Mixology Spirit welcomes Sam Reyes to our blog series. Sam is a talented bartender at Mezon Tapas Bar & Restaurant. He loves to integrate tropical influences, pulling from his Dominican heritage. Be sure to check out his cocktail, called the What’s Up Doc? It’s the first cocktail recipe on Mixology Spirt to feature our Cask Strength Bourbon Whiskey. Blended with pineapple shrub, Aperol, and a carrot ginger syrup, it’s amazingly well-balance and really, really delicious!
UPDATE: We’re pleased to share that Sam was recognized as the 2023 Bartender of the Year at the CT Restaurant Association’s CRAzies Awards. Since we published this interview, the name of the restaurant changed to Mariposa Taqueria, but remains at the same 56 Mill Plain Road address in Danbury.
Batchers: Where do you work and what is your role?
Reyes: I am a bartender at Mezon Tapas Bar & Restaurant in Danbury, CT.
Batchers: How long have you been working behind the bar? How did you get started?
Reyes: I have been behind the bar here at Mezon for about a year and a half. I’ve been a bartender for two and a half years. I got my start at Mecha Noodle Bar in South Norwalk. When I started there, I had the chance to watch a lot of great bartenders and see how their passion influenced customers. The connection you can make with customers is what really drew me into the job.
Batchers: How has bartending changed for the better in the last few years? How has it changed for the worse?
Reyes: If you study classic bartending you’ll quickly learn that a lot of what we call mixology today is based on old-school principles. It’s important not just to focus on the drink but to also focus on the hospitality aspect as well. The two go hand in hand, always have.
The increased focus on mixology has made great tasting, well-balanced cocktails more accessible. For example, I’ve been to a hole-in-the-wall diner that served amazing cocktails with homemade shrubs, layered ingredients that tasted fantastic. I wasn’t expecting it, but they were delivery the goods. There are so many talented bartenders out there right now that possess the knowledge of how to make a fresh cocktail, which means you don’t have to go to a five-star restaurant to get a “highest-quality” drink. I believe when you make things more accessible, it’s a good thing.
The downside? It becomes a trend and people abuse the trend. Some may not care about doing things correctly, and just want to be a part of it so they can ride out the wave. Great bartending really requires doing your research and understanding the history behind the classic cocktails. Many people think they can simply jump in, start experimenting and make crazy drinks with tons of ingredients. It’s not that simple. When you do it that way and take short cuts, we risk turning off customers.
Batchers: What makes a cocktail great versus good?
Reyes: I find the more I study the history of cocktails the more I understand not only how to properly make the classics, but how to best create new ones. There is a science to it all and once you understand that, you are better positioned to experiment and manipulate ingredients so you you can add your own unique spin. Also, you can’t rush things. It’s important to be patient, to experiment, and be willing toss a recipe out and start from scratch.
The beauty of a classic cocktail is that anyone can make one anytime and at any bar, for the most part. The classics take flavor profiles that are super simple and when combined, create something spectacular. When you can elevate every element of your cocktail and make the sum greater than its parts, and do it in a very simple way, that’s how you go from good to great. There’s nothing wrong with a good cocktail. But a great one is simple, made fresh, is well balanced, and simply blows your mind.
Batchers: Some cocktail recipes, though, do have many ingredients in them. How do you know when you have enough and you nailed the balance?
Reyes: I don’t build recipes thinking about how many ingredients I should use. I’m trying to create a particular flavor profile that I think will be interesting. So when I’m experimenting, I ask myself, if I were to take one component away, would that make the drink better or worse? How much better or worse? Will my guests notice the difference? Is the experience different? If the answers are no, then I eliminate the ingredient. If yes, they stay in the drink.
Batchers: Got a story about a particularly hard night on the job?
Reyes: Six months after starting at Mecha, there was a scheduling snafu and I ended up with only one server. I was just into my bartending role and it was two days after Christmas. We got slammed. The entire floor and bar were full. My manager was stuck at the door trying to keep order with waiting customers. I think that was when I had my first official panic attack. It was crazy. By the end of my shift it was a gut-punch moment. I had to decide if I was in it or not. At that moment, I knew I was in it for the long haul and was excited to go back the next day. I felt if that’s the hardest it’s going to get, then I can handle it.
Customers really respond positively in these situations. They notice that you’re busting your chops. When they see you put the same attention into building a drink, whether it’s slow or busy, they appreciate your dedication to the craft.
Batchers: What is your favorite Litchfield Distillery spirit to work with?
Reyes: I like several of Litchfield Distillery’s Bourbons like the Port Cask Finish. I also really like their Straight Cask Strength Bourbon because it’s filled with layers of different flavors and aromas that really stand out, making it great to mix in my cocktails.
Batchers: What does The Spirit of Hard Work® mean to you?
Reyes: I think The Spirit of Hard Work® is about honoring the process and taking pride in your process. It’s not just about making a great cocktail and having a customer tell you it’s great. It’s about the trial, the error, and the learning. You need to embrace and love the moments when your commitment to learning reveals something new. When you commit at this level you’ll take more pride in your work. Your bar is going to look immaculate not just because you are hard working, but because you honor your process and you take pride in what you’re doing. When you love what you do, you don’t mind the hard work because you realize doing the work is where all the joy lies.
How to make the What’s Up Doc?:
About Mixology Spirit:
Mixology Spirit is a Litchfield Distillery blog series dedicated to sharing the stories of creative and passionate mixologists who embody The Spirit Of Hard Work®. Think you got what it takes to be featured? Drop us a line at email@example.com.
© 2020 Litchfield Distillery. Photography & Editing Credits: Tony Vengrove