Watching Dean Serneels operate behind a bar is a graduate-level education. His movements are fluid and precise, his drinks perfectly executed and his demeanor relaxed and confident. More importantly, when interacting with guests it’s obvious he’s fully engaged in the moment. Best of all, it’s not an act. Serneels is one of those rare individuals who defines a bartender’s role as satisfying the wants and needs of his guests first, crafting cocktails a distant second.
It’s ironic then that Serneels’ expertise as a mixologist should land him a high-profile position with drink-mix giant Finest Call. That the brand made a savvy move goes without saying. Who better to teach people how to best use Finest Call drink mixes than one of North America’s finest bartenders, mixologists and flair practitioners? In Serneels they drafted a pro.
“This is a marvelous opportunity for me. I work with every spirit with few restrictions. I am bound only by the fact that the sugar/water element in the cocktail formula will likely already be in a bottle. At Finest Call, we focus solely on making cocktail mixers. That’s it. I know I’m with good people in a very strong company that shares my values.”
Serneels admits to occasionally missing performing behind the bar. Early in his bartending career, he started entertaining his bar guests with magic tricks and sleight of hand. This eventually led him to taking a job at Philthy McNasty’s, a popular sports bar in Ontario, where he worked as the house magician from 5 to 8 p.m. and the head bartender until close.
“Throughout my career I worked hard to ensure every aspect of the on-premise experience was performed flawlessly — from the timing of food out of the kitchen and quality of the drinks to providing just the right amount of entertainment. I’m still temped to go bartend one or two nights a week somewhere just for my own entertainment.”
After 20 years in the business, Serneels has developed a keen sense for spotting those who know what they’re doing vs. those simply going through the motions. For example, the first thing he looks for in a solid beverage operator is if all of the bar’s pour spouts are facing in the same direction. He deduces that if a bar owner has drilled operations down to the point of having the spouts organized, everything else also must be in place.
As for those working behind the bar, Serneels believes that great bartenders exhibit pride in every aspect of the job.
“You can tell by looking at a bartender if they take pride in what they do,” he says. “I look for shoulders back and eyes up. Next is the shake. The shaker must be full of ice and the contents shaken vigorously. You can actually hear the difference. Shaking cocktails is the best way to tell everyone in the room that you know how to properly prepare cocktails in this bar.”
Serneels places emphasis on providing outstanding service. “The bartender needs to acknowledge me right away. I don’t care how great the bartender is at bottle-flipping and shaker-spinning, if I can’t even get a drink, the guy’s experience is worthless. Yes, I want you to show me and everyone else how great you are at bartending, but not before serving me my first drink.”
In his new position, Serneels visits scores of bars, restaurants, hotels and cocktail lounges from coast to coast and all points in between. Few people are afforded a better vantage point to assess beverage trends in the offing.
“The most significant trend I see is the growing demand for low-calorie mixers. Regular mixers and juices are loaded in calories. A regular pour of alcohol contains approximately 85 calories. Four ounces of regular cocktail mix or juices contain up to 200 calories or more per serving. Low-calorie, or ‘light’ mixers, typically contain no more than 20 calories per serving. The difference has a large impact on calorie-conscious drinkers. Skinny cocktails — as they’ve been dubbed — are a growing trend.”
Just as Finest Call chose to work with Serneels, he chose to work with them. “Finest Call mixes are made with premium ingredients. The entire range is operationally executable for independent operations, as well as large national accounts. All of our products are cost-effective and shelf-stable. Possibly most important from a mixology standpoint, they’re consistent in flavor and quality. If you want every bartender to make your signature drink the same way, you need to have consistent ingredients.”
The food and beverage industry isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” business. What works for some won’t work for others. That’s where expertise comes into play. And if anyone knows how to make all of the various ingredients meld perfectly, it’s Dean Serneels.