August 2016 Bartender of the Month: Nathaniel Smith
Establishment:Spoon and Stable
About the Bartender: Nathaniel was raised in South Minneapolis. He graduated college with a degree in communications and pre-law. At first, Nathaniel entered the service industry so he could support his love art: making it, curating it, and writing about it. His focus on art was eventually replaced by a passion for cocktails and a drive to become the best bartender he could be. Nathaniel is now not only an excellent bartender, he's also a force to be reckoned with at cocktail and bartending contests. Most recently, he won the Copper & Kings MIXT&PE Cocktail Competition.
"Bartending is not a temporary job like it was a decade or so ago, it's a legitimate career that is rewarding and worthwhile. Treat it with the respect and professionalism it deserves," says Nathaniel about the profession.
Why did you become a bartender?
For a long time my service industry job was just a means to support my art making, curating and arts writing. Coincidentally, I lost the fire for making art right when I started caring about cocktails...basically I stopped reading art books and spending all my free time researching contemporary art, and started reading cocktail books and being the best bartender I could.
What made you want to work at the bar/bars at which you’re currently bartending?
I was chosen to help open our bar program manager Robb Jones. I would assume it's because we had worked together and he knew my work ethic, and how much I'd been studying cocktails and spirits over the years. Also, I've built up the biggest home bar in Minneapolis where I was practicing every night, so I think he knew I was getting pretty dedicated to it.
What are some fun flavors you’re working with?
We're always into seasonal ingredients, and right now we have a lot of great flavors growing in Minnesota. Fresh berries, foraged purslane, Prairie grass, and lately, fresh flowers that add both beautiful garnish (the eyes drink first) and aroma to a cocktail.
What are some of the unique spirits and ingredients you’re playing with?
Currently I am training every free moment I have for the finals of Bombay Sapphire's Most Imaginative Bartender competition, which will be in London and at their Laverstoke Distillery at the end of August. I'm reading every cocktail book and my old notes, and playing with how unexpected ingredients and flavor pairings could help me create a drink to win this competition. I've been testing myself on the strangest ingredients I can imagine, ranging from eggplant to fresh figs to mustard to skittles...no matter what, there's a way to figure out how to make a balanced cocktail.
What are you doing different from the norm in your beverages?
I suppose what defines me as a bartender is my work ethic, imagination, the fact that I spend most of my free time reading, studying, and taking notes on cocktails, glassware and garnishes. But what I mostly care about is that every guest who comes to my bar doesn't have to know how hard I work at getting better, but that they leave with a bigger smile than when they came in.
What do you feel is the next hot trend in mixology?
I'm hoping it will be service. Cocktail writer Gary 'Gaz' Regan once said he would take a poorly made drink from a bartender he liked. In my opinion, some of the best bartenders in Minneapolis are the ones who consistently and genuinely offer great service and are friendly and funny. They're rarely the best based on their drink-making skills.
The truly great give both. That should be the goal - not just offering difficult, obscure, or strange drinks...it's about reading guests, making their day better with your skills, and educating them with the knowledge we as bartenders have accumulated.
What’s in the mixing glass or shaker for your customers?
The best spirits to pair with fresh and seasonal ingredients, always.
What are you sipping on and why?
I'm on a huge sour beer kick right now. Ever since early spring I can't get enough of them. I'm beginning to be concerned I have scurvy or something.
What are you dancing to while tending bar?
I don't have to dance, I have a nice smile.
What are some quirks/quotes you are known for?
I get a gentle amount of flak from my coworkers for my habit of making guests tiny cocktails for fun, or if there's some rare downtime, or if I know something would pair really well with a dish a guest is eating. I think those little gestures are very important, and it lets me exercise a bit of creativity, all while not overserving a guest.
What’s your take on beer in the bar industry?
I'm for it. I mean, almost once a day a guest will ask me for advice and say, "Which cocktail will you be drinking when you punch out?" And I always respond, "The one that's a beer and shot?" I love cocktails more than most anyone, but after work I enjoy a light beer. No judgment from me if you order one at my cocktail-focused bar.
I've also been playing around a lot with using beer as a substitute for soda in lower proof, Collins-style cocktails. It's refreshing, and can add a pleasant complexity to a summer drink.