aaron defeo, celebrated doctor of mixology
Tucson, Ariz., is a booming hospitality town and tourist destination with more resorts, hotels, restaurants and bars per capita than any other city in the Southwest. Over the past several years, the city’s growing population of bartenders has given rise to a community of supremely gifted mixologists. One thing is now unequivocally true: Tucson is a great town to get a drink.
The dean of Tucson bartenders is Aaron “Doc” DeFeo, long-time beverage manager of the historic Hotel Congress and founder of the local chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG). In addition to being an accomplished bartender, DeFeo is a passionate advocate of creative mixology. He regularly conducts educational classes for pros and the public on the fine art of crafting cocktails and mixed drinks.
DeFeo currently is the property mixologist at the luxurious Casino del Sol casino resort. He works closely with famed mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim, who was hired as a beverage consultant to help get the casino’s beverage program off the ground. DeFeo oversees a staff of 50 bartenders; he believes the best thing he can do for his staff while they’re in his charge is to make sure they learn the right way to make drinks. It’s why he takes such an active leadership role in their training and ongoing education.
Abou-Ganim smiles when he talks about his on-site protégé. “Doc is one of those rare professionals who’s talented, knowledgeable and passionate about his craft and, at the same time, is a genuinely caring, centered individual,” Abou-Ganim says. “I’ve been very fortunate to be working with DeFeo. He looks you right in the eyes and tells you exactly how things are. Doc’s a pro, what else can I say?”
“I wish someone had shown me how to stir a drink properly 10 years ago or insisted that I use a Hawthorne strainer instead of the back end of a mixing glass,” DeFeo says. “When I started bartending, information about drink making was harder to come by than it is now. An aspiring young bartender these days can get quite the education if they’ve got $100 bucks to spend on Amazon.”
Like most people passionate about their craft, DeFeo often cringes when he sees how others conduct themselves behind the bar. One thing that sends him into conniptions is observing bartenders improperly shake cocktails.
“Watching a 15-year veteran manhandle a shaker like they were plunging a toilet drives me homicidal,” he admits. “Is it really that hard to raise the shaker to shoulder level, guy? I think the percentage of veteran bartenders in this country with little or no knowledge of proper classic cocktails is a telling sign of how bad cocktailing was for much of the past three decades.”
DeFeo likes to put his skills to the test by competing in cocktail competitions in the United States and abroad. He’s competed in 25 to this point in his career and feels he’s derived enormous benefits from having done so.
According to DeFeo, competing isn’t for the faint of heart though. “It’s nerve-racking, even when you’ve done it as many times as I have. You need to be prepared to humiliate yourself in front of your peers. But if you can keep your chin up and your ears open, you might learn a thing or two about making world-class cocktails. The greatest benefit, though, has got to be the networking opportunities. Those moments of tense, gut-wrenching suspense can really forge a bond between people.”
DeFeo spent the better part of two years working to establish the Tucson chapter of the USBG, an accomplishment he believes will benefit the city for years to come.
“Our chapter of the USBG puts us in direct contact with the country’s collective palate,” he says. “At the same time, we’re out there representing the best of what Tucson has to offer the world in terms of culinary creativity. Being an active member of the USBG gives bartenders a voice with national accounts and spirit companies that we wouldn’t have otherwise. Tucson is a tight-knit community, so the positive reception the USBG has received doesn’t surprise me. I’m thrilled at the opportunities it’s creating for our membership.”
Having now spent the better part of seven years working in beverage management, DeFeo has advice to others in the field on maintaining a positive and productive work environment: “At some point, you have to do something to inspire your staff. It could be something as simple as stocking a new specialty product and developing a small marketing strategy around it. Or it could be something as sweeping as committing to only using fresh ingredients behind the bar. Dare to commit to something. Then communicate to your people the reasons behind your initiative and how it will directly benefit our guests and them. Trust me, you’ll have your bartenders slinging fresh Margaritas in no time and thanking you for it.”
Tucson is one of the hippest towns in the Southwest. With local resources like Aaron DeFeo, it’ll likely stay that way. Thanks, Doc. Salud!