Q&A: Joseph DeLuca

Cleveland's master mixologist on ... how bartenders are like chefs ... why cocktail culture is on the rise ... and the threat of marshmallow vodka

Joseph DeLuca is living proof a career in bartending amounts to more than a lifetime pouring beers. After 20 years behind the bar, the Clevelander has become an elder statesman of the cocktail, passing along knowledge and experience to the next generation of drink slingers as the VP of the local chapter of the U.S. Bartenders' Guild. As the principal in his own business, Beverage Resources, DeLuca works with restaurant owners to make sure their drink lists gel with what's on the menu. And in order to show off his chops, DeLuca tours the region with Dr. Drink's Traveling Apothecary Show, giving mixology classes and demonstrations. Thanks to the current rise in popularity of complex cocktails, DeLuca's timing seems perfect.

So when you go home and make yourself a drink, what do you pour?

My go-to is either some kind of whiskey neat or gin on the rocks. I don't normally drink real complicated cocktails. I figure the distillers know what they're doing and I like the spirits for what they are.

Is that also because you're mixing drinks all day long for work?

I think that's a lot of it. You know how many chefs out there eat at McDonald's in their downtime and don't cook for themselves? I do it so much, I have to make so many drinks, the only time I really make a cocktail at the house is if my wife asks for one; then I'll make us both one. Other than that, whatever is in the bottle is good enough for me.

Are there natural skills you need to be a good bartender?

Really, the name of this game is hospitality. You have to like people, you have to want to serve people and enjoy serving them. You have to make eye contact and have a smile. Beyond that, when we get into the mixology part, your best skill set is really your education on the products that you're pouring, the historical context of cocktails, and how they came to be. And then having the palate memory of a chef. You really have to understand the nuances of flavor, be able to pick them out, and understand how to balance them in a cocktail. I tell people all the time the bar is a kitchen. We're cooking with liquid. We're doing the same things a chef is doing working with a plate. We're trying to put together flavor affinities that work really well with each other.

Cocktail culture seems to be on the rise. What accounts for that?

I think what we're seeing is a much better-educated public. I think the Food Network has had an extraordinary effect on the culture. America has finally come into its own with its food culture, where before we've been an amalgamation of French, Italian, and Mediterranean influences. The Food Network has helped us create this identity of what is uniquely American in food, and because of that, and because the rest of the world views alcohol as a food item and not as a party tool, spirits was due to follow. I think it goes back to wanting a more sophisticated lifestyle. The cocktail definitely plays to sophistication. But the pendulum swings so quick. And we still have marshmallow vodka out there in the world.

Did restaurant owners see this shift coming or were they caught off guard?

I think a lot of them were caught off guard. I cruise Craigslist: About once a week I jump on there just to see who's hiring, who's not, and how they're writing their job descriptions. It still amazes me how many don't get it, how many say, "No experience needed, we'll train you." There are reasons for that but unfortunately they bring a lot of bad habits because they were never trained properly. I still see a lot of incongruity between cocktail lists and food in white-tablecloth restaurants. Some of them still haven't got it. They don't understand that for a white-tablecloth restaurant that's getting 32 bucks a plate, that Appletini on their cocktail list ... that's a little odd to me.

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