Damon Boelte Dreams in Cocktails

by Kara Newman

Jason Goodrich

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 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. Its 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 release on the 4th 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.

You’re the first person I’ve ever seen shoot an entire bottle of Underberg. What’s the deal with that?

Underberg! It’s a German digestif invented by Dr. Hubert Underberg in 1846. It comes in a small 20 mL bottle, which is the prescribed portion to make you feel "bright and alert." It works! I first discovered it 5 or 6 years ago when I was working at LeNell's Ltd. It made sense with Prime Meats's German-Austrian cuisine. We sell the most Underberg in the U.S. at Prime Meats. I've seen bartenders that use in drops or dashes, but I'm probably the only bartender out there using entire bottles in cocktails. I even have a tiki drink called Das Boot that has an entire bottle in it. 

What inspires you?

Music and history. Most of my cocktails are named after bands, songs, albums, lyrics. I find it easier to come up with a recipe concept if I already have a name. I listen mostly to country, psychedelic, garage, and soul. I have one cocktail named Hearts of Oak, which is a term referenced throughout history, being a voluntary militia during the revolutionary war headed up by Alexander Hamilton, also an album by Ted Leo & the Pharmacists. Let's break down the recipe...

Hearts of Oak:  Bourbon, Cynar, cinnamon syrup, orange bitters, whiskey barrel aged bitters, sparkling rose, orange twist

Cynar for the heart, Bourbon for the oak. Orange goes with Cynar, Bourbon and sparkling rose, tying them together. The cinnamon syrup and whiskey barrel bitters with their intense spice also pair with every ingredient, tying the whole thing together.

Also, I often get ideas for cocktails from dreams. I keep a Moleskine on my nightstand, just in case I wake up with a song or a cocktail idea. The aforementioned Das Boot cocktail came to me in a dream. That was the first dream cocktail where I actually woke up with the spec, tried it out that day at work, and it was right on.

What was the last cocktail you had that blew your mind?

That's hard to say. I'm constantly blown away by the creativity and passion of bartenders today. Even in dive bars. I always say that the term "cocktail bar" is redundant in that you should be able to order a cocktail at any bar. It’s like calling a restaurant a "food restaurant." This is such an amazing time to be a chef or bartender because we have so much more information and ability to source rare ingredients. I can't say this for every bar, but lately when I go into bars in New York City the bar is outfitted with more bitters, better barware, unique liqueurs, etc. We are moving in the right direction.

As far as the last cocktail that blew my mind? I'd have to say that it was Thomas Waugh's Pisco sour variation with Greek yogurt and peach. Totally innovative and delicious.

What’s your go-to drink?

I tend to keep it pretty simple when ordering for myself. My life is complicated enough as it is! It’s no secret that I'm a huge fan of Fernet and other bitters, but I'm also very passionate about Bourbon and rum. There's nothing better at the end of the day than a nice whiskey or rum for those moments of unwinding and reflecting. It’s important to have those moments of decompression.

I also have a pretty hardcore addiction to iced tea. Being from Oklahoma, my mother always brewed sun tea, which is basically tea that is steeped in a large mason jar, heated by the sun out on the porch. I always loved that ingenuity, simple and clean. And like aged whiskey and rum, waiting around for it to steep was a reminder that sometimes you just need to slow down and take it easy.

Read more from Bartenders.