Naren Knows

by Francine Cohen

You’ve heard of the thunder from down under?  Well, Naren Young embodies that rumbling threat.  But really, in the nicest way.  This accomplished bartender who hails from Sydney has been in the States for just a few years, shaking up cocktails and the industry along the way.

As our lead writer, Naren brings a wealth of experience, expertise and leadership to ShakeStir, having dedicated his adult life (and some of his youth; but we won’t go there) to the beverage industry. It’s a career that has spanned almost 20 years and taken him around the world with little more than a thirsty appetite and an intense curiosity to learn more about the global drinks industry, the history of all things spirituous and finding the perfect cocktail.

Known for not brooking any nonsense, and happily cracking open a beer or sipping a crisp white instead of a complex cocktail, Naren has definitive opinions on what’s right and wrong with the drinks industry.  And he’ll be sharing his thoughts with ShakeStir every other Monday.

Before his first column appears next week, let’s see what makes Naren Young tick.  And sometimes, even ticked off.

ShakeStir:  It’s been said you were inspired to be a bartender after watching the movie Cocktail.  Did you want to be Tom Cruise or Bryan Brown?  What specifically was it about this movie?

Naren:  Well, I’m Australian so it would have to be Bryan Brown (aka Douglas Coughlin).  Plus, he was always the one who knew more.  Though, maybe I'm the cocky Tom Cruise.  Who knows. It seemed like a fun way to make money. I mean, who wouldn’t want to bartend on a beach in Jamaica?

ShakeStir:  I’ve heard from someone who has known you since your teenage years in Sydney that you went to an advanced school and were one of the cool kids. Was bartending a track there?  Were you behind the bar/ringmaster at parties when friend’s parents were out of town?

Naren:  (He laughs.) I don't know about that. It was called a selective school.  You only had to be smart when you applied which was when I was 12 or 13.  After that I didn't pay much attention at school.  I only paid attention to English (literature). I was more into the creative side, and those were the teachers who encouraged me to pursue a career in writing.

ShakeStir:  How did you first get into cocktails?

Naren:  My parents shopped in a lot of second hand book stores. And after I’d gained an interest in cocktails at about age 16 (after watching Cocktail), I would ask them to buy me cocktail books. By the time I was 18 (the legal drinking age in Australia) I knew about 150 cocktails but I’d never made any of them. When my parents had people over I brought the blender out and made strawberry Daiquiris and Pina Coladas. They probably tasted like shit.  I also used to practice flairing bottles in the back yard, which just makes me laugh now.

When I was 18, I went to university and started working in hospitality. The first job I got was in a liquor store where I became interested in what was on the shelves.  My first official bar job was around 20 years old in a place called the New Orleans Café in Sydney.  

ShakeStir:  Did they have good cocktails?  

Naren:  Absolutely not.  This was before Sydney had good cocktails; I'm talking 1998 here. It was an important time for me as I developed a real skill for remembering recipes.  I learned a lot of recipes on paper, even before working in a bar.  It's a skill that has held through and helped me through today.

ShakeStir:  First time I saw you, you and Jacob Briars were horsing around a fruit market in Brazil and making creative Caipirinhas.  It reminds me of a trip I took with you this past fall to the Columbia market.  You looked so happy there.  What is it there that really gets you going?

Naren:  First, I think it's a new thing for me and the industry, for bartenders to go to farmers markets.  There's a personal aspect about bartending for me that involves talking to the people who are growing and raising your produce.  Chefs started doing it again en masse about 10 years ago, even longer  - restaurants like Chez Panisse started in the 70s. But it's in everyone's best interest to know where their ingredients are coming from.  I'm not cavalier about it, I think it's respectful in this day and age to know where things are coming from and there’s more of a connection.

ShakeStir:  What does this connection do?

Naren:  I don't know if it influences it (drink creation), I think it has a lot more meaning than going into a big chain and buying, say, an apple.  I'm not on a crusade with this message, but I think it's better to buy it off someone who has a passion for it and whose family has probably been doing it for generations and has produce at the height of its season.  Customers know (or are starting to learn) that if you have a cocktail on your menu with strawberries in January it's probably not going to taste very good.

