Thursday, September 5, 2013

From Bartender to Brand Ambassador: a conversation with Damon Dyer

By Antonia Fattizzi

Damon, you're a former cocktail bartender who has worked in some of New York City's most highly-regarded cocktail bars. Which bars have you worked in, and what did you learn there? 
While I have been fortunate enough to work at some truly fantastic cocktail joints, I cut my teeth in bars that were decidedly less highbrow. I spent many years wandering through the desert, working at neighborhood spots, chain steakhouses, diners, and manning the bar for more tumbleweed-filled lunch shifts than I care to remember. But those experiences truly showed me how to tend bar. I learned to talk to people, how to keep them company and listen to their stories, how to entertain them, and most importantly, how to be a host. I may not have known how to make a proper cocktail back then, but I certainly learned how to be a bartender. 

Years later in 2003, I moved to New York and was blessed to work at some superlative places and to learn from some of the very best. A few years at Capsouto Freres, an old-school French bistro, taught me how to develop a palate for wine and spirits and how to truly appreciate flavor. From Jack the Horse Tavern in Brooklyn I learned how to run a cocktail program on my own. And then I spent a few deeply formative years working with Julie Reiner at Flatiron Lounge, Clover Club, and Lani Kai. And that was the greatest bar education that anyone could imagine. 

Recently you made the move from bartending to representing New York's own Brooklyn Gin. What was it about this product that compelled you to transition out of bartending and into brand management?
The move from bartending to working on the brand side was a natural transition for me. After twenty years in the hospitality world, I was ready to tackle a new challenge. And Brooklyn Gin intrigued me because of the story: Two booze guys break away from the dark side in order to start something of their own? It sounded like a real passionate, labor-of-love type of situation to me, and I was fascinated from the first conversation. It was, in a nutshell, the exact gig that I was looking for, the perfect fit. I could never sign on with any brand that I couldn't stand behind and believe in 100%. That's certainly not a problem here.

Brooklyn Gin is seen as a "craft brand". In your own words, can you define what qualifies a product to be "craft"?
We use terms like "craft brand" now to describe any spirits that are not pumped out in volume by giant industrial distilleries. But it is more than that. A craft product, no matter what it is, will always have more character, more flavor, and more quality. Independent craft brewers have shown us that uniquely flavorful craft beers are infinitely better than mass-produced, flavorless, soulless, bland beers. And it is the same with booze. We now live in a golden age for craft distillation, with world-class gins, whiskies, vodkas, and liqueurs being produced right here in the states by people that are obsessed with quality and craftsmanship. 

In recent years, we've seen more bars and restaurants featuring cocktails that spotlight the use of super-premium spirits mixed with fresh ingredients and natural juices. In your mind, is this a trend or something that's here to stay?
The move to using fresh and quality ingredients in food and drink is no passing fad. More and more, people are appreciating that fresh is better. Fresh lemon juice is better than the chemical-laden contents of the plastic lemon at the grocery store. Fresh citrus is better, and fresh ingredients are better. As result, people are drinking better, and that trend is not going away anytime soon.

Gin can be a tough sell, as there are people out there who profess not to care for it. What do you say to them to dispel preconceived notions about gin?
Gin can be a tough sell. The perceptions of what gin is can be difficult to overcome. “It tastes soapy”, “it's too astringent”, “it smells like old people”, and “there was this bad experience in college once...”

However, the reality is that gin is the most progressive and modern spirit in the world. Gin can be a great many things, all of them different and new and delicious. There may be no category of liquor that welcomes variety and experimentation like gin does. The days of the same old handful of London Dry gins representing the world of gin are over. There are myriad ways to express gin flavors, thousands of combinations and permutations of botanicals. As long as the spicy juniper flavor note is dominant, everything else is open game for the creative distiller. For us, we take this freedom to crack our juniper berries to release the sweet-spicy flavors and use fresh kumquat, key lime, orange, lemon and lime peels. It's an exciting time for gin right now.

Every gin should tell a story. It is only a hard sell only for as long as it takes for someone to find the story they enjoy.

Please share with us two of your favorite Brooklyn Gin cocktail recipes that our readers can make at home.
My favorite use of Brooklyn Gin is the humble Bee's Knees cocktail. 2oz of Brooklyn Gin, 3/4oz of honey syrup, and 3/4oz fresh lemon juice, shaken with ice. And if you really want to gild the lilly, top the whole business off with a bit of sparkling wine. The honey and fresh citrus have a certain affinity for the gin, and bring out its flavors like nothing else. 

One of my other favorites is a Southside Fizz. 2oz of Brooklyn Gin, 3/4oz of simple syrup, 3/4oz of fresh lime juice, and 7-8 fresh mint leaves. Just muddle the mint leaves lightly, add the rest, shake with ice, and top it all of with soda water. Better yet, increase the amounts fivefold, and serve it all in a punch bowl. Float some sliced lime wheels and mint leaves on top.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Since 2003, Antonia Fattizzi has managed, marketed and sold boutique wines and spirits in the US market. Her passion for artisinal products propelled her to found Cork and Tin, which serves as a voice and a strategic partner for small and emerging brands.  


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