Dushan Zaric is a native of Belgrade, Serbia, and worked at bars like Lot 61 and Pravda before partnering on Employees Only (2004) and Macao Trading Co (2008) with Jason Kosmas, Igor Hadzismajlovic, Henry LaFargue and Billy Gilroy. The vaunted bartender also co-authored (You Didn’t Hear It From Us and Speakeasy: The Employees Only Guide to Classic Cocktails Reimagined) with Kosmas. We recently met in Los Angeles and subsequently spoke by phone, where Zaric further explained his background, approach and outlook.
What brought you to New York City?
In short, I would say life. A longer explanation would be the country was pretty much torn by war and I had to find another place to live very quickly. I had some friends who lived in New York.
What was your first bar job once you arrived?
My first regular bar job, full fledged, was at Lot 61, which was one of the really hot places that opened up in 1998. It was populated by New York fashionistas and socialites and the owner was Amy Sacco, who got to be very famous with Bungalow 8 and as the nightlife queen. She had an HBO show as well, and Lot 61 was her first independent solo project. I got hired there and pretty soon became the bar manager and from there worked at Pravda. That’s where I met Jason, Igor, another partner, and Henry, who’s also a partner at Employees Only.
How do you differentiate the bar programs between Employees Only and Macao?
Macao is the original five bartenders from Employees only, plus two more people…Employees Only is inspired by classics, really, I would say, the period between turn of the century and 1930s. We riff on it or totally reimagine a classic and then it becomes a new drink. It was inspired by the golden age of cocktails. We felt it was an important period. Women got the right to vote and then they started drinking socially, in speakeasies. We got inspired by the roaring ’20s, the lush element of bar culture.
Macao, to be honest with you, and not to be falsely humble, Macao’s menu is the best work we ever did. It’s all contemporary and crafted. We took Southeast Asian ingredients and packaged them with the American style of bartending. These cocktails are fantastic by themselves and great accompaniment to our food. They’re fantastic, really beautiful. We were never forced to use soju or lychee. Macao is such a specific cuisine, evolved naturally by being a Portuguese colony for 500 years. We went there, explored the whole place, ate there a lot. We came back and figured out to make the concept really special.
Do you have a first cocktail memory, good or bad?
Hell yeah. My first cocktail was Campari soda, made by my dad. I was 12 years old. I was fascinated by Campari. My parents used to drink Campari sodas or Campari orange juice in the afternoon. I was always fascinated by the color. My dad made me a small Campari soda, but for a 12 year old it was was terrible. It took the forbidden fruit aspect of alcohol away for me. Now I’m a lover of bitter stuff and Campari’s one of my favorite things to work with, because it’s so versatile…I grew up in a house where drinking was very prominent, parties all the time, and my parnets knew how to drink properly. I was never attracted to booze as a forbidden fruit because it was all around me. I grew up drinking nothing but beer until I was 23 or 24.
I started bartending in college on the Greek islands, then I started to have tequila shots, beer, maybe Jack Daniel’s. I bartended for years on Santorini and Eos. It’s a very small place, very few families, in the summer, overrun by Brits and Swedes.
Did you become interested in spirits or cocktails first?
I became interested in spirits when I understood the power of mixing cocktails. That happened when I moved here and started understanding bartender. I met Dale DeGroff, who’s my biggest mentor, who steered me in the right direction and guided me. I know all my knowledge and all my foundation to Dale DeGroff…He was in charge of training at Pravda for years. You can imagine we were wide eyed young kids, hungry, and then Jason, Igor and me meet Dale, who’s the godfather. He started telling us this was a respectable profession, and this was the late ’90s, and there waas nothing like this. That was a really beautiful thing.
Who are some other bartenders you haven’t worked with that you really admire, and how come?