Why Bartending Is Like Talking Shop, Per Damon Boelte


When Damon Boelte bought his first cocktail book at 12 years old, it was just the beginning of what would become an insatiable curiosity. “Nowadays, there are a lot of people who remind me of me when I was a kid,” he explains. “They’re not necessarily into cocktails to be a bartender, but they’re enthusiasts. And that’s exactly how I started out — albeit nine years before I was legally able to drink.”

That enthusiasm led him to ring up a $1,000 tab for Frank Castronovo during a shift at Red Hook’s LeNell’s, a thoughtful solution to Castronovo’s quest for high-end whiskey. “He was like ‘I like your style, but I’m putting some of this back,'” recalls Boelte. A few weeks later the Franks recruited Boelte for a consulting gig at Frankies 457, which soon led to a head bartender position at Prime Meats (465 Court Street, Brooklyn, 718-254-0327). When he isn’t making drinks, Boelte is writing about them and talking about them each Wednesday on Heritage Radio’s The Speakeasy. Here, we chat with the Renaissance Man about how his show informs his life behind the bar — and how he found time to break a hot dog eating record.

How would you describe your interview style for the radio show?
The show is 30 minutes long with a break halfway through. The break is only about 45 seconds to a minute, and it gives us an opportunity to regroup and go into the second half. It’s sort of like talking shop at the bar — we just happen to have microphones in front of us and we are being recorded live.

How did the show come about?
Patrick Martins, the founder of Heritage Radio Network, used to come to the bar frequently. Our conversations were very shop talk about food and drink, we would just talk forever. He would ask me how I get inspired to come up with recipes and drink names, and I would tell him it was a lot easier to come up with a recipe once you have a name. It’s really much more difficult to name a recipe after you already put it together. We were having a conversation about all of the drinks that I come up with based on a song or a band or an album, and he invited me onto his show, The Main Course. It happened to be Repeal Day, so we talked a lot about prohibition. The show went really well, and next thing I know, he offered me my own show.

What’s an example of a cocktail name that you’ve created a recipe for?
I have a cocktail called Hearts of Oak. It’s a historical reference that goes back to the Odyssey by Homer, but it was also a voluntary militia during the Revolutionary War. The latest reference would be the Ted Leo and the Pharmacists album that came out 10 years ago. The hearts part comes from Cynar (i.e. artichoke hearts), and the oak comes from bourbon and whiskey barrel aged bitters.

How’d you come up with the format for the show?
I was actually talking with a couple of the bartenders at work during closing time, and I realized that that was it — the conversation that happens when we’re just hanging out at the bar. I have so many people on the show, from food writers and oyster farmers to distillers and brewers. That’s the thing about the world of booze — you can relate it to almost anything. The benefit to that is that we can bring on any guest, and we’re learning from each other from the shop talk element alone.

How does the shop talk element carry over to your role at the bar?
It’s always situational. Every guest that comes in, you want to treat them like a VIP. It’s not necessarily up to you to be able to do that as a bartender. There might be people coming off of work who are looking to talk shop themselves, and also looking to decompress, and I’m there to definitely help them with that — but I don’t need to be in their conversation, either. You have to take social cues. I’ll talk to guests about anything, though. I tend to go off on historical rants about cocktails and spirits, I’m just really nerdy about it. We tend to listen to a lot of great music. The Franks are huge Dead Heads, but then we have a lot of really great obscure psych and country music, which is what I’m into — a lot of weird old country music. So there are a lot of conversations about music.

You recently had your first day off in two weeks. What’d you do?
I went to Gowanus Yachut Club and broke the hot dog record. I ate nine hot dogs. Someone else was on the board with seven, and I was like, “You know what? I’m going to beat that today.” I ate nine hot dogs and had two Shiner Bocks. So my name’s on the board right now. While I was finishing the bites of the ninth hot dog, the whole place was chanting “USA! USA!” over and over. It was a pretty defining moment in my life.