Bartender Dreams in Cocktails

Brooklyn favorite Damon Boelte talks 'cocktail philosophy,' his Rising Star award, and his go-to drink

Bartender Damon Boelte from Prime Meats.

Not long ago, I enlisted bartender Damon Boelte’s help with an article. "Can you suggest three cocktail recipes?” I asked. Instead, he came up with TWENTY.

That’s just the way he is. He doesn’t just shoot the breeze with fellow bartenders — he hosts a weekly radio talk show with them. He doesn’t just make drinks with bitters — he swigs entire bottles of Underberg (And before you know it, you’re doing the same. More on that below.). But that no-hold-barred approach is what we like about him. Obviously StarChefs agrees, naming Boelte as a 2011 "Rising Star."

We talked with Boelte about how he dreams up inspiration for drinks (hint: not always behind the bar), his approach to cocktails at Brooklyn’s Prime Meats, and what he’s working on next.

What was your first bartending gig? (And what came after that?)

I first started bartending at my friend Brian Neel's place in Oklahoma City called The Electro Lounge. I had always loved making drinks and entertaining for friends at home, and after my old band played at his bar one night, we started talking about it, and I eventually landed a job there. He was the first bartender that I ever saw make a martini the correct way, so I knew I was about to learn from a real professional. We had become friends a couple of years before, after he purchased a scooter from my old scooter shop. I learned a lot about customer service and philosophy from him. Plus, he drives a Corvette.

What’s your current role at Prime Meats? What’s your "cocktail philosophy" there?

My title is bar director for Prime Meats, and I also do the cocktails for Frankie's and Francesca.

At Prime Meats, the philosophy is fresh, farm-to-table, turn-of-the-century New York City. The bar program reflects that. The owners, Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli, have built a small world unlike any that I've ever had the pleasure of being a part of, where quality and service are at a high level and creativity is expected of you everyday. I try to keep things interesting by using unique ingredients from things like vinegars and homemade bitters while paying homage to the classics. We believe that our cocktails should consist of the right amounts of the right ingredients, keeping it interesting, clean, and simple.

I've never worked in a restaurant with such a high volume of cocktail sales. Usually guests will start off and end their meals with cocktails, while switching to wine during the bulk of their stay, but this is less-so with Prime Meats. Here, our guests are extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about cocktails and spirits and love learning from us. It’s perfect. Our bar staff is amazing, creative, fast, and I've had the pleasure of getting to work next to some of the world's finest bartenders.

Tell us about the "Speakeasy"radio show. How did you come to do the show? How do you find your guests? What is it like to host a weekly show about drinks and bartending?

I started hosting "The Speakeasy" on the Heritage Radio Network about two years ago when I was asked to be a guest on the show "The Main Course." It happened to be on Repeal Day, so we ended up getting into the history of Prohibition and had an amazing time. The next day Patrick Martins, the founder of Heritage Foods, USA, and the Heritage Radio Network called me and asked me if I wanted my own show and I of course said "YES!"

It's been an interesting process finding guests and choosing topics and I have people like "Tiki" Adam Kolesar, Brian Miller, and Nick Jarrett who are repeat guests on the show.

The thing you find when you start putting together show ideas is that you can relate booze to anything in the world. I've had an oyster show, a reggae DJ, authors, singers, you name it. I did two shows called "The Bartender's Playlist" consisting of a bunch of drinking songs that were submitted by bartenders from around the country. There is so much information out there that we can share about our crafts. Conversations on "The Speakeasy" are just like the two of us right now, talking shop, except with microphones in front of us.

Congrats (again!) on your Rising Star award from StarChefs last year. Did the award change anything in your life?

Thanks! That was a fun party! It's an honor to share that title with guys like Maxwell Britten, Leo Robitschek, and Brad Farran, not to mention all the amazing chefs. I don't really enter cocktail competitions, so to receive an award for bartending was in a weird way a sort of validation of what I do. When they called to let me know that I had won the award, it didn't make sense to me. I was like, "Are you sure you know what you're talkin' about, dude?" In a lot of ways, what I've gotten out of the Star Chefs award is much like what I get out of the radio show; some interesting new friends.

What are you working on now?

Right now I'm working on a lot of things. I just changed the menu at Prime Meats recently for the summer, and at Francesca, I put together an all sherry-based cocktail list, based on both the Spanish cuisine and on our beer/wine license. Sherry is an interesting category. I feel like its popularity in cocktails is on its way into the spotlight. I've been using it a lot lately. It's fun to use Fino for a base, Pedro Ximenez for a sweetener. I'm working on cocktails for our fall menus, which is where I feel most creative. I love boozy stirred cocktails with lots of spice. Other than recipes, I'm working on a barspoon and julep strainer with my brother that will hopefully be in production by the end of the year.

What do you like to do when you’re not behind the stick?

I play in a country-rock band called Brothers with five other guys including my identical twin brother. We just finished our album, "Volume 1," which will be released on the Fourth of July, but you can download the first single, "Real Long Way To Go," for free on our website or iTunes. When I'm not doing that, I'm riding on two wheels. Bicycles, motorcycles, scooters. I ride my bike all over NYC, getting into adventures. 

Click to read the rest of the interview with Boelte, plus find out his go-to drink on ShakeStir. 

— Kara Newman, ShakeStir