Interview: bartender Dino Balocchi (Littlefork)

Bartender Los Angeles


Which came first, your interest in cocktails, or your interest in spirits?

That’s a tough one. I loved whiskey, always, even when I didn’t really have a discerning palate, or enough to be able to tell or not. I’d go into bars and ask for Maker’s Mark or Willett or something like that, just because I thought it was fun to try American whiskey.

Do you collaborate with [Littlefork Chef] Jason [Travi] at all?

Yeah, we were just talking today about what he’s going to be bringing in. What do you want to do this spring in terms of fruits and vegetables, spices? What do you want to bring in? We’re both thinking we’re going to bring on a new menu sometime at the beginning of May. Rhubarb is something we were talking about today. I don’t know if that will work out.

What was your very first night like behind a bar, and where was that?

That was in college in Iowa City, Iowa, working at a music venue called The Green Room. I was just nervous. Luckily that place was beer and shots, and maybe a rum and Coke here and there.

Not recipe driven?

Right, exactly. I got rid of the jitters pretty quickly because I’m used to being on a stage, in general. That attention is very okay with me.

What’s your top selling cocktail here, and why do you think that’s the case?

There are two of them, but one of them is pretty solidly the forerunner: Thai Town Mule. It reads really well. You look at it, it’s gin, Thai basil and peppercorn, ginger beer and Creole bitters. House-made ginger beer. People look at it and they’re like, “Oh, it’s like a mule, but a little bit different, and it’s kind of spicy. Cool.” That does really well.

The other one I’m surprised sells really well is a Saskatchewan Summer. It’s basically a riff on a Toronto. It’s rye, honey cardamom syrup, Fernet, and Forbidden Bitters. That’s it, and it sells really well. I was surprised. We’re in Hollywood. I didn’t think we’d be selling a ton of rye whiskey and Fernet drinks.

Would you say you’ve had any mentors over the years?

Absolutely. Probably the guy who taught me the most is Derrick Alexander from Longman & Eagle. Just very encouraging. He taught me a lot about technique and was a great sounding board. Anything we were into at the restaurant, he was like, “You should try this.” Or, “You should try that.” He was just very encouraging. I’d come up with something and he’d be like, “Go back to the drawing board. Work on this.”

Also, Jim McCann at Longman as well. Just really, really knows whiskey and knows bourbon so well. He brought me to a lot of events and was always trying to extend my knowledge.

What are you looking for when you’re hiring somebody to work alongside you behind the bar?

There’s got to be a love of cocktails. I feel like you can’t really get behind a bar that’s cocktail driven and not be interested in drinking them yourself.

Are there questions that you ask to gauge that?

I will ask what your favorite drink is, and why, and what spirit you use for that. It says a lot if there’s good reason behind it. There’s a lot of discussion that can happen after that.

What sort of music do you like to listen to when you’re behind the bar?

It depends on the atmosphere, but I really do prefer it to be a little more energetic. Not club music or anything, but definitely more energetic and higher energy in terms of the energy of the crowd, versus the energy behind the bar. I don’t want my bartenders running around, but it’s definitely nice when they’re in the flow and the music’s feeding into that and the guests are feeding off that. It creates a little looser of an atmosphere.

Do you have control over the set list at Littlefork?

I don’t, but it’s alright. It’s suitable.

What is your drink of choice, and what’s your reason behind it?

Manhattan is my favorite drink. It definitely was my favorite drink when I first started getting into cocktails. I love vermouth. I love the idea of pairing whiskey with vermouth, and seeing how well they go together. When I was at Longman, we did a seminar on vermouth and how they differ and how they work in a Manhattan together with different spirits.

If you could only have one more Manhattan, who would you let make it for you?

Probably either Paul McGee – he works in Chicago at a place called Bub City, but also used to work at a place called The Whistler – or Mike Ryan, who works at Sable in Chicago. Both are excellent bartenders and know exactly what they’re doing. I’m sure they would whip up something good for me.

Have you found any favorite drinking spots in L.A.?

I try to go see Matt [Biancaniello], who used to work over at Library Bar, because I think his ideas are interesting. All of his ideas at the very least have me thinking. I like Spare Room and go there every once in awhile. Varnish is great. I was not going to cop out and say that, but they make good drinks. Las Perlas is excellent, which is curious to me, because I don’t know tequila as well as I know other spirits. It’s my last frontier in terms of really diving into the nuances of it. I go there and all the drinks are just really well done.

What’s a great simple cocktail that you suggest people make at home?

A Last Word is a great cocktail. It’s kind of a pain in the butt to get all the ingredients, but it’s kind of a crossover drink. It kind of takes you out of the Margarita thing, or if you like a gimlet, you can cross over into drinks that are herbaceous or have a spice element to it. A Last Word does that.

What’s your preferred recipe?

Equal parts. That’s the way I’ve always made it. 1:1:1:1. I know that’s four ounces, but it’s such a good drink, you can get a little bit extra.

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Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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