Thursday, May 21, 2015

An Entrepeneur, a Writer, and a Damn Good Bartender. Meet Derek Brown from Drink Company

Derek Brown is an American entrepreneur, writer, and bartender. He is the owner of the bars Columbia Room, The Passenger,  Mockingbird Hill, Eat the Rich, and Southern Efficiency in Washington D.C. A leader in the classic cocktail movement, Derek Brown devotes himself to teaching people to drink better and offers cocktail classes through his own Drink Company website.
Photo taken from Drinkcompany

1) One of the favorite things I love about reading your articles is that you always examine the benefits involved with people who drink alcohol responsibly and the amount of fun you’re having, even using terms such as “Drynuary."  If you could give one piece of advice to a person who inspires to create a positive drinking culture what would it be?

Drinking is all about context. If you want to gain positive and lasting experiences with alcohol, open a good bottle with close friends. To me, that's where drinking finds its apogee. People have asked me if I collect special bottles. I will on occasion but with the sole intent of sharing them. Truth be told, with the right people, I could drink almost anything.

2) On your Drink Company webpage you said that that you’re “story tellers” at heart.  Do you have a cocktail that you think embodies the story of your life?

Ostensibly my favorite cocktail is the Dry Martini but, like Bernard Devoto, the only other "cocktail" I drink on a regular basis is a slug of whiskey. Neither one by itself really tells the story of my life. One is sleek and modern, the other one rough and old fashioned. Let's just say that together they explain me well and, I'll try not to give a beauty queen answer here, but I appreciate both the progress of mankind and a longing to live in the past. To me cocktails tell the story of humanity well and our story is one replete with contradiction. I'm no different.

3) Do you mind sharing the recipe?

Dry Martini
1 1/2 oz. London Dry Gin
1 1/2 oz. Dry Vermouth
Dash Orange Bitters

Stir with ice until very cold and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Express the oils of a lemon peel on top and discard peel.

4) Drink Company offers cocktail classes that change seasonally and reflect the emerging field of craft cocktails. What is your favorite part about teaching those classes?

Ever heard the saying that teaching is learning twice? For me that's part of it, recalling the stories. But I also love the interaction with students. Nowadays most people who attend my classes are familiar with the basics of cocktails, some even with how to make bitters and the history of obscure Pre-prohibition cocktails. It keeps me on my toes but it also keeps me learning. More than anything, I feel like a perpetual student. I'm very lucky to get the chance to share what I've learned.

5) Mockingbird Hill is focused on offering Sherry.  Southern Efficency is devoted to Southern Whiskey.  What kind of personal connection do you have to Sherry and Southern Whiskey? Why not just offer a Whiskey or Wine Bar?

I think that's the point. I love very particular things. I don't see any need to offer every bottle in the world. That's like a musician trying to play all the notes at once. I prefer a well curated program. Maybe it means that it isn't for everyone, but it also hopefully gives people a broader depth of products. We love for people to discover something they've never had before or something they never thought they'd like. Discovery is half the fun.

6) You’ve won a long list of recognitions from being a James Beard Semi-finalist and being mentioned as the best Martini in America by GQ.  What does it feel like to be so regarded in the field?

The short answer is: great. But the recognition is not mine alone. I work with some really incredible people and they deserve the credit as well.

7) Do you have any tips for bartenders who want to follow in your footsteps and be recognized for the work they do?

Drink a lot, read a little. That's advice I once got from a mentor. Try everything, but make sure to put it in its proper context.

8) You’ve given advice on professorcocktail, and are a proponent for bartenders to not be afraid to learn as long as they show they care and want to be better. However, one of the challenging parts about aspiring bartenders is that there is so much competition in the market. Are there any standout experiences you’ve had where you were willing to hire a bartender with no work experience over a bartender with much experience?

I would definitely hire someone with no experience but not necessarily to be a bartender. Its important to work your way up. Maybe a barback, server or some kind of bar apprentice. That's where they'd have to start.

9) Are there any cocktails you like drinking much more than making?

