

"I'd want it to be some tropical hideaway," he says. "You just sink into the atmosphere of it and have nice people bring you fantastic drinks, and, for a little while, all is just perfect with the world."

Sounds like paradise -- or something you'd find in Vegas. (Don't worry, he promises to open his future hideaway in Phoenix).

A cross between a poet and a connoisseur, it turns out that Grence speaks just the way he writes on his popular Phoenix food blog, What the Jester Had for Dinner. And he looks just like you'd expect for a bartender at Trader Vic's throwback of a tiki bar. (Note the retro glasses, slick hair, and Hawaiian shirt -- though we won't credit that to anyone but the management's uniform standards.)

is the kind of guy you look at and think, "He should have been an actor." You can just see him cracking jokes on some smart sitcom or palling around with Anthony Bourdain.

"You're not the first person to tell me that," he says. "I might have been an actor already, if it wasn't that, if I became an actor, I wouldn't get to work with food anymore."

A foodie-about-town and Arizona native, Grence put in his years as a server at T.G.I.Friday's and Trader Vic's before finally getting to give it a shot behind the bar in 2007.

Although now he spends much of his time manning the front of the house (a maitre d' without the title, as he puts it), Grence holds to a traditionalist's point of view when it comes to bars and the drinks they serve.

"One of the things I love about bartending is that every drink has a story to it," he says. Quite a few of the classics can be found at Trader Vic's.

There's the classic Mai Tai, whose recipe goes back to 1944, though the recipe had to be changed twice over the years, "both times because we went through the entire world's supply of the rum we were using." It was a 17-year rum from Jamaica that Trader Vic's founder Vic Bergeron used when he first created it. There's one case left, actually. It was bought for $10,000 by a bar in Ireland, which now charges "several thousand dollars" for each Mai Tai they make with it. (We'll have that recipe for you tomorrow - without the pricey rum).

Then there's the Scorpion Bowl, a drink that's been mixed up at Trader Vic's using the same recipe since 1965, and the Zombie, which was invented in 1934. The original version, Grence tells us, was "so strong, it can't legally be served in the state of Arizona."

One of his favorite bars is in Los Angeles, and it's called the Tiki-Ti (are we sensing a theme here?)

"The only thing they have on their menu is 85 tropical drinks," he says. "They don't have beer; they don't have wine. The food offering is limited to a bowl of chips on the back of the bar, and that's it!" That, combined with an effective loophole in anti-smoking laws, and Grence is in love.

Not that he smokes, but, "it's funny when you walk into this place because you walk in, you smell that stale cigarette smoke, and it's like, 'Oh yeah, this is how a bar's supposed to smell!'" he says with gusto.

"It's not supposed to be somewhere nice; it's supposed to be a den of vice."

Another day, another one-liner -- delivered with a smile.

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Lauren Gilger
Contact: Lauren Gilger