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 Mark Buettler works at Dressler Restaurant in Brooklyn.
1.Do you consider yourself a bartender or a mixologist? What’s the difference?
Bartender. Mixology is something a good bartender should do, but is only one element of the craft. There are plenty of people out there who are mixologists, they make up good drinks, but they don’t tend bar. Being a bartender means you make the great old cocktails in addition to creating your own, you’re also pouring beer, you’re working the service bar, you’re chatting people up, you’re the reason people decide to stay at your bar instead of sitting down when their table is ready. Along with your drinks, you are the show.
2.How did you become interested in tending bar?
I was fortunate to work for many years as a server at some of the most highly regarded restaurants in NYC but I always secretly envied the bartenders. They can be the rock stars of the (front of house) restaurant world.
As a server, I realized when something went wrong with the food, customers would treat me as if I created and prepared the dish in addition to serving it. And sometimes people like to show their disdain with their tip (or lack thereof). On the flip side, who doesn’t want to be best friends with the bartender?! It started with that thought, but became much more. Now I do create the product I serve. I love the fact that I get to be, in essence, a liquor chef.
3.What’s your first cocktail memory?
I was in junior high and my best friends’ brother got us a bottle of citron. We brought the cheap lemonade to the equation. I was by no means an experienced drinker, yet insisted on making the drinks for us. Let’s just say I wasn’t well versed in the art of the mix, and I paid for it for the next two days.
As a paid professional, my first cocktail memory was when I was working as a backwaiter in my first restaurant out of college, I copied flash cards from the bartender and studied them and took any opportunity I could to make a Martini or Manhattan for a customer.
4. What’s your current favorite spirit or liquor?
To intake? Tequila on the rocks. In the colder months, Bourbon on the rocks. All the time, beer. I tend not to get too fancy when I drink.
To work with? In the past few months I’d been revisiting Batavia Arrack and Benedictine. As it gets warmer, Orgeat and Tamarind syrup and Aperol. I also just made an avocado and jalapeno infused tequila for summer.
5. Which cocktail is past its prime?
The “extra dirty” Vodka Martini with “extra olives” is the new Cosmo.
6. What’s the cocktail of the future?
I love the attention being paid to cocktails of the past. It’s imperative to know what came before in order to know what to explore. There are also new techniques and forward thinking ideas (i.e. molecular mixology) that have expanded the way we think about food and drink and what is possible, but that shouldn’t be the end all and be all. The past and the present should integrate and inform our approach to making cocktails in the future. Making a well balanced and creative cocktail that maintains, above all, simplicity, will always be in fashion.
7. Describe one of your original cocktails. What’s it called and what was your approach?
Sometimes my cocktails start with an inspiration that becomes a well thought out execution and other times they’ll begin with the challenge of how to make something “unusable”, usable. And then other times you just play around, use the Force and come up with something by accident. The Perfect Louis (featured recently at www.meerkatproductsltd.typepad.com/embury) happened the latter way.
I was playing around with the idea of a take on a Perfect Manhattan. But I was interested in making a drink anyone would want to drink, male or female, in the winter or the summer, and also be respected as a serious cocktail for the serious cocktail drinker. I started with 1oz of each bourbon, dry vermouth and sweet vermouth. I wanted a slight sweetening agent and grabbed a bottle of honey syrup, but didn’t like the initial overt sweetness of the regular honey. A few weeks earlier I had (for just such an occasion) bought some white raw unfiltered honey which is much more subtle and floral. So I made a syrup out of that, added a half ounce, stirred, tasted it and it was almost there. I meant to add Angostura and accidently grabbed a bottle of celery bitters and gave two dashes. I realized after the fact and decided to add two dashes of the Angostura anyway. Half-cocked and half-way through my bottle of bourbon, I had by happy accident made a nice riff on a classic. It was delicate and robust, well-balanced and elegant with a touch of sweet floral and herbaceous notes.
8. Do you have a cocktail mentor, and what did they teach you?
Jim Ryan, the former Head Bartender at Dressler, taught me the importance of attention to detail and respect for tradition.
9. Outside of your bar, what’s your favorite bar in town and why?
It’s actually out of town, I love the Hulmeville Inn in Hulmeville, PA right outside of N.E. Philly. My parents live up the road from there. Every time I go back home it’s THE mandatory stop. They pay as much, if not more, attention to their beer selection then any bar in NYC with 20 carefully selected beers on tap and many more by bottle. They strive to educate AND imbibe AND they have $3 Cheesesteaks every Sunday. You can’t beat that.
10 .Who’s another bartender/mixologist you respect and why?
My co-worker at Dressler, John Byrd, has THE most innate, natural and automatic knowledge of all things cocktail history past and present with absolutely no ego or pretension what-so-ever.
11. What’s the best simple cocktail for people to make at home, and what’s the recipe?
I will always love a great margarita. They’re delicious. Everyone likes them. Who hears “Margarita!” and says, “Nah, bad idea.”?
I prefer simple proportions:
2 oz Tequila
1 oz Fresh Lime juice
1 oz Cointreau
Shake and strain over fresh ice (salt optional) and drink up.