Sean "Diddy" Combs could have been inspired by Tim Cooper.
And why not? After 14 years in New York City bars, Cooper’s picked up more than a few tricks along the way, from infusing Campari with guanciale (for a novel twist on the classic Negroni) to making sweet plantain simple syrup, creating delectably savory cocktails.
If you catch Cooper behind the bar Friday nights at the recently reopened GoldBar (he’s also the beverage director), ask him about the bartending scene in the ’90s when most spots only served two vodkas, fresh lime juice was nearly unheard of, and how one of his cocktails (possibly) inspired Diddy’s vodka line.
The Daily Meal: So, 14 years as a bartender. What is it that you love most about bartending?
Tim Cooper: What I love most is the personal interaction. I’m a very social person, and it’s always been a big joy interacting with the guest. I love creating, and it’s a pleasure tasting people on my creations. There’s definitely an artistic element of it.
TDM: Where/when was your first gig? How many bartending jobs have you had?
TC: My stepmom was a longtime bartender in Key West, and when I would visit in the summertime, I’d help out and barback. I got my start at the SoHo Grand Hotel as a waiter. Quite often the daytime bartenders would call out sick — no one wanted to work day shifts — and I always offered to fill in. After 15-20 times, they decided, "Hey, let’s throw this kid a bone and give him a shot." At the time, [SoHo Grand] was the hottest place in city. It was a really big deal to be a young man in New York City, working my three shifts a week, making that kind of money, living the fun life.
TDM: What was it like being a NYC bartender in the '90s?
TC: Lots of black outfits behind the bar and only a limited number of vodkas on the scene. Stoli and Absolut were the big boys, and Chopin, Belvedere, Ketel, and Grey Goose were just making their way to market. We probably had seven or eight vodkas behind the bar, and that was considered a good selection. Looking back now, the liquor industry has absolutely exploded! We have so much more to work with from every category. Back then, it was rare to see a bar with fresh lemon or lime juice, and if they did have it, the majority was pasteurized. Nowadays, if you're a restaurant that doesn't have a fresh-ingredient culinary cocktail program, you're basically a dinosaur.
TDM: Any amazing stories from that time?
TC: I had just opened the bar at around noon during a weekday, and in walks Sean Combs (known as Puffy at that time). At that time in his life, he was dealing with a court case for something involving a club incident, if my memory serves correct. It was a high-profile case and in the news everyday. Hence, he was really well-dressed and coming from the courthouse, which was a five-minute cab ride away. He walks up to the bar, looks at me really serious, and orders.... a Malibu Kamikaze. Nothing says serious like a Malibu Kamikaze. Fast-forward 14 years later, and I believe Cîroc [branded by Combs] has a coconut-flavored vodka.
TDM: What are your favorite cocktails to make? And why?
TC: For classics, I’m always a big fan of a Negroni. One of my favorite cocktails we’re pouring at GoldBar is The Lively Up [Appleton Estate Reserve rum, a sweet plantain demerara syrup, lemon juice, and Dale DeGroff's Pimento Bitters]. Sweet plantains are one of my favorite foods, and it got me thinking, "Wow, this would probably make a great syrup." Plus, I love any time I can use a Bob Marley song to make a drink.
TDM: What spirit is sexiest to you? Why?
TC: I’m a big mezcal fan, especially the Del Maguey Single Village Mezcals. It’s a line of mezcals reflecting specific villages and/or their particular espadin [plant] that is used. The line was brought into the country in the '90s by an artist by the name of Ron Cooper (no relation). Ron is directly responsible for helping keep this production of mezcal culture that has been going on for hundreds of years alive and passed down from generation to generation within [each] family. Each village and the espadin they use showcase so much of the land and culture in each bottle. From village to village, the terroir and micro climate change drastically. You could be in a pine forest in one, then at the top of a mountain 20 minutes later, then near an area saturated with cactus the next. All of the mezcal's within the line are organic and have been that way from the start. I had a chance to visit all of the villages and meet the families that make these great products and was blown away by the hard work, passion and care that goes into making these spirits. It’s truly an example of artistry in the spirits world.
TDM: For you, which spirit is the most versatile?
TC: Gin. It’s good for all seasons, and there’s one for everyone: If there’s something overly juniper, you can easily find something on the opposite side of the spectrum that’s more fruity or floral. It takes the platinum metal of spirits.
TDM: What bars are your favorites and why?
TC: Employees Only. They created something very special there, a culture many other bars should look up to. It’s the feeling you get when you walk through the door. Another is Mother’s Ruin. They don’t take themselves too seriously; they just have a board with cocktails. It’s just a fun, easy bar with a bit of a dive bar vibe, yet you can get a well-made cocktail. Clover Club. They do classic cocktails well.
TDM: What do you think sets your drinks apart from others?
TC: I’m not boxed in by one particular style; I’ve been lucky to work with many different bartenders. I’ve always been a big fan of incorporating new spirits that people shy away from. Also, I use a lot of culinary techniques. I’m always a bringing the kitchen to the bar.
TDM: I’m dying to talk to you about your take on a Negroni called Born Under a Star, which incorporates Campari that’s infused with guanciale (which I love). First, what inspired you to marry the Campari with pork?
TC: I’d just gotten back from Mexico, and it was really special: We’d go to the distillery, then go to distillery owner’s home where they cook for you. And, you’re sitting with their extended family, surrounded by farm animals, and they slaughter an animal and prepare it just for you. They didn’t have much and would actually butcher an animal for us. It just gave a meaningfulness to it. So, I had that on my mind, and every time I tasted mezcal, I then tasted pork. Mezcal has a really savory, salty, briny quality, and Campari is bitter, which cuts into fat really well. Adding the guanciale creates a more textured Campari, salty and smoky. It’s a very, very complex cocktail.
Born Under a Star
1 1/4 ounces Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
1 ounce guanciale-infused Campari
1 ounce Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth
Stir all ingredients with ice, strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a long orange peel.