Amy Tarr: What drew you to restaurants and, in particular, to mixology?
John Gertsen: At a very young age it was the money. When I was 16 my brother was a waiter, and I started in a kitchen in prep. Then I got more curious about the front of the house and became a busboy at 17. A regular lunch-guest had a wine associate that used to come in and talk to me. He opened my mind up to the mysteries of what’s out there in the world of good food and good wine. I started working in restaurants in the summertime - every summer during college I’d work on the Cape.
AT: How did that interest shift to the bar?
JG: I started bartending then and I really loved it. I studied Biochemistry at Bridgewater State College and started seeing how molecules fit together – I loved it. I took a year off, went to Africa, and hitch-hiked around a bit. When I came back I got into the business side. I worked for the Boston Beer Company (owner of Samuel Adams) in their advertising department working on table tents. I didn’t know exactly where I was headed. I got a job at 29 Newbury at first as a waiter, then as the assistant manager. I realized that I couldn’t stop thinking about this stuff. I got introduced to Stan Frankenthaler, the owner of Salamander Restaurant in Boston, and worked there in a variety of positions there, including bartending for two years. I realized that this was where I wanted to be.
AT: How did you get to No. 9 Park?
JG: Stan Frankenthaler hired me as closing manager of the second Salamander.
I got really lucky about a month after they closed because I heard about an opening at No. 9 Park. That was in August of 2002. Barbara has such incredible integrity. And that allows us at the bar to follow suit. As amazing as she is and the food is, we have to strive to do the same thing at the bar. We try very hard follow her lead.
AT: How do you educate yourself in mixology?
JG: I’ve kept up with what’s happening in the world of drinks. That’s a huge part of what keeps bars in Boston in the forefront. There was this golden era of cocktail making from 1890 to 1910 but so many recipes and cocktail books were obliterated during Prohibition. I tried to get some of these books to see what these older recipes were about and update them. Americans in 1890 had a very sweet palate, but after the turn-of-the-century, things changed a bit. We try to update classics, look at great bartenders of that era, and remember their dedication to their techniques. I try to stay on top of what’s happening today through different websites. I’m also a member of the Museum of American cocktail.
AT: What are some current trends you’ve seen in the cocktail market?
JG: Rum has been talked about for the past three or four years as the next white spirit – I’d love to see that happen. The Latin-inspired cocktail craze is starting to die down a bit. I see tinctures as really big- people making their own bitters. Also making specific ingredients for their bar or restaurant that you can’t find anywhere. The molecular gastronomy movement is seeping into bartending in the form of interesting layered drinks. We love making foam. We dissolve a flavor into a liquid, add gelatin in a canister, and there you go. That whole biochemistry background of 1992 rears its head! We just worked on this great stinger -- we floated crème de menthe in a foam layer, and it really draws attention. Dining at bars has never been stronger. In my experience, people love to come in and dine at bar for a more community experience. And it’s not dying anytime soon.
AT: What about increased access to products from around the globe?
JG: The global exchange of information is not just about politics. We’re looking at bartenders in London, Australia, and South East Asia to see what ingredients they are using there. Information is very easy to come by. And with modern shipping you can get ingredients from all over the world. I have bergamot oil from Italy coming in next week. These are great ingredients that help us have fun. Barbara never says that it’s too expensive or that I can’t use this or that.
AT: What goes into creating a new cocktail?
JG: Research. I usually ask for a minimum of three recipes for a drink, or a maximum of ten. Then, after researching the recipes, we look for ingredients. There are a number of different pressures we feel from salespeople, and customers are always asking for Grey Goose. But for the most part we’re looking for a recipe that will show a nice breadth of ingredients, and then we’ll sit down and try them. We try a few variations on the drinks. We’ll make them for our regulars and ask them to try it. We get feedback and tweak it a bit. The drink list evolves with the seasonality of the ingredients– now citrus, satsumas, and grapefruits are in season. When springtime comes around we get local strawberries and blueberries. We try to use fresh local stuff to keep a little bit of the seasonality.
AT: What is your favorite cocktail to make?
JG: I love making Ramos Fizz. People look at you like you’re insane when you make it. It has raw egg, cream, and water, and it takes 15 minutes to make to get them really foamy. They’re really messy and they take forever, but I’ve gotten such great feedback. I love to see the look on people’s faces when they try it. It’s a well-balanced, an aperitif-style drink.
AT: What is your favorite cocktail to drink?
JG: A Manhattan. There’s a lot to be said for that drink. I never truly appreciated it until I made it 14 different ways. There’s a great variation called the Red Hook. There was a guy at Milk and Honey in New York who used to make it (who subsequently moved back to Italy). Audrey Saunders put it on the menu when she was managing Bemelman’s Bar –she made it with Canadian whiskey. I always use rye as my base and maraschino liqueur.
AT: Where do you see yourself in five years?
JG: I’m 35 years old and I love being here. Hands-down it’s the best place I’ve ever worked. I have such freedom to do what I want to do. In some ways it‘s like college. You have a great time doing it. But I feel like graduation is coming up soon. Hopefully ownership is next -- somewhere in Boston. My dream is to have a place with the charm and allure of the bars of a previous era – something from that Golden Era: rich wood, beautifully made drinks, huge chunks of ice chipped by hand. And well-groomed staff who are standing back and ready to make a drink without saying, “So, did you see the Red Sox game last night?”