ShakeStir:  This passion for food, where did it start?

Naren:  I think first I always had an interest in food, which started almost around the same time I was interested in drinks.  I didn't come from a household that was interested in food and my mother and father weren't particularly interested in cooking. I love to cook but I’m pretty self taught, or have picked up a lot from working in restaurants.

ShakeStir:  Yet you seem to flock to bars attached to restaurants?  Making up for growing up in a household that isn’t cooking up a storm?

Naren:  I haven’t actively sought out restaurant bars but I was actively interested in what the chefs were doing anywhere I worked.  Also, being a journalist hasn’t hurt either, being inquisitive about food.
Some chefs I annoy the hell out by asking too many questions and poking around in their walk-in coolers. But deep down I think they like it.  I am inquisitive because I want to know where things come from.  Any drink I come up with I usually give to my chef first to taste and ask their opinion as to whether it is balanced, if it needs tweaking, how they enjoy the taste, etc..

ShakeStir:  You’ve created cocktail menus and been at the helm of cocktail menus at some of NYC’s most notable restaurants. Talk to us about collaborating with a chef versus being in a standalone bar.

Naren:  I think in any process the more experienced collaborators you have, the better.  And with someone in-house such as a chef you get those answers immediately. Who else are you going to turn to?  Your bartenders, sure.  Your regulars? Maybe. Your visiting bartenders? Definitely.  Working in a restaurant, chefs will give you an immediate and informed answer and the ingredients are right there in the kitchen if you need to re-work it.  You don't have to think, ‘Maybe I’ll try it tomorrow, I'll go to Kalustyan's before work and pick up some more things...’

ShakeStir:  Enough about what the chefs think.  What inspires you?

Naren:  Inspiration can come from all sorts of places.  It may be travelling and learning about local ingredients, it could be a dish I've tried in a restaurant, it can come from a historical standpoint by looking back at what people were eating and drinking in a certain era. Other bartenders certainly inspire me. Mostly I'm just inspired to learn more about the craft of bartending.

ShakeStir:  Share some great experiences you've had thanks to your bartending career.  I heard you've eaten at elBulli.

Naren:  I've been to elBulli twice.  It’s definitely THE highlight.  In general, I take pleasure in dining out with people who really love dining out. That simple. The pinnacle of dining though was the 2009 road trip with Simon Ford - nine Michelin stars in three days.  We started at Alain Ducasse in Paris’ Plaza Athénée.  Then Peugeot were silly enough to give us a car, so we drove to Monaco to Alain Ducasse Louis XV and on to elBulli.  That was the most incredible eating expedition of my life.  I could have kept going but Peugeot wanted their car back.

ShakeStir:  What's on the road ahead for the industry?

Naren:  In spirits - definitely mezcal, cachaca, pisco and we are seeing a move to more artisanal handcrafted spirits.  By the way, that doesn't mean they're superior quality, though that is also possible.  In terms of bars, I’d like to see a move away from the neo-speakeasy and I'd like to see a move back towards the old saloon - but with great cocktails.  Nothing fancy.  I think there is something missing in this generation of bartenders coming through; there's not enough chit-chat, there's too much emphasis on what's in the glass.  And that goes against much of the reason of why most of us became bartenders in the first place.  For anyone who's ever been served by Jason Crawley or Wayne Collins or Colin Appiah, or Dale Degroff these guys know how to chit-chat.  They have something to say.  They could give me a glass of water in an old shoe and I'd be happy.  

I think we need that back because this over-emphasis on the cocktail is being pushed onto our customers.  We're not making the progress we should, we should be showing a bit more humility.  It's great to be passionate, I'm all about that.  If you make your own bitters that's great.  But the drink and the service need to coexist.  We’re in the very apex of the industry right now and it's important that people change their attitude.  People have this arrogance and we can't go in that direction.  We can be passionate and humble in what we do and show people a good time.  You want people to say, ‘I love that bar and I love that bartender.’  Its funny, back in the 1800s, which is an era people are trying to replicate, they probably were more entertaining than they are now.

