Damon Dyer of Clover Club and Louis 649 Talks Three-Ingredient Drinks, Esoteric Menus, and the Backlash Against Cocktail Culture
If Damon Dyer looks a tad familiar, there's a reason for it. He was behind the bar at Flatiron Lounge for several years before making the leap across the bridge to Clover Club. He also has weekly shifts at Louis 649 in the East Village, which for the last year and a half has been a hotbed for industry folks thanks to its Tuesday Night Tasting series, a weekly event that doubles as a free education program for bartenders. Of course, his name might also ring a bell because he was the instigator of the late-night Angostura shot.
Tell me about the Tuesday Night Tasting series.
We used to be a jazz club and it became too expensive to pay all the noise complaint fines. Gianfranco [Verga, general manager] helped re-brand us as a cocktail lounge, which I thought was a genius move. The idea is to bridge the gap between this cocktail culture that's new and mysterious and the customers. So he brings in someone once a week from a spirit company, a wine producer, a beer distributor -- brand ambassadors, master distillers, and head brewers -- and has them talk for a couple hours about what they do and why it matters to you sitting on the other side of the bar. It's great.
And now the bar has become a hangout for other people in the industry.
It's funny how that happens. The place wasn't on the radar and wasn't known for cocktails two years ago, and is now this late-night industry hangout. An early morning hangout as well with the World Cup games being televised.
Does that mean you have to work mornings now, too?
Oh, no. No, no, no. I'm too old and too grumpy to work mornings.
Is it fun to work in a place frequented by other bartenders, or do you have to worry about always having your best game on?
No, not in the least. My colleagues are those I go into battle with every day and have for years. I really enjoy it. We're a tight-knit community in this town. And having anyone coming to see you at the end of the night for a drink is complimentary and it's great.
How did you get into bartending?
I got into bartending the way most people do. I lied my ass off. I'd been waiting tables for far too many years and was far too mediocre at it. But I'd always viewed the bar with a bit of a wide eye. It was something that had mystery to me. I didn't know what happened back there, but I wanted to be a part of it. So, a very lowbrow regional steakhouse in California had an opening and I lied myself right into it, and the next thing I knew I was bartending lunch shifts during the week. Nothing more complicated than pouring beer and a little bit of cheap wine. But it got my toes in the water and helped get me on this road.
Part of the point of the Tuesday Night Tastings is to make some of the lesser-known spirits more accessible. Do you find that certain high-end, specialized cocktail bars can be less than accessible to customers?
Both Gianfranco and Julie Reiner [owner of Clover Club] are great at taking high-end drinks with a methodology of fresh ingredients and fresh juices and making it presentable to the everyman. You have this great, beautiful drink -- hell, you deserve it -- but without the silliness that goes with a lot of high-end bars or restaurants. She's done that to great success at Flatiron and even greater success at Clover Club because it's in Brooklyn. We're doing it on a street that has dive bars and sports bars and Irish bars. I dig that.
What spirits or seasonal ingredients are you excited about these days?
I'm trying to work with less. I'm serving what's seasonal, but using less ingredients. I think the day has come in this industry when we're becoming a little too fancy and a little too serious for ourselves, creating a bit of a divide between what we do and what the average person wants. I want to simplify things. I want to demystify. I think the best drinks in the world have three ingredients, four at most. The classics: the daiquiris, the margaritas, the Manhattan, simple drinks. But done right, they're the most beautiful things in the world. It's time, at least for me, to focus more on the details that go into these drinks than on eight-, nine-, 10-ingredient drinks that have everything in there, but taste like nothing.
Do you feel there's a backlash against cocktail culture now?
Yes, because we take ourselves too seriously. I left the world of wine and white-tablecloth dining because of the pretentiousness, the elitism, and I think the cocktail world is fighting to do the same thing. Elitism and pretension should never have a place in bars. Save that type of arrogance. Just give me a drink. Spare me the cocktail menu that's so esoteric it needs a glossary. And scoffing at people who just want a vodka drink. I'm glad to see the people in this town, in the country, are taking the craft of cocktails seriously. But the pendulum swung a little too far and now it's time for it to come back a little.
Have you heard anything about an opening date for Julie Reiner's new bar, Lani Kai? Last I heard, it was going to be late July, maybe August. As often happens when opening a new place, there are so many variables. But it's exciting to see a place like Lani Kai open. Painkiller, too. We're starting to get past the perception that high-end cocktails can only be Prohibition-era drinks. I think that's untrue and borderline ridiculous. A great drink can be a drink that's fun. It can be a tropical drink, like what Julie's doing. It can have bright juices and fun flavors. Quality is not synonymous with old-timey. Not at all.
Do you think you might end up working at Lani Kai when it opens?
I may help out there a little bit, but certainly my home is at the Clover Club. And that is because I can walk to work. The quality of life when you walk to work is a beautiful, beautiful thing. I live in Brooklyn Heights, so it's a bit of a walk, but not bad.
So you're loving the borough?
Brooklyn is essentially where my life is. Most nights I work here. I did jury duty here. Everything you need is right here. I know it's the trendy thing to shout Brooklyn; however, I think there's a decent amount of reality to back that up. I couldn't be happier here.
You did jury duty? What was the case?
It was a civil case of someone suing the city over a car accident. Being on jury duty during the day and bartending at night, now that's good times right there.
Where do you like to hang out when you're not at your own bars?
In my living room. On the roof of my building. Having a drink in my hand, relaxing. I'm not always going to bars on my nights off.
What do you like to drink when you're at home?
Simple, easy, and beautiful. I'm rarely squeezing juice at home. I do enough of that at work and I've been doing enough of that for a very long time. It's just as easy to crack open a nice bottle of wine, a bottle of beer, or mix up a real easy martini.
What are some of the next big things we'll start to see in bars?
Like I said, the pendulum will start to swing back. We've taught them to raise their expectations. And that's great -- you should care about what you drink in the same way you care about what you eat. But we've gone a little too far in some ways. We've gotten into the realm of elitism and a wee bit of arrogance. Having a cocktail menu that is all homemade bitters and esoteric ingredients that amateurs have never heard of is great if you want to show off, but it tells me you're trying too hard.
Are you going to Tales of the Cocktail?
I'm not. Someone has to stay home and take care of the shop.
Think you might ever open your own place?
I think I would. I think most bartenders have their vision of what their perfect bar would be and how they could make it happen.
What would your perfect bar be?
That's the thing. I'm not exactly sure yet. But I've been very blessed to be influenced by some of the great bartenders around and to have learned from these folks. People like that have taught me a whole lot that hopefully I can use in my own place someday. The main thing is that I would remain a bartender. I love that term. Not mixologist, not bar chef, or liquid savant. I think the superlative of the term is bartender. It implies something greater than mixing drinks: taking care of people, making people feel comfortable. Mixologist doesn't encompass that so I'll leave that word for others to use.
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