Queens native John Lermayer got his start behind the bar during his Long Island University days, at a dive bar called the Green Derby, and eventually migrated south to Miami, where he now heads the bar at The Florida Room, inside the beachfront Delano Hotel. Lermayer was in L.A. on October 5 and stepped behind the bar for a tiki event at The Spare Room, but before he did, he met me in the bowling alley adjacent lounge to illuminate his background and approach.
What was the moment you knew you’d be involved with spirits and cocktails for a living?
That’s a tough one. When I knew I would dedicate my life to this craft?
Probably when I took the Beverage Alcohol Resource course, taught by Steve Olson and Dale DeGroff, David Wondrich, Paul Pacult and Doug Frost. When I witnessed the amount of academic material, and research and depth. When I listened to those guys speak, then when I really started to get a grip on how far a career in this could actually take you, and how much there was to do. It was them and that crew that validated it to me, as a career, whereas bartending is traditionally a stepping stone on your way to doing other stuff. I was doing it and as I was doing it, the industry seemed to change around me, and I just got lucky.
What year was that, that you took the BAR course?
That was 2008.
What was your very first night like behind a bar, and where was it?
My very first night behind a bar, ever, was when I was in college. I wasn’t even 21, I was 20, and it was at a local dive bar. I used to book all the bands in college. I was really into music and was always in a band growing up, so I started booking bands for local bars around college, and one of the bar owners said, “Why don’t you just bartend and make the extra money?” “Because I don’t know how.” He said, “Oh, it’s just shots and beers, don’t worry about it.” So I did and it was a dive bar to the fullest. It was called the Green Derby in Southampton, New York.
So you feel like there’s any overlap in terms of music and bartending?
Oh absolutely, and I always so the reason I got into bartending is because of my love of music. I had a fake ID when I was 15 so I could go to bars and hear music. That’s what it was. It was at a time when we didn’t have instant downloads. I went out to hear new music, as opposed to now where they go to bars and want to hear the same frickin’ song they listened to on the way to the bar in their car. It was at a time when we want out to listen to bands and hear new music. That kind of got me into the routine of going out at night. At that point, I learned how to behave at a bar. Then it just transcended and I ended up behind the bar.
How many nights are you behind the bar at this point?
I try to stay 3-4 nights per week behind the bar, because nothing keeps you more humble than having to pull trash and stock beer coolers and do all that, get your hands dirty. I still love it so much.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work behind your bar?
I look for the things that can’t be taught. I can teach anybody how to make drinks, but you can’t teach warmth, you can’t teach having a heart for hospitality and having a passion for serving people, are certain things, you either have them or you don’t. Then of course it’s the ability to multi-task, how to keep your head on. Generally you have to be a people person. You have to appreciate people. If I see those basic things, I can train you to do the other stuff.
What’s the criteria for a cocktail that goes on the menu at The Florida Room?
It’s got to be delicious. That’s it.
Who would you consider a mentor?
Willy Shine, big mentor of mine.
What do you feel like he taught you?
Willy Shine, when he was coming up, he was your bartender’s bartender. He was throwing the shots down like a good time bartender, just a straight up rock star, but then I watched Willy transform from that rock star persona into one of the best, most relevant consulting companies there was. He really bridged the gap for me, that you could do both. You could have fun behind the bar and be that lightning rod of fun, and then you could also transform into a legitimate business as a consultant and be a professional. Willy Shine, and then Dale DeGroff has had a big influence on me. Steve Olson, and then another guy named Naren Young, who’s also a writer. He was a big influence on me too, and still is to this day.
So you’ve been consulting and doing events in Bogota and Mexico City the last couple years?
Yeah, I’ve been lucky enough to get some work in Latin America. I think I’m geographically ordained because I’m from Miami, so I have the shortest flight, so I seem to get a lot of work in that part of the world.
How have your travels influenced what you do at The Florida Room?
Everywhere I go, I learn, particularly when I come to San Francisco, L.A., London, you learn everywhere you go. I’m always looking for new tricks when I get behind this bar tonight, I’ll take little nuggets with me. Then going to Latin America and meeting up and coming bartenders, they’re just thirsting for knowledge. You’re so well received there. They hang on every word. The teaching is fun, it can be rewarding, particularly in those parts of the world.
Is there a specific cocktail from a trip to Mexico City, say?
What’s the most recent cocktail you developed, and what was your inspiration for it?
I’ve been working on frozen drinks. I’m going back to the blender. So it’s really taking classic drinks like Negronis and seeing how they live out their life under the format of a blender, frozen format.
What will it take for Miami to become a great cocktail city, if it isn’t already?