Daniel Love is a contestant on LXTV.com's "On the Rocks"
Just four years after starting out serving filets in suburban steakhouses, Daniel Love of Barrington has worked his way through restaurants and bars to become part of the new wave of mixology bartenders in Chicago. He's facing off with a dozen contenders for "America's Top Bartender," a competition hosted by LXTV.com
and featuring bartenders that can mix the finest of drinks as well as juggle bottles with the best of 'em.
After stints at Sam & Harry's Steakhouse in Schaumburg and Osteria di Tramonto in Wheeling, Love now slings drinks for The Drawing Room, part of the Le Passage Discotheque on Rush Street (you can also find him at Le Bar at the Sofitel Chicago Water Tower). If you thought it was all overpriced beers and dirty martinis in the Gold Coast, youd be wrong bitters made from scratch and fresh juices complement the top-shelf liquor and specialty ice, and drinks made tableside by personal bartenders who can explain just about everything you ever wanted to know about alcohol.
Centerstage spoke with Daniel (aka DJ) about the competition, the mixology scene in Chicago and whether hes a psychologist, pharmacist or entertainer first and foremost.
Coming from Chicago, it's impossible not to talk about mixology and not start out by asking about the Violet Hour.
It's actually very interesting that the bartending culture that I'm involved with is interrelated with a lot of people in these restaurants. I get to be associated with all these people and learn things from all these people basically from one connection meeting Debbie (Peak, who introduced Love to the United States Bartending Guild) at Tramantos and from there going to USBG and being connected to all these people learning from them and adopting skills and styles of bartending from them.
Having the cocktail culture on Chicago right now is getting very big, and very popular and important, and gained a lot of notoriety. Not too many people in Chicago have a good idea about mixology yet and don't realize that it's all over the country. Some people think that Violet Hour invented the cocktail! (laughs)
Something you use in competition is the trick where you separate the egg white from the egg with one hand while keeping the yolk in the shell. How many times did it take you to get that down?
After about 2,000 eggs, it became second nature. (laughs) The real trick is not getting the shell to come off the egg when you're getting the egg white to go in the glass, which is really cool. I didn't even know what I was doing the first time I did it, I was really rushed and I just cracked the egg and it came rushing out. After that I just knew how to do it. But I'm not ambidextrous, I can't do it right-handed.
When you're in competition and you're setting fire to citrus peels and such, does it intimidate other bartenders? That's some serious cocktail business.
The thing about the competition that we were in, the deal was that he wanted to pin flair bartenders against mixologists against club bartenders and really challenge us all to synthesize all our different skills. There's a certain art and expression of personality that's involved in all those different styles of bartending that contribute to the culture and society of it. There's just as much competition that goes into flair bartending as there is that goes into mixology.
I think the thing that you saw that a lot of people were questioning ("On The Rocks" contestant) James did this amazing flair bartending demonstration, and so did Graham (another OTR contestant), and Kristen was the one who ended up winning it. What the judges took into account was not just the flair bartending, but the final product of the flair and expression, and does the final cocktail also attain all those attributes of balance, and taste good, and aroma at the same time.
Had you taken part in any bartending competitions prior to the "On The Rocks" experience?
Yes, I've done several things for the USBG, I did a Hennessy competition last may and it was an aperitif competition. Every competition I've done so far has been very different from every other one. The Hennessy competition we were limited to having three ounces of ingredients, tops. We were only allowed to use 5 ingredients. We had 5 minutes to make the cocktails - we had to make five cocktails in five minutes.
And we had judges USBG style grading us, so they were standing up there watching us and checking if we had spilled any drops on our white tablecloth off on our checkboard. We had the announcer coming up and asking us questions while we were making the cocktails in that five minutes, so it was really strict.
Have you ever done one that involved being on camera?
Just to project it on a TV screen above us so people could see what we were doing. But it wasn't filmed like [the "On The Rocks" competition] was.
How did being taped affect your performance? Does it make you work differently?
It affected it a bit. You've gotta get away from the fact that you've got cameras in your face the whole time you're bartending, which isn't necessarily the case when you're in a low-lit club or a restaurant making cocktails with your guests hanging out in front of you having fun. It's a little more pressure to demonstrate your abilities, but at the same time, it's a catalyst for giving you that adrenaline rush and inspiring you to show off and make really good cocktails.
A lot of bartenders believe they're one part pharmacist, one part psychologist, one part entertainer. What side do you relate to the most?
I think every bartender says they relate to all of them depending on the night of the week. I myself feel I lean toward the entertaining aspect. I like to socialize with my guests and have a good time. Making them a great drink is a bonus, but a lot of people come for socializing and having a good time, and that's something I really like to do with my guests, making an environment that they really want to come back to, regardless of the level of the drinks. You can have as much of a fun time, drinking vodka on the rocks, as you can an eight-part drink, but if you don't have a good time with the guests, they're not going to want to come back and have those drinks.
Do people assume your favorite drinks involve 80 different ingredients? And what is your drink of choice?
I enjoy drinking the drinks I make and going to that level, but nine times out of 10 if you ask me what I want to drink, it's going to be a whisky on the rocks, or a cognac or a glass of wine. Because it allows me to keep it simple and know what kind of core ingredients I'm working with when I'm making a cocktail. Because when I'm making a drink, I'm looking to address the alcohol that's in it not cover it up. I like to be closer to those flavors in the alcohol that are really what I enjoy in a whisky or cognac or a good scotch.
As one Chicagoan to another, please tell me that somewhere in the competition, you bring in the infamous Chicago jimson-weed liqueur, Malort?
Jeppson's Malort I wish I could say that we had it available to us, but it's pretty much only available in Chicago. We couldn't get it out there but if you ever want a good Malort's cocktail we actually have one at the Drawing Room called the "Bukowski." It's basically to celebrate Malort in all its bitter glory. (laughs)
It's championed by two-fisted drinkers, of course! It's a very unique taste, but you drink it enough times and you actually start to like it.