ShakeStir:  How have we gotten to this point of swelled heads too big to fit in Meehan bag?

Naren:  There’s no question the media's played its role in this.  People have been catapulted into stardom and they haven't had the experience to know how to deal with it.  It took Dale 25 years working as a bartender before he figured he could be considered a consultant. It seems that working your way up is lost on a lot of young guys.  And they'll never get it because they say ‘I just got a consulting gig for X thousands of dollars.’ The media has made out mixologists to be this big deal, which is great.  But there are repercussions to celebrity and fame.  It is a lot fun, but do you have the experience to create? Are you creating something world class that can inspire or make significant change? I think people should be thinking about this.

ShakeStir:  So, what should they know and when are they ready to create that world-class program?

Naren:  I’m not sure, really. If all you are thinking about is ‘I'm going to take this money and get out’ it doesn't benefit the bar, the customer, and more importantly, it hurts our industry.  Most of the best consultants won't be involved unless they’re guaranteed it's going to be executed like they originally planned.  Any consulting I do I want to be involved long term.  I think the biggest message is any consultant gig you do impacts the whole industry. Teaching bad drinks or bad methodology is going to trickle down.  And that's not good.  What I do like to see? People like Toby Maloney take an actual stake in the bars where he consults. That means he literally has a vested interest in its success and a commitment from his partners that the program will be maintained.

ShakeStir:  A good drink is sometimes hard to find.  How do you train a bartender to make a good, balanced drink?

Naren:  If I have the chance to have one-on-one training with people it's constant back and forth.  I ask -  ‘Where is this hitting your palate? Is it balanced? What does it need? What can we take out?’  It really is just a matter of back and forth, interaction.  Teaching people about their own palate; asking ‘Are you tasting sour here, sweet there, is it missing something in the back palate?’   Anyone who's ever worked in food I’ve found generally has a better palate because they've tried a lot more textures and flavors.  It's about getting people to think about flavors and what and why they match.  Audrey Saunders was very good about that at Pegu.  Jim Meehan also has a great palate. You know, a lot of people think it's weird when I smell the cocktail shaker before I pour a drink but you're going to get a lot more out of it when you do because when making a cocktail you need to think about more of your senses than just taste - look at the color, smell it, feel it, eyeball it.

ShakeStir:  What are the differences or similarities between the bar scene in Australia and here in New York City?

Naren:  The bar scene in Australia is still young although good cocktails started appearing in the late 90s. There is a much greater understanding of classic cocktails in America than anywhere else in the world, which has laid the foundation for the current mixology movement. Australian cocktails tend to be more fruit and produce driven.

ShakeStir:  Imagine your perfect bar - what's it all about, Naren?

Naren:  It would have the look and feel of an old saloon with lots light and plants with a small selection of craft beers, an immense liquor selection, a trivia night, a jukebox, a pool table, darts, great oysters and comfort food. It would have a beer garden with live acoustic music. Oh, and my wife DJing.

ShakeStir:  Your life isn’t all spirits and cocktails.  You’re a journalist too.  How did you start writing? And what's more painful - drink creation/trial and error or writers block?

Naren:  The very first magazine I wrote for was called Large – it was a free street magazine in Australia, you picked it up at train stations and bars - I wrote their gossip bar column.  I was going out a lot - it was like a diary of what I did.  Then I hooked up with a guy called David Spanton in 1999 and we started Bartender Magazine and I was the Editor in Chief for its first 6 years. That was my first big break.  Then I branched out and I started getting more freelance work.  The thing that's always helped my journalism career is working as a bartender because I always want my stories to be as well researched as I can make them.  My product knowledge has always been very good I think because most of my days are spent reading and researching.  A lot of bartenders these days study, which is awesome. When I’m in full writing mode I study anywhere from 2 to 8 hours a day (ask my wife, she’ll tell you).  Both aspects have opened up doors to travel and allowed me access to places where spirits are made and speak to the people who make it.  It's an ongoing circle that never ends. I can’t complain, it’s a great life.

