Cocktail culture is thriving in large part due to a passionate contingent of exceptional bartenders and mixologists. This feature places a spotlight on the craftspeople behind the bar, and not just the structure itself. Bartender Daniel Shoemaker runs Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Oregon.
Joshua Lurie: Do you consider yourself a bartender or a mixologist? What’s the difference?
Daniel Shoemaker: I tend to shudder at the term mixologist. I have a true linguistic obsession & love naming things, so I understand the impulse to create a classification that acts as a shibboleth for those involved in or watching the current trend in cocktails. However, I think the terms bandied about these days diminish the responsibility a practitioner of the craft has to the overall experience, to ensure a pleasant experience for everyone at the bar & to create a sociable environment. At the most, I can accept “craft bartender” as a nomenclature.
JL: How did you become interested in tending bar?
DS: Waiting tables got me through college, but it wasn’t until I stepped behind the bar that the smile was genuine. It helped to socialize the hermit in me & offered a viable outlet for my storytelling impulses. The concern with a well-crafted cocktail, as for most of us, came much, much later as a result of a very organic evolution & true boredom with throwing merely quaffable concoctions at an uncritical public.
JL: What’s your first cocktail memory?
DS: I was the disciplined son of a teatotalling minister. Hence, Amaretto Sour on my 21st birthday to the grim disapproval of my mother. Still have a soft spot for the drink, & I always will.
JL: What’s your current favorite spirit or liquor?
DS: Amari. The depth of character in this family of bitter digestifs is phenomenal. So to explore the range of expressions, the subtle nuances that shape them & express themselves so profoundly in a drink, never ceases to amaze me.
JL: Which cocktail is past its prime?
DS: I’m not sure how to answer. I know the cosmopolitan is the favorite whipping post for the community these days, but that simply highlights a misstep that I believe many bartenders are taking. The drink has all the components for a balanced cocktail, so the aversion to hearing it ordered speaks to our boredom with making it more than a proper indictment of the customer’s palate. I think cocktails will continue to come into, & fall out of, favor. I tend to forget how delicious some classics are one week, the obsess anew about them the next. The cycle will continue, & we have to keep widening our repertoire. That said, I’d be OK never making another Incredible Hulk.
JL: What’s the cocktail of the future?
DS: I don’t believe there’s a particular cocktail of the future. I’m thrilled how much the entire community pushes to be more creative each day. Some aspects will be trends that we’ll all forget about in a few years, but I do believe each one informs us at least a little bit about how to produce drinks. I’m uber-jealous that these whippersnappers growing up in this climate have a foundation that the older generation didn’t, and I’m kind of scared at what they’re going to come up with.
JL: Describe one of your original cocktails. What’s it called and what was your approach?
DS: Sandcastles in the Sky contains Glenfarclas 12-yr. scotch, Floc de Gascogne, Benedictine, housemade bitters & absinthe. It’s lightly fragrant, subtly herbaceous, finishing with deep undercurrents & smoke, wood & spice. A friend brought in some amazing Floc de Gascogne (French fortified white) for me to taste & play around with. I immediately, to his surprise, reached for the Glenfarclas, as the stone fruit made me long for some soft peat & oak. Scotch has always been a tough nut to crack in drinks, since it doesn’t like to play nice very often. So I was happy to find affinities in the remaining ingredients that allowed it to maintain its integrity but actually be enhanced by the accent notes.
JL: Do you have a cocktail mentor, and what did they teach you?
DS: Erik Adkins (currently bar manager at Heaven’s Dog in San Francisco). We worked together for years, but he got interested in our profession as craft quite a while before I did. It took me an extra year to open up my bar, & I pestered him with questions a few times a week, often several times in one day. We’re both geeks, & are prone to talk dilution-ratio for hours on end. But without his coaching & constant, gentle corrections, I wouldn’t be the bartender I am today.
JL: Outside of your bar, what’s your favorite bar in town and why?
DS: Clyde Common. The crew has always been kind and gracious, & they mix a mean drink. Jeff Morgenthaler took over the bar program there recently, & I consider him a world-class craftsman.
JL: Who’s another mixologist you respect and why?
DS: If it has to be mixologist, I’d say Duggan McDonnell (Cantina, SF). He has a whimsy in his cocktails that is unrivaled. By that, I mean that he has no need for the rules that constrain the rest of us, & it’s a much more instinctive process he uses to build a drink. He has an understanding of flavors & their roles together that borders on the savant. However, if it’s all-around “bartender”: Murray Stenson (Zig Zag, Seattle). I think anyone worth their salt has to sit & watch him work. It’s not how fast he is, how attentive he is, how amazing his cocktails are or what a truly gracious host he manages to be without fail. It’s all of the above at the same time.
JL: What’s the best simple cocktail for people to make at home, and what’s the recipe?
DS: I think I’ve seen a few others say Daiquiri, & I couldn’t agree more. But I’d also mention the Bijou, mostly because of the drinks understated elegance, but also because of the ease of use. Equal parts Gin (try Martin Miller’s Westbourne, but Plymouth works great), Green Chartreuse & Carpano Antica (you can experiment with other sweet vermouths, but you won’t be smiling nearly as much). Add a dash of orange bitters, stir & strain w/orange peel on top. It’s a perfect cocktail to pre-batch for a large party, & it won’t go bad on you.