As an addition to our interview with Dustin Lawlor, head bartender at The Kitchen, here’s the recipe for his craft cocktail ‘Las Vegas Turnaround’. This bourbon-based drink with lemon, basil, and ginger ale is a refreshing cocktail with vibrant flavors that is guaranteed to satisfy!
We sat down with Dustin Lawlor, Head Bartender at The Kitchen Denver, one of Denver’s most popular restaurants, to talk bartending, how he’s found success, and get his take on the transformation underway in and around this booming city. Check out what this industry heavy-weight had to say.
How did you get started in the industry?
Anika Zappe, Sean Kenyon and Matty Clark are the three that gave me my first chances to step behind the bar and I have learned different things from each of them and from the bars that they work/worked behind at the time.
Anika gave me my first chance to actually work with her behind the bar at Root Down and she taught me so much about classic cocktails and technique. I used to sit at Sean’s bar at Stueben’s and then later at Squeaky Bean. He is like an encyclopedia of knowledge. I love sitting at his bar still and always learn a few things. I bar-backed for him briefly as well. He set up a study group for everyone when BarSmarts did their Denver advanced certification and that was a big help to a lot of us.
Matty Clark now owns the Hi-Dive. When I met him he worked at Sputnik and Lost Lake Lounge as well. I started picking up shifts with him at Lost Lake when he was the bar manager there and he helped me learn to work a dive bar effectively. I worked Sundays usually by myself from start to finish. That was a daunting task as young bartender and I don’t know if I could have done it without his help.
Everyone getting behind the bar for the first time needs to have a mentor to learn from.
You can learn recipes from a book. You need a bartender to teach you to bartend. It’s something you can’t rush if you want to be good at it. I still pick up little tricks the learning process doesn’t end.
What is your favorite part about your job?
I enjoy the constant change in the restaurant industry. You always hope to have a good base of regulars but, every night is completely different.
Then on the other side, cocktails are constantly changing. Ingredients, cocktails themselves, new spirits… It’s ever changing and I love that.
In your eyes, what is the #1 quality that makes a good bartender?
Passion and a desire to create a perfect guest experience every service. Over everything, to be good at this you have to love to be hospitable. Hospitality should be at the root of every team member’s skill set.
How do you deal with difficult guest situations? Do you have any tricks you use in those situations?
Every case is different when it comes to that. [With inebriated guests], the first defense is not to be the bar or bartender who over serves them. If they walk in the front door intoxicated, I usually try to get to them before they have a chance to sit down. Communicating with my team so no one else serves them is also key.
Being honest, kind and discreet with a guest who has had one too many is always the first step. The last thing I want to do is embarrass or “call out” a guest who drank too much. Most of us have been drunk. There is no reason to make someone feel like an idiot for over indulging. It just escalates the situation. If they have a sober friend with them, I will enlist their help to get them home safely.
How do you try to connect with your guests?
As far as connecting with guests the biggest thing is listening. One guest may want to talk and know everything that’s going on behind the bar etc. another guest may have had an awful day and just wants his Steak and his scotch and no conversation.
The best tool you can have in your arsenal is being able to assess the needs of your guest.
The faster you can do this the better. Having a server or bartender know how to handle your experience without having to explain it is what separates good service from excellent service in my eyes.
What are some tricks to maximize your efficiency behind the bar?
When it comes to bartending, I think the biggest efficiency trick is putting bottles back in the same place every single time. Using muscle memory when you are very busy and not having to race around to find bottles is my biggest time saver. Organization and cleanliness are bartender’s friends on a busy night.
Is there a particularly crazy story that’s happened to you while working?
There is a lot I could put here. But, I had a guest throw an old fashioned glass at another guest. It missed his target but hit the bar and shattered. A shard of that flew up and cut another guests neck that was sitting near the guy he intended to hit.
It was nothing life threatening, but it happened very fast and everyone heard and saw it and the whole place went crazy. The two parties’ friends got them both out of the bar without further incident. It was touch and go for a few minutes, though. Thankfully no one was seriously injured.
What do you feel makes Denver and Boulder unique in the food and beverage industry?
We are a “bigger” city and we continue to grow in Denver. But, we aren’t and hopefully never will be a “big” city like San Francisco, New York or Chicago.
I think our size is currently our greatest asset.
We are big enough to keep things exciting but, small enough that chances are my bartenders and I know someone working behind the bar at your next stop.
How do you feel the rising population in Colorado will affect the industry?
