He might just seem like a really well-rounded guy, with interests spanning music, mopeds, and mixology. But 2011 New York Rising Star Mixologist Damon Boelte is actually a cocktails and spirits aficionado—and an antique bitters-bottles collector to boot. Boelte didn’t get into mixology immediately (he pursued his other passions first, including graphic design and rock music), but the discovery of his own talent behind the bar, combined with the free-ranging creativity of cocktail culture, convinced Boelte that serious bartending was a more than worthwhile professional pursuit.
Over the course of his rapid rise, Boelte has worked in various corners of the industry. At the famed LeNell’s LTD spirits shop, Boelte worked alongside LeNell Smothers, teaching classes on bourbon and cheese, wine, bitters, and rare spirits. And he’s worked with many spirits and beverage companies, including Maker’s Mark, Plymouth Gin, Tito’s Vodka, Corzo Tequila, the American Gin Company, Highland Park, and Stumptown Coffee.
Boelte’s also consulted for many bars and restaurants in New York City. And as bar director of the Frankys team’s latest, Prime Meats, in Carroll Gardens, Boelte is able to fuse his love of legendary 19th and early 20th century bartenders and authors such as Jerry Thomas, Harry Johnson, Charles H. Baker, Hugo Ensslin, and Jacques Straub with modern influences like David Wondrich, Dale DeGroff, Gaz Regan, and Beachbum Berry—all while developing his own recipes and methods. But Boelte isn’t just creating behind the bar. He shares his cocktails and techniques with various publications, including New York Magazine, The New York Times,Time Out, Imbibe Magazine, GQ, Edible Brooklyn and Manhattan, Saveur, Bon Appetit, La Cucina Italiana, Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure, Eater.com, TastingTable.com, and SeriousEats.com. And when he’s not mixing, writing, or playing with his band, Boelte can be heard talking up all things beverage—from spirits and cocktails to beer, tea, and coffee—on “The Speakeasy,” every Wednesday at 3pm on Heritage Radio Network.
Interview with Mixologist Damon Boelte of Prime Meats - New York, NY
Emily Bell: What drew you to restaurants and, in particular, mixology?
Damon Boelte: I did a lot of things. I went to school to be a graphic designer. I worked in that industry for a while. After that, I opened a vintage motorcycle and scooter shop. I sold that. Then I played music, worked in guitar shops, and rock n’ roll in general. So I basically worked in every single field in my hobbies—design, vintage scooters, motorcycles, guitars, and music. I thought “I’m 24, I’ve already done everything I’ve ever wanted to do—what else am I into? Oh, wait, I’m into drinking!”
EB: How, exactly, where you “into drinking”?
DB: I always entertain at my house, making drinks, having parties. I bought my first cocktail book when I was 12 or 13 years old. It wasn’t a respectable one. I’m into reading cocktail books and history.
EB: How did you transition from sideline enthusiasm to professional status?
DB: Eventually I went to work at a restaurant my buddies were working at. They saw something in me. They knew a fair deal about drinks. They put me behind the bar almost immediately. I’ve been a bartender ever since—for seven years. With the creative side of design, and music and classicism, it makes sense me becoming a classic cocktail nerd.
EB: Were you trained in bartending or mixology?
DB: I realized there were some things I was doing wrong. I was doing a lot right. You’re not supposed to shake a martini, for instance. When I first started, people were doing that. It wasn’t just the bartenders. It was customers that didn’t realize they were getting the drink made poorly. You show them the right way, and they’re really grateful for it. I realized I could do more of this—teaching people the right way. I ended up consulting, eventually. After a few years of bartending, I started teaching some classes at a place called LaNells LTD in Red Hook. We would do presentations on different spirits and wines every weekend. There were bourbon and cheese classes. I did mostly American whisky and bitters. Just being in that educational environment, as far as spirits and wine go, and in the history of it, really turned me into a good bartender.
EB: How did you get into this position at Prime Meats?
DB: It was weird because I was working at dive bars, but I would make cocktails. We would have cocktail nights. And people started taking notice of it. I was still doing consulting. And eventually I got hooked up with these guys. They asked me to come in and write their program and run it. And that’s what kind of took it to the next level.
EB: How do you come up with cocktails?
DB: I get ideas in dreams. Though I get most of my ideas for cocktails in music. Seriously. Sidewalker is the name of a song.
I’ve got so many others inspired by obscure bands and records. It could be an experience I had while listening to that song, or hanging out with friends, on a road trip, in the middle of Kansas on the I-90. The 100 Years—chamomile, honey, rye, lemon, bitters, and sparkling wine—it’s like walking through a field of grain, it reminds me of Gram Parsons. It reminds me of country stuff.
EB: How often do you change the menu?
DB: I like to the change the menu fully twice a year. Spring and summer as one, fall and winter as the other. Personally I get into fall and winter cocktails more than I do spring and summer. I’m more of a stirred, boozy, bitter cocktail maker. That’s not to say it only changes twice a year, two or three will switch out in that six month period.
EB: What is your favorite cocktail to drink? To make?
DB: It’s like your favorite Rolling Stones song, it changes. This time of year [summer] I really like gin and tonics. In cold weather I drink a lot of Manhattans and Old Fashioneds. Keep it classic.
EB: What ingredient do you feel is underappreciated or underutilized?
DB: I keep joking about bringing back blue curaçao. I’ve been trying. I had a blue curaçao drink. New York Magazine did a spectrum of 101 different cocktails and I had the bluest drink. I have come up with some blue drinks. I wanted to get respect for that one.
EB: What are your favorite tools?
DB: I have a lot of gold bar tools and stuff. I’m really into my ice picks. Got this jigger a while back. It’s over 100 years old. Got it for two bucks. And I collect old bitters bottles, from the 1910s, 1860s—a lot from the 20s and 30s. This jigger’s really cool. They call it a bell jigger, but this one actually rings.
EB: What is your favorite mixology resource book and who is the author?
DB: I really like William Schmidt’s The Flowing Bowl. As far as other old school authors, I guess Harry Craddock’s book is cool. [I like] Harry Johnson’s Bartender’s Manual. I taught a class based on that to train baristas as bartenders; I started incorporating that into coffee prep. Also The Gentleman’s Companion by Charles H. Baker Junior. That one’s great. As far as modern authors, Dave Wondrich is obviously the man.
EB: Do you have a blog or do you contribute to any blogs?
DB: No, I have radio show. I should probably keep a blog just posting the shows, but we do that on the radio station website. I get impatient if I have to type too much.
EB: What does success mean for you?
DB: I would like to eventually own a few bars and have a mini-empire and then buy a house in Austin, TX, and bartend in Luckenbach, TX. I would like to own a few bars, maybe one in Texas, and be bi-coastal. And then, you know, it’d be nice to own a distillery one day. Whisky. I would love to distill whisky. Don’t know if I want to do it in New York. I would love to get to a point where I’m traveling back and forth to make sure my bars are running well. And ride motorcycles.
EB: Where will we find you in five years?
DB: Before I moved here, I split time between Austin and Oklahoma City. In five years I would like to be living comfortably, doing what I like to do, and running at least one successful bar in New York City. I have a lot of really great friends here.
EB: What would be your last cocktail (in your life)?
DB: I guess Death in the Afternoon.