An Interview with Robert "DrinkBoy" Hess
Ever googled a bitters recipe, or wanted to know about the world of Brandy? If you were lucky enough to find Robert Hess's website http://www.drinkboy.com/, chances are you found satisfication.
Robert Hess has, admittedly, never worked as a bartender, but as a "cocktail evangelist" and educator Hess has had a wide influence on the world of mixed drinks joining such industry legends as Ted Haigh and Gary Regan in the pursuit of great libations. One thing's for sure, you would be lucky to find him moonlighting behind a bar.
DC Drinks: Unlike other well-known mixologists, it's my understanding that you didn't come to the business through bartending. How did you get involved with mixology and is there any particular drink that was your touchstone?
Drink Boy: True, I have never officially worked as a bartender, I suppose you could think of me as the “Julia Child” of mixology…
I'd gotten into “wine thing” early on and in the 90’s I was in England, and tried many of their beers. Pubs were using something called a “Beer Engine” to serve their beers. I decided that if I ever built a house, I’d put a beer engine in it. But if I had one, I should also have a soda gun, and a glass washer, and an ice machine, etc. I also realized that I’d want a full stock of liquor on the back bar… So I decided to teach myself how to mix cocktails. That's how it all began.
DC Drinks: I have read where you assail bartenders for not living up to their craft. What do you believe are the finest traits of a bartender and, conversely, the worst?
Drink Boy: "Assail" is probably too harsh of a word. I try to be accepting of all bartenders and I rarely turn back a drink.
Bartenders have to embody the culinary craftsmanship of the chef, but you have to interact with the customers and be personable. Some bartenders are great mixologists, but bad bartenders (i.e. poor people skills), while others are great bartenders, but poor mixologists. Jobs can often be broken down into four different types: Chore, Trade, Craft, and Art form. The job of a burger flipper at a fast food restaurant is a Chore. Line cook at a chain restaurant is a Trade. Cook at a respected restaurant is a Craft. Head Chef at a three star Michelin restaurant is an Artist. I have no problem with a bartender in each of these categories, as long as they aren’t thinking that they are something else. And bartenders can be “great” in each of these categories.
DC Drinks: What do you think about bar chefs and the new renaissance in culinary-crafted drinks?
Drink Boy: It’s all about using quality ingredients and getting them to balance against each other in such a way as to prevent any one ingredient from taking control of the drink.
Many people mistakenly see the “bar chef” as somebody who is adding all sorts of strange and bizarre ingredients together to make a drink. Mango infused tequila, Passion fruit coulis, muddled tarragon … When in fact the art of the cocktail is just as well reflected in a drink as simple as the Manhattan, Martini, or Daiquiri.
DC Drinks: Do you have a specialty mixed drink, something you invented?
Drink Boy: One very popular drink that I’ve come up with is the Trident. It is a variation of the Negroni, but reflects my personal interest in slightly obscure products. Chances are good that most bars don’t carry the products necessary to make this drink:
- 1 ounce dry sherry
- 1 ounce Cynar
- 1 ounce aquavit
- 2 dashes peach bitters.
Stir with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass.
Garnish with a lemon twist.
DC Drinks: Where do you think the best drinks are being made in and outside the U.S.?
Drink Boy: I have to recommend Le Bar Hemingway and Colin Field. It was early on in my cocktail adventures that I encountered him, and he in fact single handedly restored my faith in bartenders after my early “Old Fashioend” experiences. It was after spending some time with Colin that I realized that some bartenders really did understand what it was all about, and where there was one, there could be more.
I’ve also got to recommend several bars in the London area. They are doing absolutely fabulous things there. Trailer Happiness, Lab Bar, and Milk & Honey, just to name a few.
And in Barcelona I always try to drop into Dry Martini, Boadas, The Aris Bar, and Ideal Bar. Even with slight problems with the language barrier, I always enjoy the drinks I have there.
In the US, there’s Frisson, Tres Agaves, Myth, and Bix in San Francisco, but I would be remiss to not also mention the quiet little bar at the Majestic Hotel, and their bartender Tim Stookey as really being a treat to visit with. In New York, The Pegu Club is top on my list, followed by places such as the Flatiron Lounge, Milk & Honey, and Little Branch. On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I ran across great drinks at The Eifel Tower Restaurant at the Paris Resort, as well as at Commander’s Palace at the Aladdin.
DCDrinks: How has the craft changed since you started? Is there a greater interest now in mixology and, if so, why?
DrinkBoy: It's a natural evolution. Wine, beer, and even coffee have undergone radical advancements in their appreciation over the last couple of decades. I see that having this same transformation happen to cocktails is only a matter of time. It wasn’t that long ago that people actually thought you could get great coffee out of a can!
DCDrinks: What is in store for mixology? How does the future look for beginning bartenders or cocktail and mixed drink fans?
DrinkBoy: The transformation of the cocktail and its return to being considered a “cuisine” is right on the horizon. It may not be easy, and will take a new conceptual awareness from customers, bartenders, and restaurant owners to achieve. Until customers are asking for great drinks, bartenders won’t be motivated to supply them.