When Adam Hodak interviewed for a bartending gig with Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno back in 2007, he didn't foresee his future as the Bonanno Concepts beverage director. Within two years of bartending at Osteria Marco, Hodak was crafting cocktails for up-and-coming Bonanno concepts like Bones and Lou's, and by 2010 he was gearing up to open Green Russell, a premier cocktail bar in the heart of Larimer Square where he's a partner. Hodak now oversees the cocktail programs at seven venues, and he's usually behind the bar at Green Russell, Russell's Smokehouse or Osteria Marco. During a recent chat, Hodak told Eater why he's selective when it comes to cocktail competitions, how he creates his cocktail menus and why he'll never introduce himself when you're sitting at the bar.
We hear that you're pretty selective about the cocktail competitions you attend. Why is that? I try to do the ones that are fun but also give me the ability to work. I don't like having my hands tied. It's getting to the point where you can't have any homemade ingredients. Before the Bartenders' Guild got way involved it was easier to just show up with something beautiful and you could win. Now, if you get a couple drops on your little white mat, there goes 5 points. Taste counts for less than 25 percent. I mean, what the fuck? Shouldn't the goal be how something tastes? It's more about presenting a product and making it look pretty. It's like being in a wine competition and winning for the prettiest package. If the juice is the best, that should be the best bottle of wine. I don't care if it comes out of a mason jar.
How far should presentation go? Well to me, presentation should start at plating. Once it goes into the glass, then you've started to hit presentation.
I don't think I should get judged for my work place when my product is great. It's like judging a carpenter and saying, "Yea, your wood looks great, but look at all this saw dust."
What about sanitation? Sushi chefs don't use tongs when they're touching rice and fish. They use their hands because their hands are clean. I've gotten docked for not using little tongs, but I sanitize my hands and they're as clean as those tongs.
Do rules compromise creativity? You definitely see a lot of really good bartenders who won't do certain competitions because it's not expressive for them. You can't sit here and say, "Well, there's a 5-7 ingredient limit and you can use one house-made ingredient." I don't want to drink something based on those rules.
How do you go about creating all the cocktail menus for all the Bonanno concepts? When creating a menu, I look for balance. Drinks start from a couple of places. Sometimes they simply start with and idea, like the Smoke 'n Oak at Russell's Smokehouse. That drinks started from the whole idea that we were going to have smokers and wood-furnished floors. Drinks can also start with a single ingredient or just observing buyer behavior.
What are some of the challenges you face when it comes to cocktail creation? It's always hard because as a beverage director, people always ask, "So what do you like?" But I've gotten so far beyond myself. I know what I like to drink, but I have to worry about what everyone is going to think of drink. At Green Russell it's very hard because all the bartenders have different pallets. I'll tell someone if I think there's something missing from a drink, but sometimes they'll disagree. You have to ask yourself if the average person will think its balanced.
How long do you give each drink to make an impression on a menu before you decide it doesn't work? It depends. I've given some drinks as little as two weeks and I've left some drinks on a menu for two years. I mean, how often do people go out and get the same pizza from the same place? You have to keep some of them. Change is fantastic, and I would prefer to drink at a place that changes the menu every month or two. That's kind of how Green Russell works. We change it completely and we don't make drinks we've made in the past, but at Osteria Marco we've had our Moscow Mule and our Lavender Rickey forever because they're our number one and two selling cocktails. It doesn't matter where they are on the menu, they're still going to sell.
At Green Russell you have rules about dress code, cell phones and standing. Why? We do have rules, but they're not to shut down social interaction. We just ask people to have manners. People do come in here wearing shorts and flip flops. We are in Denver, and Denver is a casual city.
So how do you react when people describe Green Russell as pretentious? To be pretentious is something we hold true to ourselves, but not to our guests. A lot of people think good manners are pretentious. There is one thing that gets brought up with the whole pretentious thing that really upsets me — we don't introduce ourselves here. I worked at a Jack and coke college bar and never introduced myself. The last thing you want to hear is your name being yelled. We're professional and we pride ourselves in professional service. When you're here on your 10th anniversary, I don't want to lean and say, "Hey, I know you just got here, but my name is Adam. Could you interrupt your hand-holding so I can introduce myself?" No, I'm going to say, "Hi, how's it going? I'm so happy you're celebrating your anniversary here. Here's a little Cava for you to start your evening. Take your time to look at the menu and I'll be back in a few minutes." When you're being a professional at a bar, you're doing as much as you can to stay out of the picture. You're only there when people want you there.
On an ending note, do you have any pet peeves? When someone says something like, "My friend in New York drinks them all the time." Immediately when you hear New York you're thinking, "I'm going to go hang myself." I'm sick of people telling me that New York is the fucking epicenter of all culture and life in this world.