Here, Chilled has an exclusive interview with David Nepove, director of mixology for Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits and United States Bartenders’ Guild Past President. A must read.
Tell us a bit about your background in the liquor business.
Well, my first bartending job was at the Marina International Hotel in Marina Del Rey back in 1987, and I have never looked back. I have gotten to work for some amazing people who shaped the way I work with the people around me. I have always been a sponge looking to improve, and have been fortunate to work at bars that were both putting out amazing food and cocktails, as well as making their mark on the city. My second bar job was at Carlos & Pepe’s in Santa Monica in the 1980s, where we turned out nothing but blended Margaritas made with fresh-made sour, limes and sugar. I’ve only worked at two or three bars that purchased bottled Sweet and Sour – those were the dark days. Many people today take for granted that they are using fresh juices. From what I see, there are still thousands of restaurants that are not using fresh ingredients.
Before I came to be the mixologist for SGWS of Northern California, I was the lead bartender at Enrico’s Sidewalk Café in San Francisco where I was fortunate to work with icons such as Adam Richey, Todd Smith, and Marco Dionysos, and become friends with those who would continue to shape the industry we call home. Inspiration comes from those we surround ourselves with, and if it was not for the friendship and support of my peers, I would not have been fueled with the passion they gave me. So thank you to Jacques Bezuidenhout, Julio Bermejo, Ryan Fitzgerald, Dominic Venegas, Carlos Yturria, Martin Cate, and Duggan McDonnell, to name just a few.
My time at Enrico’s was filled with an endless passion for fresh fruit cocktails. We were known for the Mojito, but that was just the cash cow. We muddled everything from jalapenos to kumquats, and kiwis to apples. Becoming the mixologist for Southern these past 11 years has been incredibly rewarding, not just because I get to work for such a great company, but because I get to share my passion with so many bartenders who are in need of a little inspiration.
Talk to us about some of the best skills/lessons you’ve learned from behind the bar.
I am the master of borrowing great skills from my peers. I love watching bartenders. It is my search for constant improvement of myself and to share.
For starters, there are no rags behind the bar, only towels. Rags are for washing cars … I learned that back in 1985. Eric Castro showed me the two-handed fine strain, and a trip to London with Marco and Jacques allowed me to witness a fine strain with the bar spoon in the same hand as the shaker, so the bartender did not have to put down the shaker to grab a spoon in order to help the strainer release the liquid into the cocktail.
I think the most valuable lesson I learned was how to sell cocktails to the undecided and unknowing guest. To not offer a menu and ask if they’d like a drink, but to actually take a few seconds to explain the cocktail program or point out a favorite drink of mine. This helps the guest trust that the bartender is both passionate and the “king or queen” of their domain, and can be trusted to guide the guest through a memorable experience.
What are some tips and tricks all bartenders should know?
There are so many, and to some these may be commonplace, but to others they make a world of difference: Remove all plastic from the bar! Garnishes should be in glass bowls, napkins placed on plates (not in caddies), straws in glasses, and juices in cleaned out wine and spirit bottles (red wine bottles for lime juice and white wine bottles for other juices). Quite simply … glass is sexy and plastic is not. Of course, purees and egg whites are fine in squeeze bottles, or glass maple syrup decanters.
What is your favorite cocktail to make and drink?
I am so happy that so many craft bartenders have embraced classic cocktails these past few years. It has been really easy to get some of my favorite drinks: Daiquiri, Old Fashioned, Negroni and, of course, the Mojito … though it is still a challenge to get the craft bartender to muddle. I like the show as do many guests, of watching the Mojito being muddled.
Who would you say are some of the top up-and-coming bartenders today, and what makes them stand out?
There are so many talented bartenders today, and up and coming … at the speed they have been rising these days, some of my choices may be considered veterans now! Brian Means, formerly of Dirty Habit, now the corporate lead bartender and mixologist for the Mina Group. Brian has done a ton of research and experimentation. I love watching bartenders take initiative and make a place for themselves in this rich pool of talent. He has made a great name for himself due to his hard work and innovation.
How do you approach cocktail development? What are your strategies?
I like to keep it simple. Most of the bars, restaurants, and hotels I am working with do not want complicated cocktails or cocktails with too many steps, which is perfect, as I love the current trend of taking a classic and making a slight variation.
I love working with preserves (jams and marmalades) and fresh herbs and local ingredients. My strategy is to swap liqueurs or syrups, different citrus juices, and spirits. For example, Streetcar Named Desire is a Side Car with orange marmalade and egg whites. The Broken Branch cocktail is a Manhattan with Amaro and Maraschino as well as Bourbon, bitters, and sweet vermouth. The Barrel of Monkeys is a Whiskey Sour with Jameson Black Barrel, Apricot Liqueur, and apricot preserves.
What is an impressive and simple ‘go-to’ cocktail?
Daiquiri, Tommy’s Margarita, Chartreuse Swizzle, Old Fashioned, Queens Park Swizzle.
Tell us your take on cocktail culture today. Where do you see it headed in the future?
It’s a mess out there … ha! Just kidding. The talent pool is amazing. The community has really come around these past few years, focusing on guest relations and ensuring the guests needs are met rather than trying to force-feed what we think they should have. So glad that has stopped. Making the best Cosmopolitan a guest has ever had is way better that trying to talk a guest out of having a vodka cocktail. Bartenders know more about whiskey, gin rum, liqueurs, vermouths, Amaro, sherry, mescal than in the past. It is really impressive to see how passionate bartenders can be. While I still think there is room for improvement, as for every bartender that is truly interested in the craft, there are ten that have yet to embrace it as a craft or put the time and energy in to make a difference in the guests’ experience.
The future is bright! With brands and organizations putting more focus on the bartender, we are continuing to create a strong talent pool of likeminded individuals whose ultimate goal is to impress the guest with their focus on the guest experience and the perfect balance in their cocktail choice.
Any regrets about your life behind the bar?
My feet hurt … other than that, not a one!
Any advice for up-and-coming bartenders that would like to follow in your footsteps?
Just because you’re a bartender does not mean you can handle your alcohol better that others … be smart and drink responsibly. We are the gatekeepers of the bar, and it is a huge responsibility that should not be taken lightly. Also, I know this has been talked about quite a bit these past few years, but it is so important – health and fitness should not be ignored. You don’t have to be a professional athlete or a fitness model, but you do need to take care of yourself. Eat smart, sleep enough, hydrate, and find some physical activity you enjoy: cycle, yoga, walk, take a boot camp fitness class, play soccer with friends … I have been working out two to four days a week my entire adult life and it has helped me tremendously both for my state of mind, personal health, and has allowed me to enjoy life to its fullest. Eat smart, play smart, work smart, and surround yourself with loved ones!