Travis Nass fits in perfectly with the southwestern décor of Rancho Pinot (6208 N. Scottsdale Rd., 480-367-8030). With his old-timey mustache, bolo tie and immaculately coifed hair, he could be the barkeep at some wild West saloon, serving shots of whiskey to depressed cowboys. Luckily for us, he lives in an age in which the art of cocktail creation is more appreciated. The man behind Rancho Pinot's eclectic cocktail menu, Nass has manned the restaurant's bar for more than a year, serving up original drinks mixed with homemade liqueurs, winning cocktail competitions, and doing it all with his own bizarre yet likeable flair.
How did you get into bartending?
I've been in the industry for more than a decade. I started in Japanese restaurants. Ever since I was a little kid, my dream job was to be a Teppanyaki chef. I applied for the job a bunch of times and eventually got hired. I got trained by one of the original Benihana chefs, and the chef who developed their training program. It was kind of like an apprenticeship. I did that for four or five years, but eventually started to get bored with it. So I started doing pretty much every job in the restaurant. I did sushi, I hosted and I bartended. Ever since, every restaurant job I've had, I've worked both sides: back of the house and front of the house. Bartending seems to be the best mix of the two for me. It offers interaction with the guests as well as the creativity and artisanship that comes with creating food and drinks.
Your dream job was to be a chef at Benihana?
It was super random. I think I probably should have been born Asian. I've just always kind of gravitated toward the Japanese culture. My parents took me there as a kid. I always thought it would be fun -- you get to play with knives and fire! But as fun as it was, it's very limited in its vocabulary. You can only go so far with it. I have a problem where if I'm not learning anything, I get very antsy. I just needed to move on.
Has it been very different for you since you moved away from Teppanyaki?
This is the first restaurant I've worked at that's had bread and cheese. It's really been a big part of expanding my palate.
(more after the jump)
Does bartending offer you more creativity than cooking did?
Not necessarily more; it's just different. I like that combination of being able to interact with the people as well, which very few cooking jobs allow you. I think that's a very important part of being in this industry. Getting that immediate feedback is something that's difficult to do on the chef side.
You often enter cocktail competitions. Do you have any victories under your belt?
I was in Scharffen Berger Chocolate Adventure contest, and I got third place in that for a chocolate grapefruit gin. I was in a little informal thing with the bartender's guild and maker's mark, and I won that. I was just awarded the weekly winner in the grand gala shakedown, where people vote online. I entered the barren jager honey liquor contest. I didn't make the finals there, but they did offer me a job. "Apply to become our mixologist! Must love Jager!"
Tell me about the Maker's Mark competition.
What happened was the owner of Maker's Mark, every night when he goes home, his wife makes him a Manhattan. When he tried my drink, which was kind of a take on a Mai Tai -- Maker's 46, amaretto, orange liqueur and lime juice -- he said he wanted to get the recipe from me so he could change from a Manhattan to that drink. So he's drinking my drink every night. It's pretty awesome. The swag I got from that was pretty awesome too, but not as awesome as knowing the owner of Maker's Mark is drinking my drink.
Do you like competing? Is it about being better than your fellow bartenders?
I think it's good practice more than anything else. It just gets you thinking differently about each of the different cocktails. I don't think I'm better than anybody. I think it's cool to go out and hang out with the other bartenders; that's why the guild is great.
What's it take to win a cocktail competition?
If your cocktail fails, the reason is probably because it isn't balanced. Almost all of the great cocktails in our market are great because they're balanced. If you can make a drink with equal proportions of ingredients and flavor, you're ninety percent there.
Every gotten into the intense stuff, such as molecular mixology?
There's something to be said for molecular mixology, but in the end, the majority of people are going to see it as a gimmick. Most people who go out don't want a syringe full of some jelly in their drinks.
Do you make a lot of your own mixers or liqueurs?
During the winter, when a lot of great citrus is in season, I do an 11- or 12-citrus sweet and sour. But I do all sorts of different syrups; I make my own tonic; I'm working on my own cola; and I do an awesome ginger ale.
Why do that as opposed to just going out and buying all that stuff?
It's just a love factor. It obviously tastes way better, and it's really not that much harder to make. All the syrups, bitters, infusions and things like that are basically just like making tea; it just takes time. There's not a ton of effort involved and it tastes worlds better than anything you can buy. I'd put my homemade tonic up against any of the boutique tonics out there.
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Is there any drink you can't make on your own?
The cola is the hardest. You need to get it so it's similar enough that you can use it as a substitute, but different enough that it tastes better. The first time I made cola, it tasted great, but it wasn't cola. It was more like a root beer or cream soda.
You've obviously got an interesting sense of style. Where's it come from?
I just don't take myself too seriously. I'm not afraid to alter my appearance for the sake of humor. I really aspire to be like early, turn-of-the-century bartenders, like Jerry Thomas. That's sort of my inspiration.
What's it take to get the curl in the mustache?
You start with mustache wax. After training it for a while, it sort of just does it by itself.
Check back tomorrow for a recipe from Travis Nass.