Bay Area native David Nepove got his start behind the bar in Los Angeles while working his way through Cal State Northridge, but he became best known back home. He worked at Enrico’s in San Francisco’s North Beach for a decade, earning the Mr. Mojito moniker. Nepove is now Director of Mixology for Southern Wine & Spirits and in his “spare time,” works as President of the United States Bartenders’ Guild. Leading up to his May 28 class at the 8th Annual Newport Beach Food & Wine Festival, we spoke by phone, where he better explained his background and approach.
Josh Lurie: What was your first bar job?
David Nepove: My very first bar job was tending bar in Santa Monica at Carlos & Pepe’s, from 1987 to 1991. I worked ten years at a sidewalk café called Enrico’s where I made a name for myself. Southern Wine and Spirits picked me up about five years ago, in 2006.
JL: How did your first bar job come about?
DN: I was going to school and just moved down from Santa Cruz. I turned 21 and got a taste of the restaurant business in Southern California and knew I loved it. I moved in with my uncle, applied, started barbacking, waiting tables, took a job as an assistant manager, tended bar three nights a week and managed the restaurant two nights a week. I was managing the bar and making fresh fruit cocktails for a crazy crowd. It was a done deal, and 25 years later, I’m still doing it.
JL: What was the moment where you knew you’d bartend for a living?
DN: I thought I was going to be an elementary school teacher, but I had so much fun bartending, figured when I had it all out of my system I would get my teaching credentials and teach kids. Well after I moved to San Francisco my back gave out and I had to have surgery… I figured this was it, time to teach. But alas I was wrong and I became more involved in management and through my recovery I focused on creating a better cocktail program, I got to be inventive…Through this process I dived into gin, tequila and rum and realized I could do this all day long. It was my goal to keep customers happy and constantly challenge myself.
One of the turning points was when I met Tony Abou-Ganim in 2003. He shared his passion for the cocktail and what the Bartenders’ Guild was all about, a chance to learn about spirits and build camaraderie…creating the USBG in San Francisco with Tony’s help was a pivotal time when I realized people could connect, become stronger and give more credibility to the bartender. I started taking trips to distilleries. I’m now the national president of 23 chapters of the USBG, so it’s more than a job or a hobby, it has become a lifestyle.
JL: Do you have a first cocktail memory, good or bad?
DN: It was when I first started working at Enrico’s in 1996, at that time I never heard of a Margarita, Caipirinha and definitely not an Aviation. It was my introduction to classic cocktails, a whole new thought process in learning how drinks were created. It was learning how a quarter-ounce or half-ounce difference affected drinks, and figuring out balance…it wasn’t so much one drink as realizing how a drink was properly made, adjusted to personal preference.
JL: Did you become interested in spirits or cocktails first?
DN: Cocktails for sure. I’ve always been more interested in cocktails than spirits. Spirits became secondary to how I created drinks. I always used to say I could make any spirit taste good, when I was using fresh juices and mediocre spirits. I was able to make a simple cocktail taste great because I used fresh juices…in the mid ‘90s this was not very common, even today most bars are not using fresh juices. Through this process I realized I could create an even better cocktail by using the best of every product…I stopped using substandard products and focused only used the best I could find.
JL: Would you say that you have any mentors?
DN: One person, it was my friend Marco Dionysos who really shared with me technique, history, recipe and spirit facts. He inspired me to what to know more and taught me what he had so diligently been practicing. He got me to put out the fruit basket, to make a fresh twist and got me thinking about the lost and forgotten cocktails…I wouldn’t necessarily consider him my mentor, but he contributed a lot to my path and integrity. It’s weird to say that because he’s 10 years younger than me. Kids these days!!
JL: Who are some bartenders you haven’t worked with that you admire, and how come?