Emily Bell: What drew you to restaurants and, in particular, to mixology?
Brad Farran: I started working at a fine dining restaurant in Raleigh called Enoteca Vin about five years ago. I started there as a food runner and the chef there was amazing and really drew me into food. And we had a fantastic wine program. There was a lot of room for advancement there and I took advantage. After working there for three years I was managing bar, on the sommelier track. I was responsible for our signature drinks and really that sort of captured my imagination. So I started visiting New York, going to places like Pegu Club, PDT, and Flatiron Lounge, and I just fell in love and decided I was going to move to New York to pursue cocktails.
EB: How did you make the move?
BF: I had just decided I was going to move to New York to get a job at a cocktail bar. That was a decision I made—I hadn’t really formulated much of a plan beyond that. That was the plan. Then one afternoon I was checking my email—I was a subscriber to Gary Regan’s Worldwide Bartender Database—and there was a classified for Clover Club seeking a bartender. I didn’t know about Clover Club because it hadn’t opened yet.
EB: How did you first get in touch with owner Julie Reiner?
BF: I saw the name Julie Reiner and emailed my friend St. John. I had met him through a mutual friend and I used to visit him at Pegu Club, we’d send emails back and forth talking about cocktails and New York and stuff. So I emailed him and asked him, “do I want to work for Julie Reiner?” At the time, I didn’t realize that she was also an owner at Pegu and so was also by proxy his employer. He said, “Absolutely!” So I sent Julie a résumé and email and went away for the weekend. And when I came back, St. John had forwarded her an unsolicited reference for me and it was amazing—she forwarded it to me and said, “This is what my guy said about you.” So then Julie and I started talking on the phone. We had a few conversations, interview-conversations, and one morning she was like, “Okay, well, I think you’re hired!” And I’m like, “are you serious? You mean to tell me, if I move to New York in two weeks I’ll have a job as a bartender in one your bars?” And she said yes.
EB: That’s a big leap—from Raleigh to one of the most bustling cocktail markets in the world. Did you feel prepared?
BF: I thought I did. I feel like my experience is not unlike most bartenders’ experience, moving from outside of New York or San Francisco or Chicago to one of those cities. You’re at the top of your field where you’re coming from and you know everything there is to know, and New York comes and teaches you a serious lesson in humility. And I got that. But having seen a few other people come and go from a similar background, you learn you really need to keep your head down and your ego in check and learn from the people around you, because they honestly do know more than you do most of the time.
EB: What appeals to you about mixology?
BF: I really enjoy entertaining people. The very basis is making people have fun, helping people have fun and enjoy themselves. It’s a great way to do it, especially behind the bar. When you’re waiting on tables, there’s a formality to it that you get to forego a bit as the bartender, because you are the one who’s creating the drinks. You earn a certain degree of respect there. It’s less formal than a chef-guest interaction, where there’s a serious deference on the part of the guest to the chef, because you’re standing there, you’re making drinks in front of your guest, you’re chatting with them and everybody’s friends at that point. That’s really what draws me to it—to encounter somebody, share some drinks, talk about a movie or something that happened, and then serve them a drink and then they enjoy it and you say, “thank you, that’s why I’m here!”
EB: Mixology seems pretty susceptible to trends. What are some of the current trends you’ve seen on the cocktail market? Do they matter?
BF: They happen, and tend to fade pretty quickly. There’s a decidedly short attention span in New York City. At the moment, right now we’re sort of watching tiki and modern tropical mixology unfold before our eyes. And by this time next year, I’m sure we’ll be talking about some other hot, unexploited area of historical mixology. We saw the speakeasies come and ago, we’ve seen mezcal get its temple in Mayahuel, and Pre-Prohibition lives at Clover Club. These are all niches in the same overarching genre of mixology. People are always trying to find their new niche.
EB: How do you differentiate yourself in such a crowded marketplace as New York?
BF: It’s sort of interesting to think of how we differentiate ourselves. The only way I try is to put out absolutely the best product I can, every single time. When it comes to mixing drinks, I think everybody in our industry is looking to create a new flavor and push the boundaries of what has been done before us. We’re all sort of on that same mission, and what differentiates any of us from anybody else is the guest experience. Here we do a really good job of keeping things unpretentious and very inviting for our guests. We’re in a neighborhood. We’re not in Manhattan, where it’s a destination. I mean, it is a destination, but we also rely heavily on the people near to us. So we develop personal relationships with people in our neighborhood. That means more to me than creating a crazy new drink that uses six different ingredients that come from across the globe.
EB: What goes into creating a new cocktail? How long does it take to create a new cocktail?
BF: It’s sort of different every time. There are days when I have an idea and I’m just like, “I wonder what this spirit tastes like with this spirit?” I’ll try to figure out how to make that flavor work. Other times the season rolls around and you’re like, “It’s springtime! It’s time to figure out what I can do with cucumbers!” You have an idea for a dominant flavor and you try to figure out how to best showcase that flavor in a balanced and nuanced way. My philosophy is to create a flavor that is greater than the sum of its parts, and can also be broken down into its constituents. In other words, you can taste each flavor in there, but then there’s a grand flavor that they all combine to create.
EB: What is your favorite cocktail to drink?
BF: I always tell people the Jack Rose. I don’t actually drink them all the time, but a well mixed Jack Rose is a thing of beauty. It is so utterly simple; it’s a sour with applejack, lime juice, and grenadine. But the flavor that those three ingredients come together to create is amazing. I don’t know how somebody did that! It’s one of my favorite flavors.
EB: What is your favorite cocktail to make?
BF: My favorite drink to make? That’s a tough one. I’ve been really enjoying the summertime and making the Queen’s Park Swizzle because it’s a swizzle and swizzles are always fun. It’s fun to make and they’re beautiful.
EB: What is your favorite mixology resource book and who is the author?
BF: It’s got to be Imbibe by Dave Wondrich. That is pretty much the number one for me as just a general resource.
EB: Who are your mentors? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from them?
BF: Julie Reiner, obviously. She gave me a tremendous opportunity. I don’t think she had ever hired anybody by phone before. I’m incredibly grateful she took that chance on a guy from North Carolina who had too much coffee on the phone one afternoon. Also Ashley Christensen, the chef at Enoteca Vin. She opened my eyes to food and wine—opened my eyes to a world I had not been a part of before.
EB: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
BF: I very much enjoy bitter flavors. My favorite drinks to create are those that sort of combine a bitter element and make it more approachable for people who aren’t necessarily as gung-ho about bitter flavors. I like bringing it out there because I feel that bitter is one of those flavors that is really sort of misunderstood. People sort of take a cautious if not outright hostile approach to bitter flavors. It’s more among patrons than bartenders. The general public is suspicious of bitter flavors.
EB: If you weren’t a mixologist, what would you be doing?
BF: I say ‘man of leisure.’ I think I’d be on a boat. Yeah, if I wasn’t a mixologist, I’d be on my yacht.