Typically fiction mirrors reality. But in Marcos Tello’s universe, it was the other way around. Likely the most accomplished bartender, mixologist and beverage consultant on the Left Coast, Tello chose his career path at the age of five. A fan of the TV show “Cheers,” young Tello recognized that the character Sam Malone was the man, the central figure upon which all other characters—and women—revolved. That appealed to him, and from that point on, the dye was cast.
After finally reaching the age of majority, Tello was hired as a barback at the T.G.I. Friday’s in City of Industry, which was followed by bartending gigs at the Islands Restaurant in Brea and at a nearby country club. Eager for bigger things, he pulled up the stakes and moved to Los Angeles. He dropped off scores of applications and gave numerous interviews, but after weeks he had nothing to show for his efforts but sore feet and mounting doubts.
“My big break came when I landed a job as a bar back at a place called Table 8,” says Tello. “Master mixologist and spirits expert Damian Windsor must have liked something about me and I wasn’t about to bother him with what it was. It was a fortuitous turn of events for me, because within a matter of a few months Windsor and I would be opening what is now one of the famed, must-visit whiskey haunts in LA named Seven Grand.”
Over the following few years, Tello quickly ascended the ranks of California’s mixology community. It was also during this period of time that Tello developed—intuitively and without premeditation—a plan on how he’d build his career.
The first aspect of the strategy was to seek out and work with the very best in the business. Tello says, “I had the opportunity of working with legendary mixology and beverage operator Audrey Saunders. We opened the Tar Pit and I worked as their head bartender. I benefited greatly working with Audrey and her associates Chad Solomon and Christy Pope. I learned a lot about thinking outside the box and playing with flavors.”
Tello adds that he also attended every workshop presented by Dale Degroff in California. “When Dale recognized my eagerness to learn, he began asking me to assist him with aspects of the workshops. The amount of knowledge Dale imparts is staggering. One workshop with him is equivalent to a year spent in a graduate level program.”
Another high point in his career was helping open The Varnish, a classy, Speakeasy-like cocktail haunt in Los Angeles from Sasha Petrske, the man behind the Milk ‘n’ Honey in New York. “I still pull bartender shifts with Sasha and the supremely talented Eric Alperin,” states Tello. “I really refined my craft working at this bar as their attention to detail was unparalleled in my experience.”
The second aspect of Tello’s career strategy was to seize on every educational opportunity available, a journey he says started by attending Gary Regan’s “Cocktails in the Country,” a weekend-long immersion mixology taught by the craft’s most iconic of personages. “I flew to NY and took the class that would change our lives forever. When I got back I vowed to never make a drink I wasn't proud of again and I haven’t looked back.”
Looking to continue his education and expose himself to other bar cultures, he graduated with High Distinction the BAR 5-day program, as well as the annual Wine & Spirits Education Trust (W.S.E.T.) held in the UK.
Tello was sage enough to realize that there are different ways to learn and grow as a professional. To that end, he started a craft guild called The Sporting Life. “Because LA is so large it’s difficult to get the bartending community together for typical sponsored events. Driving gets a bit tricky. I thought what if we could get the growing band of mixologists to get together once a month to share a drink, good food and free flow of ideas that we could grow as a community that much faster.
“The first meeting was in the back of a vintage barware store named Barkeeper in Silverlake,” says Tello. “Only 10 of us showed up and we all sat around on lawn chairs, talked and sipped on Champagne Cocktails. Eric Alperin and Damian Windsor, who at the time was working with Partida Tequila, sponsored the next meeting and 30 people showed through word-of-mouth alone. It’s now been going for five years and we’ve never repeated a sponsor and never repeated a venue. The rules are simple—the sponsor has to make a craft quality distillate and the venue has to be known for making a good drink.”
The third aspect of Tello’s career strategy was to start a beverage consultancy along with friend and longtime business associate Aidan Demarest to form Tello-Demarest Liquid Assets, a beverage program consultation firm. Demarest and he have successfully helped install classically inspired cocktail programs throughout the Los Angeles area, destination venue Seven Grand Whiskey Bar, The Edison, 1886 in Pasadena—a recent recipient of Food & Wine’s Best Bars in America 2012—The Varnish and Tom Bergin’s Horseshoe Tavern.
Tello has advice for beverage operators on how they can improve their bars. “Unless they are accomplished mixologists, owners need to consult with an expert on how to best build their under bar and backbar to easily create craft cocktails. They basically shoot themselves in the foot from early on during construction; however, they won’t actually start feeling the operational pangs until they’re in service and wondering why the drinks are taking so long. It’s akin to not consulting a chef when building a kitchen. Imagine how long that food is going to take. First things first, if you’re going to open a craft cocktail bar seek some professional advice.”
Having bartended the majority of his life, Tello has developed into a highly sought after trainer. “I think the biggest mistake I see bartenders make is forgetting their guests. We’re in this business to make people happy. Even if you’re in the weeds, it’s important to smile and be hospitable. One of my mentors, Vincenzo Marianella, told me to sing ‘…it’s just another Tequila Sunrise…’ whenever I got overwhelmed by volume or a guest’s attitude. And now whenever I get in a bad place, I can still hear him singing in his Italian accent, it puts a smile on my face and brings me right back to center!”
Marco, Sam Malone would be proud of you!