Born in Los Angeles and practically growing up in his family’s Mediterranean restaurant, Dean James has always been curious about flavor combinations and ethnic traditions. While studying film in San Diego, James subsidized his income by working in restaurants, and was immediately drawn to the bar. Finding that he very much enjoyed the industry and the culture (and the hours), he moved to San Francisco with an eye toward making bartending his profession.
In 2006, he met Dave McLean and helped open The Alembic Bar, thus beginning his career as a serious cocktailian. His time behind the stick at the now-venerable craft cocktail bar honed his skill and his appreciation of “the art of the bar,” particularly the role of the bartender as showman. In 2011, James joined the crew at El Take It Easy in San Diego, heading up a bar program based around Tijuana’s rich drinking history during the Prohibition era.
When a chance to swap coasts presented itself in 2012, James settled in North Carolina and teamed up with Tim Neill (of Employees Only fame) at Peccadillo in Carrboro. Neill and James have distilled their craft down to a small menu of carefully chosen cocktails that showcase the subtlety and flavor range of each ingredient in their drinks. In 2013, Bar Lusconi opened in downtown Durham as a continuation of the principles found at Peccadillo, with the focus on small production wines and craft beer.
Why: It’s a local organization based out of Durham, North Carolina, that fosters empowerment, self-belief, and reflective thinking through the power of storytelling. Their interactive approach to this is applicable for every person and age group, but they do very important work with victims of abuse and troubled teens. Imagination and creativity is noticeable in every one of the Rising Stars recipients, and I certainly feel that without it, I wouldn't have been able to make bar tending a professional career.
Interview with Mixologist Dean James of Peccadillo – Carrboro, NC
Antoinette Bruno: What’s the cocktail scene like in Carrboro, North Carolina?
Dean James: The cocktail scene in Carrboro and really in all of North Carolina is very exciting right now. First of all, it’s a very young scene, and it’s very cool to be in an area like this where the quality of bars is advancing so fast. I love training novice bartenders on classic cocktails, it’s fantastic to watch that lightbulb go on inside somebody’s head when they taste a properly made Sazerac or something, knowing that they’ve just started on their own path of discovery. I recently helped a good friend open his cocktail bar in Durham called Alley Twenty Six, and it’s great to see folks getting into all his house-made syrups and tinctures. It’s a nice contrast to the very simplistic cocktails made at Peccadillo, and I think any area needs to have a good mix of both. It’s evident that cocktails have a bright future here in North Carolina. It’s amazing to be part of that.
AB: How do you think moving to San Francisco impacted your career?
DJ: I love history, I especially love cocktail history. I wanted to live in San Francisco because it’s such a well-known bastion of cultural diversity, but also because there’s so much history on every one of those streets. And you really get to know all those little neighborhoods well, because size-wise it’s not a very big city. I always call it the biggest small town in the country. And in that city, people really give a damn about the things that they eat and drink. In a way I’d never seen before, coming from Southern California when I did. So that really excited me, that the average was so high there, and the bar for success was set even higher. In the cocktail world, that’s a pretty huge deal for a bartender. It means your guests are coming in the door with a lot of knowledge. They’re even reading the same cocktail books that you are, sometimes! The dining scene is one of the best around and it makes people adventurous. So because of that, there is a lot less fear of the unknown in San Francisco; when folks there don’t know about something, they want to try it.
I remember at the time we opened Alembic in 2006, there weren’t that many bars around that were treating classic cocktails very well. People were still looking for the next flavored Mojito, to an extent. And there we were, pushing Manhattans and Sazeracs on everyone in sight, and in the wrong part of town to be doing that sort of thing at that time. But it worked. Within a year tons of other like-minded bars had popped up, small-batch spirits were easier to come by, and rye whiskey cocktails had taken the place of flavored vodka drinks for a lot of people. The bartending community is very tight-knit in San Francisco and incredibly supportive, especially in the craft cocktail world. I remember talking over the bar with other excited bartenders for hours about the virtues of whatever the newest spirit on the market was, how many dashes of bitters should go in a proper Old Fashioned, which botanicals were in which gins, things like that. It was a very communal experience in a very exciting time for that city, and I feel very lucky to have been a part of that. For certain my bar career has been very shaped by San Francisco.
AB: When did you realize you were a purist?
DJ: I think I realized I was a bit of a cocktail purist the day after I left San Francisco! I may have been a little naïve in thinking the rest of the country treated cocktails and drinking as seriously as they do in places like New York and San Francisco, though I truly believe the bridge between them gets shorter every year. I’ve found great cocktail bars in every city I’ve traveled to. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder is all.
But really, I think mixology is about pure expression rather than pure creation. How do you best bring compatible flavors together, or disparate ones even? Where’s that perfect line you cross where you achieve harmony, and when have you gone too far? And I think back often to the Shirley Temples I would make as a kid, when it’s the most balanced, it tastes the best, even if there’s just the two ingredients in it. Too much grenadine in there, and I never wanted to drink it. And then apply this to bartending. If you know your ingredients so intimately that you’ll be able to tell in an instant if one of the flavors is off, if the temperature is wrong, if something is off balance, then you’re going to be making better drinks. Love is in the details.
