I grew up in Columbus, Ohio. I started doing theater from the time I was very young. I moved here in '88 then moved back home for a little bit. I've been back here pretty much since 1990, and then went on later to study in the professional acting program with the British American Drama Academy in Oxford, England.
I've always worked in restaurants. I worked my way through school in a restaurant back in Oxford, and—you know, it's an actor's life—in between gigs, restaurants always were easy. Hours are flexible and you could go to rehearsal during the day and work a shift at night, or vice versa. I've performed with the Goodman Theater, Court Theatre, American Theater Company.
Acting is up and down: you have great years, and you have really, really bad years. I dogged through a couple slow years, and was looking to make restaurant life a full-time career. I was general manager at Hot Chocolate, and then I kind of realized that that wasn't the route I wanted to go. Being an actor, I've always been an artist, and I was finding, when I was in restaurant management, there really was no artistry there. It was personally not very gratifying. I was doing my job and I was doing it very well. But I wasn't creating, I wasn't performing. I was coming in and doing reports and doing schedules.
So I went back on the floor and into the bar. I had not worked in the bar since college days, and what was happening was the beginning of the renaissance of mixology. It wasn't the same drinks that I was used to. My dear friend, who just finished taking a course at the Academy of Spirits and Fine Service with Bridget Albert, suggested I go into the 12-week program. The first day in it I felt like I'd refound myself. All of a sudden the world of the bar had expanded from Long Island iced teas and gin and tonics.
My actual first full-time bar position was being one of the original master bartenders for the Drawing Room. I was at the Drawing Room for the first year, and then I left and went on to open Graham Elliot and was the chief mixologist/beverage director there for two years. I left there a year and a half ago and pretty much went straight to Blackbird. I have three part-time bartenders who work under me, but I'm the only one who's designing the cocktails.
I define [mixology] as the way you would define a pediatrician. It's still a doctor, but their specialty is working with kids. I'm a mixologist—I'm still first and foremost a bartender—but what I do is a little more specialized, than, say, the person who's just slinging shots and beers at your local pub.
The foundation, of course, is understanding what the classics were. It's like a chef should know how to make a Caesar salad. But he can take those flavors and do his own spin. It's understanding how to mix a great cocktail, but then also taking that up a level and understanding how to evolve it and still keep it a great cocktail.
I'm very comfortable conveying what I'm doing behind the bar, and kind of selling it. There's definitely some showmanship that goes into it. I know some people who are very talented, but can't communicate to the guests what it is they're doing. I'm almost more comfortable with an audience than without one.
I have a culinary approach to it, and a very savory approach to it. I just love what herbs bring to a cocktail. I like to use a lot of fresh purees—they're more what I'd call fresh cooked purees, where I actually will slow-cook or slow-poach fruits and then puree it. I like the caramelization that happens in the fruit when you do that, as opposed to just, like, fresh peaches. I love using cucumber. I love using hot peppers in a cocktail.
[I serve] a cocktail I call sweet potato pie. I roll it out for the holidays every now and again. It's a bourbon-based cocktail. I also use a ginger liqueur in there, and then I roast sweet potatoes so they're nice and soft, let that cool, peel that, and make a sweet potato puree, add a little bit of cream to it, spin it out, and then I shake that all together. And then I will brulee marshmallows on top.
Years ago when I was at Graham Elliot, I did a Thanksgiving menu as my cocktail menu. There was a potato drink, a cranberry drink, a sage drink, an apple drink. The potato drink had potato vodka. I thought of roasting potatoes with rosemary and lemon, so that's what I did. It had rosemary syrup and fresh lemon and potato vodka. Then I cooked Yukon Gold potatoes and I pickled them in a rosemary vinegar that I made. And then for the garnish, I scooped those out and then filled it with cream cheese and chives.
I do actually most of my cocktail development at home. I have pretty much a full bar here, and it's a nice, quiet place where I can sit and tinker and think and play. I do what I call a lab day, where I dedicate three or four hours just to playing around and seeing what inspires me.
It's a weird life. —As told to Julia Thiel