Overall I think it will be for the better. The more talent in the city the better. It makes everyone step up their game. The hard part is on the hiring side of things. Finding people who actually love this and want to do it for a living isn’t always easy.
What are some of your favorite watering holes around town?
In today’s restaurant and bar scene, with both fancy ice programs and water sommeliers, clearly people have begun to appreciate the finer aspects of H20’s role behind the bar or at the dinner table. But, water plays an even bigger role elsewhere, before it’s ever frozen into those perfectly aesthetic, slow-melting ice spheres, or bottled up for exorbitantly priced sales all on its own. Water sources, and their unique and distinctive attributes, have a huge impact on the specific flavors and qualities of spirits from around the world.
Water & Whiskey
A great place to begin a global journey in search of the importance of water sources for spirits is in Kentucky. While the development of the burgeoning whiskey industry in Kentucky hundreds of years ago had more to do with farming, the limestone water is what made the whiskey particularly good to begin with, and what kept the industry rooted there.
“Water sources, and their unique and distinctive attributes, have a huge impact on the specific flavors and qualities of spirits from around the world.”
Kentucky’s limestone water supply provides minerals to the water, filters out certain undesirable compounds, and also affects pH levels, which plays a key role in the distillation process. Step into any distillery in Kentucky and “limestone” will be a prominent player in that particular brand’s story.
As it is with New York’s bagels and pizza crusts, Kentucky’s whiskey is imbued with minerals from local water that affect, and improve, the end product. Meanwhile, some of the best bourbon made outside of Kentucky hails from locales touting limestone water supplies.
In Japan, Suntory Whisky, which produces the Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki brands, takes their relationship and balance with nature quite seriously across all fronts. This includes with their water sources, both of which were designated by the Japanese Ministry of Environment as among the “most precious” water sources in the country.
Suntory calls their water sources “soulplaces” for the brand, referring to the concept in Japanese culture of a dwelling that becomes a source of spiritual inspiration. The brand explains:
“Water, with its purity, has always been the representative elemental force for Suntory soulplaces.”
The Japanese whisky giant seeks to embody balance and harmony between “the art of Japanese nature” and “the art of Japanese people” to create their tagline, “The Art of Japanese Whisky.” A pure water source is an integral component of that equation.
Elsewhere in the whiskey industry, in Scotland, water is actually the source of one popular misconception about Scotch-namely how it’s peated. Peaty flavors do not come from water which flows through or comes into contact with peat, bur rather is the result of using peat smoke to dry barley.
Water quality and purity is even more important for spirits other than whiskey, where barrels and the aging process may account for upwards of 60 percent of the whiskey’s final character. Vodka, for instance, has no such helpers along the way to producing a desirable flavor profile.
“For us, the biggest piece is water,” explains Chris Doyle, Finlandia Vodka brand manager at Brown-Forman. “It’s the number one ingredient with vodka.”
Finlandia’s water source is pure glacial spring water which has been naturally filtered through moraine sand deposits that resulted from the end of the Ice Age.
This process allows the company to forgo modern purification systems such as deionization or osmosis, and offers their vodka a signature quality.
Maintaining water purity not only in the brand’s home of Finland, but across the globe, has become a priority for Finlandia. They donate one percent of all U.S. sales to water-centric environmental nonprofits in conjunction with the 1% For The Planet association.
Finlandia also just released a video documentary series, Journey From the Source, highlighting unique water adventurers while seeking to raise awareness for the importance of preserving pure water sources, such as the one they depend upon for their product.
“Our partners are about keeping water clean,” explains Doyle. It’s not only for vodka’s sake, though, “But keeping water clean environmentally, and also so you can go out and enjoy it, and do cool stuff in it.”
Martin Miller’s Gin is another clear-spirit brand which places a premium on the purity of its water. After distillation, they proof their gin down with pure spring water from Borgarnes, Iceland.
The water they use there is said to naturally have 8 to 30 parts per million of dissolved solids, comparative to leading bottled water brands at about 300 to 400 parts per million, making it at least 10 times purer based on that measure.
Borgarnes water also has a particularly high surface tension, which the brand explains works by “inhibiting evaporation of the volatiles that want to escape quickly -the aromas, the bouquet.”
Therefore, their gin is touted as having a softer nose, to go along with a distinctive flavor profile, and a delicate mouthfeel. It hides more of the alcohol’s heat and showcases more of the herbal flavors.
Water Purification at the Bar
Back behind the bar, controlling the specific taste of water remains important. This includes ice used in drinks, whether it’s part of an “ice program” or not. Anybody who has ever had an at-home batch of ice go bad because, who knows what was stinking up the space next to it in the freezer, can understand that controlling the flavor of ice itself is important.