I suppose there are a few, especially some kind of frozen drink. They can be delicious but it's considerable more work than stirring a drink.

10) Are there any upcoming bars that you like to hang out in the Washington D.C. area?

There are plenty of bars I like to hang out in DC. Two of my favorite are Bar Mini  and 2 Birds 1 Stone. 

11) Finally, any plans for a new restaurant in Philadelphia?

Not yet, but I love Philly.

Derek Brown's Drink Company Website:

Related: Learn to be a bartender at Bartending School

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Bringing together culture and alcohol! Interview with Jackie Summers founder of Jack from Brooklyn

Short Bio: Jackie Summers the “Liquortarian” is an entrepreneur, writer and former male-model. His written credentials extend from his own blog F*cking in Brooklyn, to working as the former Editorial Director for the Good Men Project and Editor for the Elephant Journal. Now, an entrepreneur, Jackie Summers has been revolutionizing the cocktail industry with his interpretation of a Caribbean Classic through his company: Jack From Spirits.

What sorrel is: Sorrel is a traditional Caribbean drink made with a base of sorrel flowers (hibiscus), water, sugar, and if it's alcoholic: rum! Many versions of this drink also use a combination of the following ingredients: cinnamon, ginger, orange, clove, nutmeg, allspice, and lime juice for taste.

1) Could you give us some background about how Sorel started?

As the descendant of Caribbean immigrants, I knew of the tradition of sorrel from childhood. Brewed hibiscus flowers, accented with spices, spiked with rum, is a party favorite. I made a version of this in my kitchen for friends and family for almost two decades. Then five years ago, I had a cancer scare. My doctors found a golfball-sized tumor inside my spine, and predicted the worst. Fortunately, the powers that be were not ready to send me on to the next life just yet. Facing your own mortality, is liberating. When I found out I was going to live, I decided to devote the rest of my life to my love of day-drinking. Sorel is the vehicle by which I am afforded the privilege of meeting interesting new people every day, drinking with them, and writing it off.

Sorrel Flowers. Source: Wikipedia

2) Many bartenders believe that in every drink they serve, there’s a story waiting to be told?  For example, Amaretto is a liqueur full of the sweetness of gratitude towards a loved one, and yet the legend behind it has the bleak sadness of a widow. What kind of story do you want to tell people when they drink Sorel?

Hibiscus was first imported from West Africa to the Caribbean in the 1600s. They would boil the petals and use it as an elixir. Over the course of centuries, different spices were added, to neutralize the acidity of the hibiscus. Sorrel came to be the standard special occasion drink in the Caribbean; no party would be complete without it. I very much see Sorel continuing this tradition, in that it helps people to connect. It’s very aromatic, with strong hints of clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg. People inhale these scents, and it reminds them of home.

3) How important do you think Brooklyn is to your company?

Our company motto is the same as the Brooklyn motto: eendracht maakt macht. Translated from old Dutch, it means: unity makes strength. I think this is in the marrow of everything we do at JFB, from being a contributing member of the local business community, to being an active member of the USBG, and the burgeoning fraternity of craft distillers. We are infinitely more powerful together than any one of us could be alone.

4) You seem to have coined the word “Liquortarian." Where did that come from?

The Liquortarian is actually my mother’s word–she doesn’t like calling her kids alcoholics. When she found out that I’d trademarked the word, her first question was: “So, am I getting a cut?”

5) In a previous interview you stated that making a shelf-stable version of the Caribbean classic, Sorel, had never been done before you. Do you think that there are limitations with turning cultural drinks into commercial liqueurs? Or do you think that with enough perseverance people can recreate their favorite drinks and bring them to the masses?