AB: And why, simply, purism like this? Why the focus, and what's the pay off?
DJ: I know how to make lots of types of cocktails, and I really do enjoy creating new ones. Mine tend to be new spins on classic cocktails anyway, I think most all modern cocktails have roots that can be found among the classics. But I am also a product of my environment. You just can’t get the same types of spirits in North Carolina that you can in other parts of the country, or not at the same prices, for a whole host of reasons. So this does impact the scope of any cocktail program around here.
One of the reasons I left San Francisco was that I was finding that not too many people wanted to drink a really well-made (but basic) Martini or Manhattan anymore. It had begun to be a bit of an arms race as to who could infuse or barrel-age or smoke the most ingredients in their cocktails, and that didn’t interest me as much when it was at the expense of the simple pleasures of a well-balanced aperitif cocktail. I guess I just like making drinks where you can taste every component, and there isn’t a flavor trying to shove the other ones out of the way. And don’t get me wrong, I love drinking those cocktails when they are made for me, I just didn’t want to lose the essence of why I fell in love with bartending in the first place. So I don’t see it as an accident that I ended up in an area where state laws have made it harder for the cocktail scene to be fully developed yet. I get to push classic cocktails onto a whole host of people that have never had them before, and I value that experience. One thing a bartender always loves to hear is that a given cocktail is the best you’ve ever had. This never gets tiring to hear the longer you do this job. But what I hear a lot these days is ‘this is the first time I’ve ever actually had a gin martini’ or comments like that. And you get to see new doors opening for the people you’re serving.
AB: It seems like the way you mix your drinks, it's not necessarily reductive, but focused, paring attention down to the essential ingredients to ensure they're of the utmost quality or at their peak (I'm thinking of your vermouth in the adapted Tequila Negroni). Can you expand upon this idea a bit?
DJ: Everyone likes when things taste their best. Everybody knows what a ripe banana tastes like, and everybody knows what an overripe banana tastes like. Hopefully not too many people know what rotten bananas taste like. Wine is like this. And vermouth is like this too, as it is wine-based. We’ve taken the stance at Peccadillo that we will only use one type of dry and sweet vermouth. That way, since we use both of them in our cocktails a lot, it means we will go through a fair amount of vermouth on any given night. And because of this, we open a fresh bottle of vermouth at the start of every shift, and we discard the rest. The following day we’ll taste the vermouth from the previous night next to the newly opened bottle. And the disparity between them would surprise you, maybe even shock you. While not bad product necessarily, the vermouth from the previous day has lost all of its zest and brightness, and it just tastes like flat, flavored wine. Now imagine what that same vermouth would taste like a week later, or a month. And once you really get to know what freshly opened vermouth tastes like, you only ever want that. This hopefully will give you pause the next time you go into that dive bar and watch a dusty bottle of vermouth get pulled off the back bar for your next Manhattan!
I love vermouth, all the types. In my perfect bar I would have 50 vermouths. But I’ve found this method ensures that we can completely control the vermouth variable in our cocktails, and that can be a pretty big variable in a Manhattan or a Negroni, for example.
AB: Your core recipe base is the Negroni, the Martini, and the Manhattan. Why these three classic cocktails, and not others?
DJ: Placing the focus of our printed cocktail menu on the Martini, the Negroni and the Manhattan is part focus on essential classics, and part parlor trick. There are so many variations to those cocktails, and we of course end up down that road as our clientele further explore our bar. I particularly love the Negroni as a template. For one, lots of people disagree on the correct way to make one! Is it served up or on the rocks, do you make it with even proportions or do you favor the gin? Or you don’t make it with gin at all and use a different spirit. I highly recommend Gary Regan’s recent book focused solely on the Negroni (not just because the recipe for my Tequila Negroni is in it) but because it features so many creative iterations of this ‘simple’ three-ingredient cocktail that you’ll be making different versions at your cocktail parties for years! It truly is the cocktail that romanticized bartending for me.
AB: What is the customer response? And how do folks like their cocktails in Carrboro?
DJ: The response to the bar from our patrons borders on hilarious at times! Peccadillo especially, which is down a small side alley and has no windows and an unmarked door, carries a lot of nicknames such as "secret bar" or "no-name bar" or "those crazy bald guys in lab coats." And it’s true that we are sort of hiding in plain sight and not very labeled. But you can’t really hide from Google Maps these days, so I still get pleasantly surprised nearly two years into it at the freak-out response from some people who’ve lived in the area for a long time when they find it for the first time and walk through the door. It really is quite a difference, going from the streets of Carrboro into a dim, candle-lit bar, with nude paintings on the walls and a lot of dark wood. But that’s the idea, its got a transformative quality about it. And it has a great clientele because of this, people who love an intimate drink in a very dark bar. On the flip-side of that, a lot of our regulars whisper to us in hushed tones that they won’t tell anyone else about the place so the secret won’t get out. And then we have to say ‘no no, please tell other people about us so we can stay in business!’