Further, bars who regularly produce their own syrups and other ingredients want more control over the water they’re using. For instance, at DC Harvest in Washington, D.C., bar manager Matthew Fisk filters the District’s notoriously funky-tasting tap water, and then adds in his own preferred levels of minerals to ensure he’s getting the perfect result from his ingredients.
If he’s considering every other factor and carefully fine-tuning his recipes, why wouldn’t he also want exacting power over the water itself?
Across town at Jack Rose Dining Saloon, the entire three-story building has a water purification system in place. Therefore, when imbibers carefully add a touch of water from an eye dropper to a dram of whiskey, one is accurately opening up the spirit’s aromas, not mucking them up with tap water.
From Suntory’s soulplaces to Finlandia’s glacial springs, Kentucky’s limestone and beyond, don’t overlook the role of water in the spirits and cocktails you love.
You’re in a bar, maybe celebrating the weekend or just blowing off some steam, but you’re not enjoying yourself because you’re getting the cold shoulder from the bartender. Maybe it’s them, but probably not. What’s more likely is that your etiquette is lacking, so what to do?
Well, if you want a drink, then DON’T…
1. Fail to have your money ready
We’re waiting on you. Everyone else is waiting on us. Therefore, by the Transitive Property of Equality, everyone is waiting on you. Rule #1: Have your stuff together. Not only will following Rule #1 get you served quicker in a bar, it’s a good general rule to adopt in life. All about efficiency, people.
2. Put pennies and nickels in the tip jar
We don’t want that crap in our pockets any more than you do. We don’t have anything smaller than quarters. Have you ever ordered a drink that cost $3.17?
3. Wave money
Oh, you’ve got a dollar! So does the guy next to you.
4. Give the ever-expanding drink order
You want a Bud. I go get it. I come back and now you want a Margarita. Okay, no prob. I come back, and (oh yeah!) now you want a shot of Tequila, too. You really could have told us this all at once. See Rule #1.
5. Say “make it strong!” or “put a lot of liquor in it”
Are you one of those rare people at bars who like their drinks “strong?” When you say this, it’s like you’re assuming I make weak drinks (which is insulting) and you’re assuming that I’ll stiffen this one up for my new best buddy, you. This is the best way to get a weak drink.
6. Yell out the bartender’s first name
There’s something unnerving about hearing your name called out, turning around and seeing a complete stranger. That’s one of the reasons strippers use stage names. Bartenders do too. Mine is Pixie.
7. Whistle. Just don’t.
You whistle at dogs, not people.
8. Assume we know you’re in the band
We know, we know, you’re gonna be really famous, but you’re not there yet, tiger. Tell us you’re in the band and which band you’re in…chances are we’ll have something to talk about. If you act like a pretentious ass, then we definitely won’t. Capiche?
9. Assume we know you. Period.
Unless you’ve followed the first “Do” rule below, we don’t remember you. You are one of a thousand faces for us, and when you point at an empty glass or a beer bottle that’s invariably facing away from us, your attempt at a shortcut backfires. Please just tell us what you want.
10. Apologize for sucking
Don’t apologize for not tipping. Acknowledging that you suck is not the same as not sucking. Oh, and don’t say “I’ll get ya next time.” We know all about you.
11. Be “The Microbrew Aficionado”
Usually a pseudo-hippy who can’t tip a quarter but can’t bring himself to drink “schwag,” and who has to sample some new berry-wheat-harvest-ale that he heard about at Burning Man. “Do you have the new Vernal-Equinox Special Welcome-Fest?” “Does Anyone?” Here’s your Newcastle. Go.
12. Assume soft drinks are free
Are they free at McDonald’s? Are they free at Wal-Mart? Are they free anywhere? I blame M.A.D.D. for this myth.
13. Ask me to charge your phone behind the bar
Every bartender is different about this, but if they’re busy no one wants to deal with your technology. Also, if you drink too much and leave your phone you’re going to have a bad morning. And no bartender wants you to have a bad morning.
Skilled bartending has become an intriguing, flashy trend, inspiring a plethora of competitions all over the world. From dazzling bar flare to unique cocktail recipes and speed bartending, these events are catching people’s eye and developing a strong following. But in this world of colorful drinks and innovative mixology, the art of basic service technique and bar knowledge falls by the wayside.