I think many cultures suffer from a particular kind of xenophobia. The importance of preserving culture takes precedence over sharing with people of a different background. Traditional sorrel has rum added to it for the alcoholic component, because EVERYTHING in the Caribbean has rum in it. This is problematic, because rum has too much of it’s own personality to ever really let the flavors in sorrel stand out. Also, because it has its own insoluble materials, it never reacts on a molecular level with the insoluble materials in the base mix. Because of this, traditional sorrel isn’t shelf stable, oxidizes, and is generally opaque. As a Native New Yorker, I wanted to acknowledge my ancestry, but still honor where I am from, which allowed me to step beyond the cultural attachment to rum, and use neutral wheat grain alcohol as the base in my mix. It’s a perfectly clean canvas upon which to paint with botanicals, and it forms the necessary polysaccharide reaction when added to the base mix to create shelf stability. So yes, I believe people can honor the past and still live in the present, even with their traditional foods and beverages.

6) Your writing is a little bit controversial and hits straight to the point for a lot of social dilemmas—especially ones involving love.  However, it seems to have slowed down since 2012.  Are you more invested in growing your spirits business? Or is there perhaps a book being written that no one knows about?

The joke I tell people is that liquor is my side gig; I’m actually an unemployed writer. Launching this company has left no time or mental energy for anything else. When things calm down, I will return to writing, and will I have stories to tell!

7) How much has being such a prolific writer affected your company?

Writing well is akin to making great cocktails. You learn to appreciate the beauty of simplicity.

8) Which Sorel based Cocktail is your favorite?

Hands down, I love Sorel and whisky. My absolute favorite whisky to pair Sorel with is Brenne Whisky, a single malt out of Cognac, France. That cocktail has been loving names: The Last Call.

9) Finally, do you have a favorite non-alcoholic traditional Sorel recipe you could share with us?

What is "non-alcoholic” you speak of?

Story of Amaretto:

One of the best of Leonardo Da Vinci’s students was a painter by the name of Bernardino Luini.  In 1525, a church of the town of Saronno commissioned Luini to paint a fresco of the Madonna of the Miracle.

He looked everywhere, and found his muse in a young innkeeper who had just been widowed. Using her as a model, Luini immortalized her in Saronno.

To thank him for this kind gesture, the widow was at a loss.  He was a famous painter, one of the most important men of his generation and she had little money.  So she steeped apricot pits in brandy and presented the drink to Luini.

Although the flavor in Amaretto tastes of an almond sweeter than any almond, there is a trace of bitterness that reflects the sadness of the widow.

Further Reading:
Jack From Brooklyn Company Website
Goodmen Project, a website focused on sharing defining moments in a male's life, where Jackie Summers was Editorial Director of: Goodmen Project
Jackie Summers blog: F*cking in Brooklyn 

next week's interview is with Derek Brown, founder of Drink Company and owner of five bars in Washington D.C.!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Let’s Talk Mocktails With April Wachtel!

About April Wachtel

April Wachtel began her career bartending in Boston and New York City. In 2012 until March 2014, she served as the Brand Master Apprentice for Bacardi Rum and in the later portion of 2014 she served as the Director of Trade Advocacy for Solbeso cacao spirit. Now, April  has been running Swig + Swallow, a company which specializes in drink consulting and high end cocktail classes.

Since she started Swig + Swallow she's done a bit of dabbling with mocktails and in this interview April will share some of her experiences as a bartender and mocktail-pioneer!

  1. What got you into bartending?

    I started off in restaurants really young- when I was 13, helping around the kitchen, bussing, and serving. It didn’t take too much time before I noticed that the bartenders got to wear their own clothes (as opposed to uniforms), and got to be themselves behind the bar, as opposed to being formal and stiff. I was sold! By this time I was 19, and a server at an upscale restaurant in Boston. I took a bartending class then convinced the daytime bartender/manager to let me stand behind the bar so he could sit and watch TV. That led to some fill-in bar shifts, and eventually to real bar shifts elsewhere.

  2. Could you share with us some of your non-profit work and visions? Do you believe that giving back to the community is an important part to being a bartender?

    I do think it’s important that if we are fortunate to have knowledge, money, or power, or all three- that we pay it forward and bring deserving people up with us. At one point I felt like it had to be in an extreme way (among other things I spent 6 months volunteering in Sri Lanka with teenage mothers who were survivors of abuse), but at this point it feels more natural for me to do it in my day to day. When I was doing brand work I felt like I had an opportunity to shine the light on people I really believed in- that was the most rewarding part, hands down. These days, teaching is my opportunity to give back.  I hated so much of my academic experiences throughout my life, but was saved by a few smart, intuitive teachers. If I can get someone excited about learning (about cocktails or anything else) I feel like I’ve won. And of course, I learn as much or more than the students in these moments… it’s a two way street.

