Housed in a sprawling brick warehouse in downtown Phoenix, The Duce (525 S. Central Ave., 602-866-3823) is difficult to describe. The area -- nicknamed "The Deuce" by local cops in the twenties -- originally housed produce purveyors by day and speakeasies by night. Today, it feels less like a variety store and more like an entire city neighborhood. The place has everything: a cappuccino bar, ice cream parlor, clothing store, fresh produce, old-fashioned sodas and beers, soaps, candles, cookbooks, flowers, tableware and a fully functional boxing gym.
The centerpiece of this eclectic mix is the Duce's bar, imported straight from Chicago and run by Carol Skolnick. A Chi-town import herself, Skolnick has been behind the bar since the Duce opened in May, keeping the old-school experience alive by serving exclusively prohibition-era cocktails mixed with fresh-squeezed juice and organic liquors. Pretty, gritty, and of course, very Chicago, Skolnick's passion for her job is spurred by her connection to the bar itself.
I've heard the bar at the Duce is pretty historic.
There's a real story behind this bar. Back in the 70s I lived in Chicago and was married to an entertainer. We used to go down to a bar called the Black Orchid; it was a hangout of ours. They brought in big name entertainment and it was quite the place to go. Long story short, Andy called me, she says, "Mom, we got this bar from a place called the Black Orchid." I said, "Oh my God! That name rings a bell!" The day this thing arrived, I was sitting down here waiting for the truck and in comes this bar. I called Andy up in Michigan and said, "You're not going to believe this. This is the exact bar that we would sit at when I used to go there!" I mean, you're talking 30 years ago! The hair on the back of my next stood up.
A little eerie, huh?
It was like: this is meant to be. For about 18 years, when [Duce owner Steve Rosenstein] had the other clothing company, I was the bookkeeper. But prior to that -- I'm talking '68, '69, maybe '70 -- a friend of mine opened a bar, and he called me and said he wanted me to do him a favor and help him open it as a bartender. I said, "I don't know how to bartend!" He said it didn't matter; he just wanted me to help him get this thing started. So that was literally my experience when I started bartending. I was there for 8 months. After I left that place and started working with Steve, there was so much to do I never thought of bartending again. But when this bar showed up, my daughter Andrea said, "Mom, this is meant to be." It was clear that they didn't really need a bookkeeper anymore, so here I am. It's meant to be. I know it is, and that's how I come into work every day: feeling like this job was hand-picked for me. I really believe that.
How are the drinks at the Duce?
We have all these fabulous drinks. Our Screwdriver, for example, isn't any different than a Screwdriver was 40 years ago. What is different is that we take all the basic drinks and fresh-squeeze all the fruit. There's not one carton of grapefruit juice, orange juice -- anything. Everything is squeezed and made fresh. With the Screwdrivers, we take the fruit and muddle it in the jar. People say they like to watch us make it.
Is it hard to put all that effort into one drink?
At the beginning it was really time-consuming. Once you get going with it, you become faster. I don't drink, but people tell me our drinks are fabulous. They would have to be; we use organic liquor, we use all fresh ingredients, everything is dressed up. It takes a little time, but it's worth it. When I train new people, I'm emphatic about that. There are no shortcuts. It can't be what you think is nice; it has to be right.
More after the jump.
Does organic make a big difference in the drinks?
I'm told it does. People will come in here and say, "I've been drinking Old Fashioneds all my life. What is different?" They watch me make the drinks, because we do everything right in the open. It's the organic liquors and the fresh-squeezed juices and the fresh fruits that go into these drinks; that has to be it. The recipes we haven't changed; an Old Fashioned is an Old Fashioned. It's the ingredients that make our drinks special.
Can a patron go off-menu?
We don't really vary. If someone wants a vodka tonic, we can do that, but if someone comes in and asks for a Bulldog or something like that, we won't do it.
You don't drink at all -- that's a little rare for bartenders.
Yeah. Years ago I had an ulcer. Back in the days when my husband and I used to go to the Black Orchid, sure, I had a cocktail now and then, because I didn't have my ulcer yet. I thought I was going to need surgery and all that, so I just didn't need that.
Does it make it difficult to make the drinks when you're not drinking them yourself?
Not really. I hate liver, but I make good chopped liver. Drinks are the same.
Has it been hard bringing Chicago to Phoenix?
As soon as they bought this building, they kind of knew right away what they were going to do. The space kind of dictates to you what it needs. I would say that it wasn't all that hard. You have a plan, you know what you're going to do, and you do it. Look at our beers: everyone said we should have this kind of beer, and we said no. And when we say no, we mean no. We are going to do six, seven beers and they're all going to be from Milwaukee or Chicago, and be old-time beers.
Why do things that way?
We want it to be like old Chicago. We didn't want a typical bar; there are plenty of those around. Everything is how it used to be, so to speak. We just think going back to the old school is worthwhile.
Check back tomorrow for a cocktail recipe from Carol Skolnick.
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