Downtown may be the epicenter of cocktail culture in Los Angeles, but Hollywood and West Hollywood are coming on strong. For example, over the past eight months, Matt Biancaniello has slowly been building a name for himself at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s intimate Library Bar. The self-taught barman learned on the job as a caterer. He now spends five days per week at local farmers market shopping for seasonal fruits and herbs to incorporate into his cocktails, which currently include an heirloom tomato mojito and a lemon verbena-raspberry daiquiri made with yellow and orange raspberries. Biancaniello showcases his colorful finds on the bar and uses them to make fresh syrups like lavender and ginger. The Boston native recently sat down to discuss his background and approach.
Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?
I’ve never called myself a mixologist. It’s always been somebody else who’s called me a mixologist, and I always look at it as mixology is what we do, but there’s so much more we do besides that.
So what’s the difference?
It’s very simple. Mixology is what we do, but a bartender tends the bar. They’re concentrating on service. They’re taking care of the bar at the end. It’s almost like this is your home, so you’re taking care of the bar. You’re a barkeeper. You’re responsible for everything. You’re responsible for aesthetics. You’re responsible for service. You’re responsible for quality of the drinks. A mixologist, for me, is like someone who almost has a corporate job, working for a liquor company like Belvedere. I kind of picture a mixologist in their laboratory, experimenting with their liquors to come up with cocktails…They’re basically trying out recipes all day long with their new vodkas or whatever it is.
How did you become so interested in bartending?
I’ve been doing it for about three years. I was in advertising for awhile and had a hard time with sales, so I got into bartending, and I was working mostly for catering companies and private chefs. I just kind of lied about knowing how to do it…About eight months ago, my wife gave me a copy of Dale DeGroff’s Essential Cocktail book. I almost saw it as art after that.
I always loved going to the farmers market. I grew up going to farmers markets and going to farms, eating fresh things. That’s how I eat at home. When I was starting at this bar, this is the first bar I ever worked in. It was very overwhelming, so I started to do simple things, like take a pomegranate martini and replace it with fresh pomegranate juice from the farmers market, and the response from that person across the bar was unbelievable. You’d think I put gold in their cup. That was the first thing that got me excited.
It’s not just about mixing the drinks and making the cocktails, but you have to love when that light goes on in someone’s eyes across from you. You have to have a passion for that as well. It can’t just be a passion for the drinks. A chef can be creating back in the kitchen, but they don’t necessarily get that instant gratification of seeing that person when they take that first bite. We have that opportunity to see that and I love that.
One thing I don’t focus on is “This is my drink and if you don’t like it, you don’t have any taste.” You can’t lose perspective of the person and what their needs are. There’s no way my wife is ever going to drink gin, so why am I going to try to make gin taste good for her?…What I love about mixing cocktails is I can do something to it right away. If I give you a drink and you don’t like it, I can change it instantly. If I was a chef and cooked you a lobster risotto, if you don’t like it there’s not a lot I can do.
Do you have a cocktail menu?
I do have one, but I feel like I’ve outgrown it. Most of my cocktails are off the menu right now, and a lot of it is seasonal as well, so I’m creating a new menu for the middle of September, for the fall.
So a lot of seasonal ingredients?
Not just seasonal, but a lot more of what I think represents who I am, what I’m doing. I have a drink with strawberry and balsamic vinegar with St. Germain foam [and Hendrick’s Gin] that is great. I’m doing an heirloom tomato mojito right now. We’re coming into pomegranate season, so we have the Hades Martini. We’re coming into grapes, we’re coming into apples. I’m going to be infusing bourbons with roasted pumpkin and roasted chestnuts. I’m going to be getting into all the fall fruit. A year ago, I was just starting out, so now coming into fall and coming into all these new flavors, I have such a stronger perspective of what I can do or what I want to do. So many more things are going to be available to me, whereas before I just didn’t have the same eyes.
What’s your first cocktail memory?
When I worked for that catering company, it was some corporate event. A woman asked me for a Cosmopolitan, and I didn’t know what it was, so I ducked down under the bar and whispered to the girl next to me, “What’s in a Cosmopolitan?” She had to tell and I made it.
How did the Library Bar opportunity come about?