ShakeStir:  You've been nominated for the Tales award (this is year two).  Don't want to jinx it and ask if you think you'll win this year, but do want to know what this nomination means to you.

Naren:  It definitely means a lot.  There aren’t a huge amount of awards out there for drinks writing.  There are the James Beard Awards and the Glenfiddich in the UK.  It’s an honor to be thought of amongst people I look up to and voted for by people I really respect, like David Wondrich, Ted Haigh, Jared Brown, Paul Clarke and Anastatia Miller.  I never considered myself an investigative journalist and I take my hat off to the people who have done intense research to broaden our exposure to the whole industry.  This nomination means a lot.  It's a big deal.  To be nominated was an honor.  To be the winner would be huge.

ShakeStir:  And now (as if you haven’t endured enough at our hands)… 21 final questions:

Who are some of the people who have influenced and inspired you along the way?

Dale Degroff
Where do you start? Dale (and his wife Jill) has been a real father figure and inspiration since I arrived in America in 2006.  He is such a gentlemen in every respect and is so chilled and approachable.  Even with his knowledge and experience, he is always the most inquisitive guy in the room, knowing that there is always more to learn. I wish I could have seen him bartend at the Rainbow Room.

Jason Crawley
Hands down, the best bartender I've ever worked with, he epitomizes everything that makes a great bartender. His humor, lightning wit and tricks are coupled with his amazing knowledge and fluidity behind the bar. I long for the day I work with him again.

Linden Pride
The guy is one of the most detail oriented, patient and diligent workers I've ever seen. A true pro, in every way. He's just moved to New York to head up the operations for Avroko, so I'll get to see a lot more of him now.

Jim Meehan
The guy's whole philosophy about the industry continues to inspire me every time I see him. He just gets it and there's not an arrogant bone in his body. What he’s created at PDT is nothing short of amazing.

ShakeStir:  What do you drink when…?

Before dinner: Dry Plymouth Martini with a twist
You finish work: The coldest beer I can get my hands on and a shot of something brown
On a lazy Sunday afternoon: Pitchers of Margaritas
When you’re contemplative: Yamazaki 18 on a single cube
When you can’t be bothered deciding: Campari
When the sun is beating down: Pellegrino, slice of lemon
When you’re lighting the fire: Something brown and soothing, neat
When you have to answer silly interview questions: Right now, it's a cold glass of Sauvignon Blanc

ShakeStir:  What’s your ‘go-to’:

Aperitif: Campari
Digestif: Some sort of good brandy, not fussy which
Beer: Guinness
Shot: Siete Leguas
Mixed drink: G&T
Guilty pleasure: Pina Colada

ShakeStir:  What was the last amazing cocktail you had that blew your mind?  Who was the guilty bartender?

Naren:  Something Dutch from Josh Pearson at Sepia in Chicago with Bols Genever, Pineau de Charentes and rhubarb shrub. Elegance in a glass. The guy makes incredible drinks.

ShakeStir:  Name three of your favorite bars anywhere in the world and why?

Naren:

  1. The New York Bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Incredible view which completely takes you away to another time. It’s a surreal feeling looking out over Tokyo by night, Martini in hand, with live jazz singers crooning away. For that fleeting moment, you are lost in translation.
  2. PDT in New York. Again, Jim Meehan. He is a real mentor who continues to train up a young and passionate team. The drinks are dead on and the whole concept of cocktails and hot dogs is nothing short of genius.
  3. Milk & Honey New York. Service is professional and sincere, the atmosphere is quiet and not for everybody. But if you want an amazing cocktail in a civilized cocoon, then there are few better places on this planet. Especially when Sammy and Mickey are on show.

ShakeStir:  Your house is burning down.  What’s the one bottle you grab?  Who do you share it with?

Naren:  Siete Leguas reposado. My wife (I'd be in a lot of trouble if I didn't say that).

ShakeStir:  What does your local bar industry need more of?

Naren:  People with integrity and honesty.

ShakeStir:  And less of?

Naren:  Poor managers.

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