    Source: April Wachtel's Blog

  3. How did you make the transition from being a bartender to a Brand Master Apprentice for Bacardi and later to being the Director of Trade Advocacy for Solbeso?

    I really believe that the more you build a life you love around you, the more interested people are in seeking you out, for work, for friendship, for collaboration. Bacardi happened when I was cruising along on a happy path- I was bartending part time at Lani Kai, was the community manager for an events startup, was helping out at my friends distillery, and was teaching at Astor. I ran into Juan Coronado, one of the Brand Masters for Bacardi, and he mentioned that they had a new position he thought I should apply for. I was so content doing what I was doing that I didn’t reach out for over a week but then thought ‘what the heck, why close doors.’ I had 8 interviews to get the job- after the very first one I realized it had the potential to be my next great opportunity, and after reading ‘Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba’ I was hooked, and that fueled my passion for the brand for the following two years. I still love Bacardi and am still enamored by the story. Ultimately I left because I was looking for extreme learning opportunities and career growth, and I knew that was impossible staying where I was.
  4. What was the biggest challenge you faced in that transition?

    Hm. I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart and as such I am very comfortable with risk. I make gut decisions and go all in, even if it seems crazy to the people around me. I did that taking the job with Bacardi, when all of the cocktail world thought it was a crappy brand, and if you ask people now, they don’t think that anymore. Solbeso was a particularly large risk because you’re asking people to adapt their behaviors and all of their systems to accommodate a completely new spirit category, and frankly, I understood the challenge and after a year I still didn’t have a solution. So that was the hardest part- understanding the obstacles but not being able to provide a solution that would work for the customer base and the brand.

  5. You are now a beverage consultant making some of the most beautiful looking drinks in the world for the public to experience, teaching in places like the Astor Center and the Institute for Culinary Education in New York. How does your current life differ from the one you had as an alcohol ambassador?

    Aw, thanks!!! Well, for one, I spend a lot less time in bars. I do bartend a couple of nights a week, and I go out to visit friends, but I don’t go hard like I used to, and I couldn’t be happier about that. Also, frankly, I wake up when I want and manage my schedule around the various projects I’m working on at the time. I think of Cartman saying ‘I do what I want!’ every time I’m feeling particularly smug about it.

    Possibly most exciting of all, I get to do yoga or rockclimb (or both!) every day… whether I make it every day is another story, but I am able to go. I also get to cook a lot more… I really march to the beat of my own drummer.

    Source:April Watchel's Blog

  6. What inspired you to start Swig + Swallow?

    I have wanted my own company for years, and filed the paperwork with the state when I was still with Bacardi, just to see what the process was like. When I launched Swig + Swallow officially in January I had originally envisioned it as a consulting firm serving brands, but the more time I spent away from brand work, the clearer it became that that was not what I wanted to do in this period in my life. So, like everything, that is constantly evolving, and it feels great to be learning the skills to manage my own little business.

  7. Can you talk a little bit about your approach to beverage consulting and what makes it unique?

    Hm. That’s a hard question to answer because my ‘consulting company’ isn’t really a consulting company as I would frame one. It’s not like I am advertising myself as a restaurant consultant, though I have those skills for when/if interesting projects arise, you know what I mean? I have several lines of business that I’m sorting out and picking between, but thus far it’s all been people who know me or know of me and ask me to do work for them. Hilariously, I think what makes my consulting unique is that I basically haven’t said exactly what I do, I’ve just been putting my passions out there and work keeps showing up.

    That said, I am now funneling my activities into 3 work streams through separate websites so it’s easier for people to understand. is for public classes, press, testimonials, blog, and freelance work; is for event production, private classes, and restaurant/brand consulting; is for my secret mocktail business that I’m in the process of developing.

