The Weekly Mix: A Philadelphia Bartender
Favorite Cocktail to Make: I love all my children equally.
Favorite Spirit: If there was one liquor I had to have rest of my life and only that, it'd be a rum. Just because it's so versatile, you can have a light rum, a dark mellow one. It's probably my single favorite spirit.
Guilty Pleasure Cocktail: Piña Colada. The only time I’ll make them is if I’m at the beach house in the summer. I make it from scratch.
“The job is bartending. It’s not mixology.” Fightin’ words, or maybe just a philosophical line in the sand of modern cocktail culture, drawn by one George Costa of Philadelphia’s Pub & Kitchen. (And one we’ve—sort of—drawn ourselves…) Costa is a bartender with a firm grasp of “mixology”—or whatever you want to call the collected arts and sciences of the cocktail. But he's also a veteran of the restaurant industry and a bartender in Philly, a city with a relatively petite craft cocktail scene (that he himself helped found). So aligning himself with “bartending” culture with a hospitality emphasis might have been a regional inevitability.
“Anybody can experiment and put something in a glass that tastes good,” says Costa. “The hard part is learning how to take care of the crowd, making people feel comfortable. Hospitality is more important for me than putting the drink in the glass.”
To be fair, the drink gets there—in fairly (to awesomely) decent shape at Pub & Kitchen—in large part because Costa is part of a generation of bartenders who’ve risen through the well-informed, disciplined ranks of a cocktail renaissance kind of world. Palate and skills taken for granted, Costa chooses to focus on hospitality, the holistic methodology (or practical magic) of tending to hungry, thirsty, and/or otherwise needy human beings.
“That’s the hardest part to learn,” he says. “I’m still learning. You’re sharing yourself with somebody else—a complete stranger, sometimes.” (Regulars present their own challenge: “they need to be entertained.”) Listening to Costa, it seems probable that the human connection part—that front-of-house call to be constantly “on”—may require more personal discipline or psychological energy than perfecting actual techniques. And while some might take the oft-traveled, higher-therapy-bill road of the bifurcated professional personality (i.e. bartender at work, vulnerable human being at home), Costa tends to remain unified. “I don’t have a ‘professional persona.’ I’m myself all the time. And that’s hard.”
Not only does Costa not avail himself of the intimidation/ooh-ahh factor that can be a protective social moat between patron and bartender, he actually reaches out to draw his customers in. “People go to a bar and they want to be talked to about something. You gotta have something to say.” For those rare moments when nothing’s forthcoming for Costa, there’s always the drinks, which are more or less “mixological” in execution, even if the service is all bartending.
A case in point, the City Hall, Costa’s ode to Colonial and contemporary Philadelphia: Rittenhouse Rye, Laird’s Apple Brandy, Madeira, Ramazzzoti Amaro, and Cynar. (the rye and Madeira were colonial drinks of choice, and “there’s a little of the bitters in there, because Philly’s a little bitter.”) A year and a half after first creating the drink, Costa communed with the cocktail zeitgeist and played around with ageing the drink in new American oak barrels—to lush, smooth success. (More "mixo" street cred: Costa serves his barrel-aged version room temp.) The medium-char barrel does everything you could ask for a spirit-forward darker cocktail—“it softens the flavors, melds everything together.” In other words, sophisticated but approachable, like a modern day bartender.