Have you ever met someone, only to find out later that they're kind of a big deal?
That's what happened when I met Ryan. We met up one day at one of his restaurants (Portland's killer cocktail and wood-fired pizza spot, Oven & Shaker). Since I started a cocktail blog and Instagram account, I figured I'd get some insight from someone who's actually in that industry. Turns out the guy isn't just "in the industry," he's a world-renowned bartender, consultant and creative force behind many incredible bars and brands.
He's a big deal, but you'd never know it just talking to him.
Ryan explained to me his desire to "restore and connect" and how nearly every decision he makes is put through that filter. He has no interest in creating drinks or experiences that help people get easily smashed. Rather, he sees the opportunity to use his craft to foster community and genuine relationships.
Read more about Ryan and some of his story below, as well as his recommendations for a budget home bar...
When you meet someone and they ask you what you do for a living, how do you answer?
Oh man, this has been a real challenge as of late as my scope of work has widened over the years. So while I would love to say “Restoration and Connection Specialist” I usually just say that I am a restaurant and bar consultant. That said, with the many things I am involved with, what I say might change with the context of the conversation I end up in (bartender, restaurant owner, barback… all are true.)
What was your first gig as a bartender?
Not surprising to anyone who knows me… Club Med (a French Resort Company famous in the 80’s.)
How did you get from bartending to being a consultant and brand-builder in the "craft" bartending world?
Looonnnggg story… but on the quick, I was blessed with exceptional mentorship early in my journey: Chef Kathy Casey of Seattle on the professional side and Robert Hess on the passion for our craft’s history and responsibility to be mindful of it side. Both of their influence led me to see an opportunity to approach the profession from what might be considered a wellness perspective; namely viewing the creation of adult beverage experiences through a lens that does not rest their value on effect, but rather their killer backstories and interconnection to the larger human story (with regards to classic and vintage drinks,) the product and mixing quality, and the one-of-a-kind and very personal culinary experience each mixed drink can be. Beyond that, I am grateful for forces greater than my understanding that have definitely carried me through the right doors, to the right people and opportunities, at the right times.
Most people who are familiar with the industry have heard about Aviation Gin. Can you share a bit about your involvement in that project?
Totally! On a balmy summer afternoon in the summer of 2005, I found myself at a tiki party in the basement of my friend Cynthia Nim’s home in West Seattle. There my new friend, Lisa Donaghue, introduced me to a bottle of “summer gin” that a couple of distillers in P-town (House Spirits) were making for an ambitious restauranteur bent on making folks rethink all things dining and drinking. Clearly I was immediately captivated by something so unique, so I asked if she’d make an introduction to said distillers. She did, and a year later Aviation Gin was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public, and represented what seems to continue to stand up as the first bartender/distiller partnership in spirit history.
What are the current projects you're working on?
Pearl Tavern dominates my time right now. We made a few conceptual mistakes early on that in tandem with a rough winter and a whole lot of social anxiety, put us in a precarious position early on. Mercifully, we seem to have weathered the storm, have leaned fully into being the best possible food, beverage, and sport concept we can be, and I am excited for where we’re finally going. Beyond this, I still consult for Afuri in East Portland and, of course, have a few new experiences I’d love to bring to life in the coming years.
You've come up with all kinds of amazing cocktails. Is there one or two that you are particularly proud of?
Definitely the Pepper Smash #2. Beyond that, man there’s a lot I’ve felt great about, but the Anejo Manhattan and the Iberian Road Soda definitely stand out.
A large focus of this site is helping "home bartenders" on a budget. Can you recommend some of your go-to spirits or brands (that don't break the bank)?
Easy! "Must-haves" include Buffalo Trace (Old Fashioneds and Manhattans,) Elijah Craig Small Batch (Sours,) Rittenhouse and Old Overholt (Sazeracs) Aviation Gin (you can figure that out) Gordon’s for a great classic gin at an unbeatable price (Sours, 75’s, Classic Martinis,) Luna Azul Blanco (Margs), Volstead Vodka, Cointreau, Campari, Martini and Rossi Sweet Vermouth (my preference not for flavor, but for overall balance and mixability), Dolin Dry Vermouth and Angostura, Regan’s No.6 Orange, and Peychaud Bitters.