    Source:April Watchel's Blog
  8. What is the one industry related trend that has most impressed you since you started working?

    I’m generally not that excited about trends because so many of them are created just so there’s something to talk about, but there’s very little substance. One that I do think is meaningful though is the expansion of the United States Bartending Guild across the US. I am such a huge supporter of community and collaboration, that I can’t think of anything more exciting than a support system sharing and growing on a national and international scale.

  9. The thing I love most about your drink creations is the presentation. Everything from the naming, to the cloth it's sitting on just looks impeccable, almost as if you can feel the spirit of the drink from the small little blurbs you write on them. How do you get inspired to create drinks that are so beautiful?

    Thank you!!! I started styling and photographing these because this winter has been obscenely long and sans color. I felt like spring has been bursting at the seams for two months, but I had only seen black, white, and denim for months. My first mocktail photo was basically a green juice that I measured and shook like I would a cocktail, and strained it into a glass. I took a photo of it then was like ‘Eh, I can do this way better… and that’s how it started!

  10. On your blog, you’ve mentioned you wanted to share your passion for mocktails, cocktails without the use of alcohol, with the world. What is it about mocktails that you like the most?

    I could go on about this for two hours, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear it.  First and foremost I feel like it’s a symbol of hospitality- I want to far exceed people’s expectations of what a mocktail can be. People are so used to getting shut down when they ask for something non-alcoholic, it’s an amazing opportunity to surprise and delight.

    Beyond that, the most delicious beverage I’ve had was a heirloom tomato water with olive oil, flaky sea salt and micro basil served as an amuse bouche years ago at a fancy restaurant. It has been popping into my head a lot recently, and I finally just asked myself why that didn’t ‘count’ as a cocktail, a mocktail, or otherwise as the main event. The important part is that it’s delicious, isn’t it? There’s this weird expectation that a mocktail is a cocktail but without booze, but why can’t it just be something that is stunningly delicious and refreshing that stands on its own?

    Finally, I am someone who wants it all, and I have constantly been bummed that every juice bar I’ve been to is loud, bright, and focused on to-go business, not on ambiance, service, or properly measured and delicious drinks. I want the healthy delicious drinks in an environment where I want to hang out!
    Source:April Watchel's Blog
  11. What is the most noticeable difference you’ve experienced when designing a mocktail over a cocktail?

    I was so disillusioned by the mocktails composed of half sugar/half citrus/splash of soda, (often when I don’t feel like drinking it’s because I don’t want all the sugar) that I put a really tough restriction on the ones I’ve made so far. With the exception of one recipe, I add no additional sugar, using naturally sweet fresh pressed fruit juice to balance the mocktails  where necessary. Eliminating syrups would cripple most bars, so as you can imagine, it’s an interesting challenge.

    I think I’ll likely incorporate limited syrups in some future recipes, but just be sure to denote which have added sugar or not for those who want to avoid it.
  12. Finally, what is your favorite drink to make at home? What is your favorite mocktail to drink? Can you share it with us?

    If I’m making a cocktail at home these days, it’s likely the Negroni, or something weird and savory, but honestly I rarely drink cocktails at home. In regards to mocktails, I really loved all the ones I’ve created so far, but the one I think that was the most breathtakingly elegant was the Damascus Dame. I stewed dried california apricots in water on the stove, then strained, chilled, and carbonated the water and added a tiny splash of orange juice for sweetness, and squeezed orange oil over the surface. Aromatic, thirst-quenching, and delicious.
    Photo of Damascus Dame. Source April Wachtel's Blog
  13. Any current inspirations in the industry?

    My head is pretty firmly in this mocktail game, so no, I feel totally consumed at the moment.

    Swig and Swallow Webpage: Wachtel's Blog:
    April Wachtel's mocktail website:
    Hear April Wachtel lecturing at Aqua Vitae Institute via our SoundCloud

    Next Interview on May 8th: Jackie "The Liquortarian" Summers, founder of Jack From Brooklyn and distiller of the award winning Sorel!
Related: Learn to be a Bartender at Bartending School