San Antonio native Julian Walstrom moved to Hawaii in 2010, and he’s already made a big impact on the Honolulu bar scene. He started downtown at Brasserie Du Vin, joined fellow Austin acolyte Quinten Frye, the chef at 12th Avenue Grill, and Walstrom joined his friend around the corner to helm the bar program at sister establishment Salt Kitchen & Tasting Bar. On July 5, we spoke with Walstrom at Salt, and he shared several spirited insights.
What was the transition like from Austin to Honolulu?
I come from Austin, me and my buddies, and the food scene’s been blowing up there. Coming to Hawaii, I was not sure what to expect. Is it going to be really progressive? Is it going to be like 10 years ago? It’s a little bit of both, because you find guys in town – I’d say a handful – doing classic cocktails that I’d say are comparable to San Fran or Portland. You also find guys doing typical mai tais and Dark and Stormys. It’s really hard here. For me it’s like an educational process. People come in and see the word aperitif and they’re like, “Whoa, I don’t know what that is, therefore I don’t want it.” To me, it’s a matter of educating and having people try new things. If I go out and see something I’ve never heard of before, that’s exactly what I want to try. People in Hawaii are a little more intimidated.
Did you always plan to be a bartender and work with beverages?
Yeah. I started when I was 19, working at a restaurant in Austin called Jeffrey’s. At that time, it was a five-star restaurant in Austin. I kind of got my start there doing bar-backing, food-running and bussing stuff and eventually became a bartender, worked in downtown Austin, all over the place. Always restaurant bars though, never just bar bars. I’ve never been in a shot and a beer bar before. I’ve never worked in one of those. It’s always been classic cocktails. I came to Hawaii and was looking to get away from just pouring wine and beer, as far as in a restaurant. We opened this place about 14, 15 months ago. They were like, “Whatever you want to do. It’s your cocktail program. Whatever you feel like doing.” I was doing some classic cocktails, but I read a lot and took my own approach. Most of the drinks we do here are stuff we create. I try not to do recipes you’ve seen before. People come in here, they want a Manhattan, but I usually say, “You want to try something new?” The guys I bartend with are great, very talented.
A Manhattan would never go on the menu at Salt, but it’s always available?
Always available. The standard cocktails, we offer, but at the same time, we’ll say, “You want a whiskey cocktail? Let me go with it and I’ll give you something you’ve never had before.” It’s more interesting to go to a bar and have a new drink instead of your standard Old Fashioned or Manhattan. Vodka martini is kind of boring. To each his own, I guess, if it pleases the customer, but it’s fun to try new things. I’ve done a few cocktail rounds here where people had no idea what I was talking about. Fernet based drinks, using over an ounce of bitters, people are like, “This is just weird.” You have to kind of pick and choose.
What’s your first cocktail memory, good or bad?
A drink that I made or a drink that I drank?
I remember going to a bar and thinking the cool drink to order was a Lemon Drop Martini, and the bartender didn’t know how to make a Lemon Drop Martini, so he just poured citron vodka and he strained it and started splashing on top. I was thinking to myself, “This is so gnarly. I don’t like cocktails. I want to go back to beer.” I was pretty young in the scene though. I started bartending when I was 19. Texas law is 18. Then I became 21 and started going out quite a bit. Pretty quickly after that I fell into the Eastside of Austin, which is house-made bitters, small-batch bourbons, rye whiskey based cocktails. At a young age, I was turned on to that. It was always in my repertoire, but I was always with restaurants and restaurant bars, which were geared more toward vodka martini, gin martini, Manhattan, wine and beer, for the most part. I really opened up once I left Hawaii, which seems kind of funny. I left Austin kind of mediocre, came to Hawaii and became a way better bartender.
There’s a bartender here on Kauai named Dave Powers. He’s the best bartender in all of Hawaii. People may say otherwise, but he’s the best bartender in all of Hawaii.
He can do any kind of cocktail. Clean. Concise. All of his drinks are done the right way. Creative. Very well read. He’s read every classic cocktail book there is. I’ve had cocktails he’s done at other bars in Portland or San Fran and he does his to the T, just perfect. One of a kind bartender.
Are there any advantages or disadvantages to being a bartender in Hawaii?
Just kind of how I was saying. It’s tricky. You can’t always push the envelope. It’s fun to try new things but to make a cocktail that’s cool to me but doesn’t sell doesn’t make sense in this business world. You have to kind of pick and choose from both sides. You want your drinks to sell, but you don’t want to sell out. It makes it tricky, but I consider it to be a challenge. If I was in Austin doing this, all my friends do that. They do all the same stuff. They wear the big crazy moustache, the bow-tie, skinny jeans. They can sell crazy cocktails to every customer. Here it’s a little more touch and go, but to me it’s an awareness as time goes on. The bar’s being raised little by little. I like to think that myself and a few other guys in town are trying to push the envelope and turn people on to new things here in Hawaii.
Who else is pushing the envelope?
At a bar called Pint & Jigger, Dave Newman. He used to be the bartender at Nobu. Fantastic bartender. Down the road off 9th Avenue there’s a fantastic restaurant called Town. The bartender’s named Kyle [Reutner]. Awesome. Very, very good.
Salt Mexican Martini and Paloma Blanco
What’s your top selling cocktail at Salt?
Funny enough, Mexican Martini, which is a drink you’ll find in Austin a lot, in Texas. It’s kind of like a margarita, but with a little olive juice. It’s pretty simple. I do mine with Cazadores, St. Germain, fresh lime and a touch of olive juice. Sweet, savory, sour, all at the same time. Very close behind that is one of our whiskey cocktails. We do a Brooklyn cocktail here with whiskey, dry vermouth, Luxardo maraschino and Averna amaro. Any Manhattan variation sells very well. This neighborhood’s very specific. It’s not Waikiki. It’s not a tourist trap. It’s not Chinatown, which is kind of like shot and a beer, Hello Kitty shots. In this part of town, they want a classic cocktail, they want a glass of wine. That makes it a little easier for me.
What sort of music do you like to listen to when you’re behind the bar?
It depends on my mood. We pick the music here on Pandora, so one day it might be chill Reggae music. The next day it might be jazz. It might be Arcade Fire. I try to match the vibe to the place too. Usually at the beginning of the night, jazz. Late night, you’ll hear hip-hop, pretty loud.
What does a bartender have to be to work here?
First of all, humble. I don’t like going to be the bar and feeling like the bartender’s cocky. Friendly. I tell the guys at the bar, “They don’t come here for a cocktail, they come here to talk to us.” It’s all about the personality. Being fun, responsible and clean. Know your stuff. Read. A lot of people want me to tell them everything. I learned because I read. Go home and taste the product. Go home and read about it. Make the bar approachable.
What’s your favorite thing about bartending?
Talking to people. The drinks are great, but I enjoy the interaction with customers. I’m very much a people person, which makes it easy for me, whether I’m talking to someone about their day or pairing a cocktail with their meal, everything in between is fun.
If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would be in your glass?
Who would make it for you?