Together, Monkey Shoulder and the United States Bartender’s Guild (USBG) have created an innovative international competition that refocuses the art of bartending by challenging competitors to demonstrate their knowledge and service rather than just their flare. Labeled a “no b.s.” competition by the members of the Monkey Shoulder team, the event aimed to focus on “skills that pay the bills,” a no-nonsense, practical take on being a good bartender.
Lead by Dean Callan, Brand Ambassador at Monkey Shoulder, the event has traveled to four other U.S. cities including Milwaukee, Charleston (SC), Chicago and Philadelphia and internationally, in Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, Poland, France, Germany, and Singapore. Bartenders from each city took part in the same 7-round competition and the overall point leader at the end of this year’s competition will be crowned the Ultimate Bartending Champion.
On Monday, November 18th, 2015, the Ultimate Bartender Championship came to Denver. Hosted by Punch Bowl, the competition featured 12 local bartenders, competing in 7 different rounds that tested their technique, insight, speed and skill behind the bar.
In the quiz round, contenders were read 100 multiple choice questions ranging from an array of bartending topics. From identifying recipe ingredients to naming various countries’ national beverage, Callan rapidly quizzed the opponents to test both their knowledge of beverages and their ability to think quickly on their feet.
2. Mixiodic Table:
For the competition, Callan and the Monkey Shoulder team created an ingenious bartender version of the periodic table. The table consists of various components to cocktail recipes, featuring ‘elements’ like sugars, juices, mixers, bitters, ices, liquors, glassware and garnishes. The goal for this round was to solve ‘equations’ by naming the cocktail. For instance, if Vm=vermouth and V=vodka, Ol=olive juice, Sh=shaken, Up=martini glass then V+Vm+Ol+Sh+Up = A vodka martini. Competitors had 10 minutes to solve 20 equations.
V+Vm+Ol+Sh+Up = A vodka martini
In this round, opponents had two minutes to identify ten different spirits in a blind nosing test correctly. 1/2 a point was awarded for knowing the spirit (i.e., vodka, bourbon, scotch, Irish whiskey) and a full point for naming the brand (42 Below vodka, Glenmorangie scotch, etc.).
This task included glasses listing specific pour quantities (1/3 oz, 1 oz) and the bartenders needed to measure out the exact pour for each. The goal here was to pour the right amount into each glass and be exact on as many as possible while being as quick and efficient as possible.
5. Tray Service:
This round required competitors to take drink orders for ten people, get the drinks from the bar and, in the correct order, serve the right drinks to each corresponding person. To do this, Callan printed off ten pictures of celebrities and recognizable people to serve as the ten places at the table. By doing this, it required the bartenders to remember who ordered which drink and place each drink down in the correct order (women first, than men). Each opponent had a different arrangement of pictures and needed to adapt to the right order. Again, this pushes the importance of service technique, efficiency and drink knowledge.
6. Stock Take:
A crucial part of being a bartender is inventory. This round featured the skills of taking stock of various liquors as if they were doing inventory. Competitors needed to eyeball measure the amount of liquor in 10 different bottles and output an accurate inventory sheet.
7. Building Challenge:
The final round required the competitors to produce eight cocktails in 5 minutes. These cocktails were taste-tested by the audience. If the audience decided that a cocktail was not adequate, they could send the drink back, therefore, docking points from the bartender. This last round was in place to showcase the skills and mixing techniques of the competitors and tested how they managed their time while optimizing taste and technique.
The competition was a captivating, enjoyable experience that drew a great deal of interest due to its uncommon, practical nature. While the notion of a service knowledge and recipe knowledge-based event may seem pedestrian, Callan and Monkey Shoulder did a phenomenal job with their innovative challenges, unique creations (like the Mixiodic Table) and focused on bartending functionalism and skill. Both competitors and spectators enjoyed this new format, and all benefited from the showcasing of no-nonsense bar knowledge and service technique.
As a member of the food and beverage community, I believe that this innovative, practical-knowledge-based event is exactly what the industry needs. Yes, bar flare is fun and captivating, but the importance of service is what keeps the industry alive. Callan did an extraordinary job of incorporating functional, pragmatic bartending skills into a competitive, unique event. His focus on “skills that pay the bills,” I believe, will inspire more bartenders to pay closer attention to the importance of the basics; knowledge, efficiency, preciseness and good service. I admire Callan’s ingenuity and creativeness in bringing service into the forefront through useful yet fun skill challenges.
While this is the first year of this competition, Callan and Monkey Shoulder look to expand the event throughout the globe, creating new innovative challenges along the way and spreading the focus of service and technique. We can’t wait to see what they have in store for next year and the years to come.