This month I was fortunate enough to grab a few minutes with 2 modern cocktail pioneers, Brendan Dillon and Dennis Kiingati of Hamlet & Ghost in Saratoga Springs, NY. These guys teamed up to open Spa City's first, true, artisan cocktail bar. Our little city is no stranger to upscale hospitality, but their modern, speakeasy-style bar is the first establishment that puts the art and craft of the cocktail front and center. I asked Brendan and Dennis to give me a peek behind the velvet curtain and talk a bit about what's it's like to be on the pointy end of the cocktail spear. Here's an excerpt from our discussion about how to manage big city trends in a small town, favorite ingredients, good advice and favorite places:
What are the hottest trends in the cocktail industry?
Brendan: Right now, the big thing for us is doing homemade syrups using fresh ingredients. That might be a little behind the times compared to other places, but not behind the times for Saratoga. People can't get over the fact that we make a handmade ginger syrup. Every drink I put our ginger syrup in becomes our next most popular drink.
Our town is a playing a little bit of catch-up when it comes to trends. For example, sherry is the current "it" ingredient, and it's in just about half of all the cocktail lists in NYC. But, I ran a sherry cocktail here and it didn't go over nearly as well as I thought it would. Sometimes certain trends happens in the City, and you see that wave roll through like a tsunami months later. We're trying to create drinks people enjoy, but also push them to try something new.
Me: Do you see it as your responsibility to broaden the minds and palettes of Saratogians?
Brendan: Absolutely, I always want to be doing something that challenges people a bit. There are so many great products out there that most people won't love right off the bat. But when given time, you develop an appreciation for things like chartreuse, amaros, sherry, mezcal. I will always have unique bottles behind the bar for the enthusiast to dive in to.
Dennis: It's a balancing act - the drinks I like are bit esoteric. Things like adding cold brew and matcha to cocktails are out there and moving right now, but that won't likely resonate with folks here. So we do our best to keep pace with our clientele. We create cocktails that they'll enjoy as well as drinks that will expand their horizons to new flavors, techniques and styles.
Trends come and go, but everyone always has their favorite. Every bartender has that one thing that is their jam - In your opinion, what is the most under-appreciated or neglected spirit?
Dennis: I'm gonna say Mezcal, because for me it is a new experience and I enjoy experimenting with it. Jagermeister is coming back, too!
Brendan: For me, it's always been sparkling wines. People need to drink sparkling wine way more often than they do. It's so good. It's good with every food. It's good on every occasion. It shouldn't be limited to something we only open on New Year's Eve.
I'd also say vermouth is an unsung hero. I love vermouth, and have 8 more bottles than I should behind the bar. I recently got to try the Martini & Rossi Special Reserves in NYC, and they are absolutely delicious. Vermouth has got that perfect blend of herbal, citrus and wine that blends for a great flavor.
Good advice: What do you tell the guy who wants to dip his toe into the craft cocktail world, but is intimidated by the scene? How do you help him/her?
Dennis: This is actually my perpetual experience, because I don't have taste memory. It's really difficult for me to describe to you the difference between what scotch tastes like versus what bourbon tastes like versus what vodka tastes like. So, when I walk into a bar, it's not necessarily about "what am I going to drink", but rather "how am I going to learn and experience today."
So my primary piece of advice is - don't be afraid. Ask questions, because really there's really no such thing as a stupid question when it comes to learning. Questions like, "hey, what exactly is a bourbon?" The best bartenders are the ones who want teach you. They're excited to impart their knowledge to you, and never make it look like "hey, I am doing you you a favor by teaching you." That's the ultimate experience when you go to a bar and can build that rapport with the bartender.
From all your travels, what's your favorite watering hole?
Brendan - Hands-down, my all time favorite is Le Tub. It's a special place, a little dive bar down on the intracoastal in Florida. Imagine if Desperate Annie's was an open air jungle restaurant with the best burgers you've ever had. In fact, it was voted best burger in the country by GQ and Oprah within weeks of each other, and the guy got so upset with the tourists that he closed it down, waited a month and reopened. It's got that classic fisherman decor with nets, buoys and other things scrounged from the beach. There's a pool table and a juke box, and these burgers that are massive. They truly are the best burgers AND fries I've ever had. I'd like to think that it's place that Jimmy Buffet would have liked. My go-to drink there is the the rum runner.
Dennis - The one that keeps coming back to me is Marvel Bar in downtown Minneapolis. You walk through this red door with no signage, and it turns out that every server there is a bartender. They ask you what your likes and dislikes are and recommend something to drink. The thing I like the most is that it's not exclusive. It's a very social setting, where you can strike up a conversation with anyone you want, or read a book if you want to keep to yourself. While it's a packed place, you can still have space to yourself. Their drinks are phenomenal. If I had to sum it up, it's a place that's sexy, provides solitude, and makes really cool drink.
With the first edition of State of the Art, I hope to begin an enduring series of profiles featuring the bars, bartenders and patrons that make a night out a truly memorable occasion. Before I wrap, I wanted to share a final nugget of wisdom from Dennis. While we were discussing how-to-order advice for newly minted cocktail enthusiasts, he suggested that, when all else fails, try something from the menu. A lot of work goes into perfecting those recipes - endless testing, customer feedback, and not an inconsequential amount of love and creative energy. They represent the flavors, tastes and experience of the professionals behind the bar so don't be afraid to indulge. As always I encourage you to explore and enjoy, because it is 5 o'clock somewhere.