Justin Bolotnik may be a new face at Ticoz Resto-Bar (5114 N. 7th St., 602-200-0160), but he's an old hand at bartending, having logged time at T.G.I.Friday's (where he got his start at 17), Hard Rock Café (where he opened several international spots and helped rewrite the drink menu while bartending alongside celebrities like Chris Farley and George Clooney) and Oregano's. Worldly, charming and skilled with liquor, for four months now Bolotnik's been displaying his considerable expertise at Ticoz, managing the bar and mixing up drinks for regulars and newcomers alike. Ask him for a story along with your next drink order -- he's got plenty.
How did you get your start in bartending?
Friend of mine was bartending at a corporate restaurant and I saw the kind of money he was bringing home. Being 17 years old and walking home with $250 a night, I said I have to give it a shot. I went in there having never waited a table or poured a drink, and they said alright. He's new and young' we'll go ahead and teach him and mold him to what we think's right. I was there for a couple years, and I've been bartending for 17 years now.
What was working at the Hard Rock like?
It was exciting, but a lot of work. I opened up Moscow, a bunch of international openings. I worked in Athens and Sydney for the Olympics. During the Olympics, they basically turn those cities into 24-hour cities to cater to those people who are only going to be there that month. You're working 16 hour days, man, and taking care of people from every country all over the world. It's a great experience, but you don't get to see much of the actual events because you're always working.
What was it like working in all those foreign locales?
Some countries are more challenging than others. Language barriers aren't really an issue nowadays -- everyone knows English. But some openings are super-easy and some suck. The worst was Bogota, Columbia. Great staff, great store, easy opening -- but we had to be in our rooms every night at 8 p.m. They were afraid of kidnapping. But I felt safer there walking around than I do walking around on the south side of Phoenix. Rio was nice, because we kind of had the opposite problem. They had a problem down at the docks and couldn't get all the restaurant equipment in through customs. So for two weeks, every day we'd go to work knowing our stuff wasn't going to show up on the docks. After a couple hours we'd go, "Alright!" and go down to the beach to play soccer all day, and get paid for it. That was awesome.
Do you miss all the traveling?
I do. I had to leave it because of my son. He was born, and it was either settle down or travel and make a little more money but never see my kid.
What do you dislike about bartending?
It has its downsides. The hours -- sometimes you're working until 2:30 or 3 in the morning, and when you get home you can't get to bed because you're still wired from trying to break down the bar and clean and stock. You're still moving 100 miles an hour, so it's hard to even get to bed until 6 in the morning, and before you know it it's 2 p.m. and you have to be back at work at 4. Also, especially if it's slow and we have the okay to close early, there's always that one person who walks in the door. There's a couple that likes to come in late and buy calamari and a couple of mojitos, and they'll sit there for two hours. They're always the last people to leave.
Are there more good times than bad?
Oh, absolutely. The people you meet and the connections you establish over the years are nice. People like to hook up bartenders with free shit. I got tickets to go to the FBR this week from a guy who works for Waste Management, so I'll be up in a tent on the 17th hole eating and drinking for free this weekend.
What's the most important aspect of a good cocktail?
The alcohol! If you can't taste the alcohol, something's wrong. A lot of people will go, "Wow, this is so smooth. I can't even taste the alcohol in there!" But if that's the case, you have a problem. It's also about putting the right combinations together. Jager and pineapple juice ain't going to happen.
What was your most memorable night as a bartender?
I once got a $1,000 tip for making one drink. When I was at the Hard Rock, I had just opened the restaurant. It was like a Tuesday afternoon. I'm prepping and this guy walks in. "Hey, can you make a good dirty martini?" "Absolutely, martinis are my specialty." I mix him up a dirty martini, pass it over, and he goes, "Hey, you ever see $60,000 in cash?" I say no. He opens up a briefcase and there it is. He just got back from Vegas and won. He pulled out 1,000 bucks, said, "Thank you very much," and left. Never saw him again. I also got the chance to work with a lot of celebrities over the years. Those nights were pretty memorable. I got to bartend with Chris Farley, Tommy Chong, Bruce Willis, Hootie -- Darius Rucker. We'd bring a celebrity in and auction drinks they made off for charity -- we called it Startender night. Some of them actually knew what they were doing. Bruce Willis actually was a bartender for years. But some were bad -- Chris Farley was an absolute mess. One night we did this with George Clooney and he took me and the manager out to Christie's afterward. I got to hang out with George Clooney at a fucking titty bar!
What do you drink when you go out?
I'm a beer and tequila guy; that's it. I used to switch it up and have SoCo on the rocks, Guinnes and Jager. But nowadays, just give me a good domestic draft and Hornitos.