You’ll find cocktail classicists, mixologists who dabble in molecular mixology and bartenders who fall somewhere in-between. Allan Katz spends time in the first and third camps, when he’s not minting one-liners. The Queens native got his start working for King Cocktail, The Modern Mixologist, Soho House and NYRSG before relocating to California. He was an opening team member at Noble Experiment, working with Sammy Ross in San Diego, and transitioned to Caña Rum Bar, where he now serves as General Manager. We recently met on the patio of Caña, where Katz discussed his background and approach.
There’s another Allan Katz?
There is another Allan Katz, and he’s been instrumental in my career. He’s the fellow that hosts Cocktail Hour on Martha Stewart Radio, as well as a host of other things, like being a chair for Slow Food and being Southern Wine and Spirits’ Director of Spirits Education and Mixology in NY. Did you know that guy’s starting a distillery? He’s working with Tom and Bill Potter in Brooklyn, and they’re cooking up some gin and whiskey in a facility in Williamsburg lovingly referred to as “The Shanty,” because that’s what they like to drink.
What’s the difference between you and the other Allan Katz?
We’ll start with fashion. You’ll never find a flower in my lapel, but that guy knows how to wear it. Another big difference, he’s a company man with Southern Wine and Spirits. I haven’t pledged any particular allegiance to any brand or portfolio. I tend to go off the cuff with whatever gives my guests the best bang for their buck.
Are you a bartender or a mixologist?
Can we settle for hooch pimp? Liquor hustler? Honestly, I think the bartender versus mixologist thing is kind of funny. We’re all bartenders, so long as we spend some time behind a bar. When you get up there in years and become a figurehead or an icon like Dale DeGroff, maybe at that point the title is more fitting because you’re doing things more for demonstration than opening your bar and serving the thirsty folk in the crowd.
What’s your first cocktail memory?
I’m going to have to say my tio Jorge muddling a caipirissima. He got hooked on caipirinhas when he was in Brazil, but being a proud Puerto Rican, he much preferred them with his native rum. It really influenced me, because when I first went out for a drink, I went to some chain restaurant and ordered a margarita and I had no register for sour mix. I was like, wow, this is not what my uncle drinks, and I decided I liked the way he drank, so I had him teach me a few things.
What did you become interested in first, cocktails or spirits?
The two kind of coalesced for me. I started drinking whiskey earlier than I should have. Again, god bless my uncle’s memory. He was a voracious Scotch drinker. He mainly favored the Highland stuff. I had no idea what particular region it was from, but I got a taste for good whiskey, and I knew what bad whiskey was the first time I snatched a bottle of Seagram’s VO from my friend’s parents’ liquor cabinet. Man, this is nothing like that stuff. So I’m going to have to say spirits. There was that initial curiosity. Why is one thing good and the other isn’t? That of course led into cocktails. Why do we do things a certain way? Why is this spirit in there? That all didn’t become clear to me until later in my life as a bartender. Like a lot of folks, I didn’t start out with it as a career. I was just paying for school.
Where did you go to school and what did you major in?
I went to SUNY Stony Brook and majored in Awesome…Well, actually, the Awesome class was full, so I majored in drinking a lot during the day…I was an English teacher for a short while. I majored in English and Secondary Ed. I taught English and History. That was about the time that whole cocktail revival was picking up steam. I saw all the action in New York and wanted to get in on it.
What was your first cocktail related job?
I definitely got my learning on when I went to work at Jovia. It was the last place that Dale DeGroff opened, on the Upper East Side. There was just a library of things I’d never seen, all these beautiful bottles of grappa and all these strange labels on the amari. That was the gateway drug. At that point, I wanted to know everything.
What was the path from there to here?
The path from there to here was a pretty crooked one. I worked there up until it closed. Then I went over to Soho House as their head bartender for a good while. That was a terrific blank check for me to order everything I’ve never tried, taste it and get familiar with it. That was a lot of fun. After about a year-and-a-half or two years of that, Tony Abou-Ganim rang me up. He had a project he was opening in the city and I got to work with him to get that thing open. That was called Bar Milano, another short-lived Italian concept with fantastic cocktails, but it became ‘inoteca Liquori bar, which is doing really well ever since. They definitely found their sweet spot with the concept there. It’s really been one referral to the other from when I started out. It all started with one regular giving me a business card and asking me if I’ve ever heard of his friends. This guy was friends with the whole Cocktail Mafia in the city at the time. He was friends with Dale and knew Audrey Saunders and all those folks. The guy really gave me something to shoot for. I never knew I could make a career out of something I loved to do. After working with Tony, I went over to NYRSG as their corporate beverage director and I got to follow in the footsteps of Dave Wondrich, who drafted their original cocktail menus and left behind a wealth of info for me to get my grubby hands on. Shortly thereafter I fell in love with a Californian and here we are.
Noble Experiment was not the Californian I fell in love with, but they are all generous and handsome young men. The Californian I fell in love with actually works here in L.A., at The Tar Pit. She wanted to move back to California, I’d never left New York my whole life and said what the hell.
So your girlfriend is a bartender too?
Mmm-hmm. It’s been bartenders and chefs for me. Unless you’re in the industry, you really don’t quite understand the hours. So there’s a lot less suspicion and questioning when you date somebody from within the beast. They know what it’s about.
Would you say that you have any cocktail mentors?
Certainly. I learned more in a few months from Tony [Abou-Ganim] than I did in a few years on my own.
What did he teach you?
The complete appreciation for a spirit. That guy has a relatively simple and straightforward style of cocktail making, but beneath that, there’s this vast wealth of knowledge. If he likes it, he’ll tell you where it was distilled, how it was distilled, what it was it distilled in, what it was aged in, and how all these components add up to a spirit’s character. From there, that’s how you get your foot in with mixing, when you decide what spirit is just right for the statement you want to make with the cocktail.