Brian Smith, the barman at Pinche Taqueria who will also be behind the stick at the resurrected Squeaky Bean when that restaurant opens next year, began his love affair with the bar before he was even legal. "I've been bartending at home since I graduated from high school," he admits. "I got into cocktails because my brother and I used to have parties. He was running the kitchen at a pizzeria, so he would cook. I would be the beverage guy, and little eighteen-year-old me would be sitting there schooling people on classic cocktails."
His early days weren't all Manhattans and Martinis, though. "I think one of my favorite first drinks was gin and fresh juice," he remembers. "We used to drink it from 20 ounce mason jars."
After he turned 21, Smith decided to get behind the bar professionally. "I got my start developing the wine-bar concept at Pulcinella Pizzeria in Fort Collins" where he was going to school, he explains. He later moved down to the Pulcinella Pizzeria and Wine Bar in Cherry Hills Village, where he ran the drinks program, building a list of wine and beer and creating cocktails with Italian twists to go with his menu. It was while he was working there that he met Johnny Ballen, owner of the Squeaky Bean, and Smith agreed to eventually join that team when the concept reopened.
In the meantime, though, Ballen consulted on the drinks list at Pinche Taqueria, bringing Smith on to help. Rather than return to pizza, the bartender stayed on at Pinche permanently, shaking classics and signature cocktails that he helped develop, pouring from a spirits list that's tequila- and whiskey-based, and continuing his quest for knowledge that he'll eventually take to the Bean a few nights a week, too. Here, he weighs in on his experiences behind the bar.
Bartending rule to live by: If we're talking advice to someone who was getting into bartending, I would say that they should understand that bartending is about 90 percent janitorial. You see volume bartenders that are really good at knocking out cocktails, but an air of cleanliness and professionalism is important. Otherwise, I think it's important to be both a bartender and a mixologist. Don't be a bartender who doesn't give a shit about the balance of the cocktails, and don't be a mixologist who doesn't care about the customer. It's fine to be snobby at home, but when you're behind the bar, you have a responsibility to get people to come back to that bar, and it helps if you can help them forget their day. Liquor is a nice tool for that, but a personality goes a long way, too.
Five words to describe your drink list: Shut up and come in. No, just kidding. Fresh, playful, honest, laminated (it is! It's laminated!), consistent.
Favorite drink on your list and why:I really dig our Proximus Paloma. It's the best Paloma I've had. We use Proximus Tequila, and Carlos, the owner, comes in pretty often. His wife, who's on the bottle, says it's her favorite, too. I think it's because a lot of Palomas are heavy on sweetness -- but ours is about balance.
Favorite item on your back bar: The stereo. Everything else is sort of a tool, but if you don't have a stereo, you're not having fun. Oh, you mean spirit? Tequila Ocho Blanco. It's a way to reintroduce people to tequila, and I think it's the purest agave spirit out there. It smells a little like drywall must. Agave liquor, after the heating process and mashing, smells like wet cement. It's really minerally. That's what I think of when I smell Tequila Ocho.
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What was your craziest night behind the stick? When I was working at the pizzeria in Cherry Hills Village, I had group of regulars. There were a lot of nights when I would be the bartender, manager, host, everything, and I'd be closing the place down. So we'd have after-parties, and those regulars and friends would come in and drink Brian specials at the wine bar. One night, though, things got out of control. One guy kept trying to come behind the bar and make his own drinks, and one guy wouldn't stop playing the piano we had. He was Glee-ing out, if that's a verb. I finally told him, "I don't look like a bouncer, but I will be."
Favorite Denver venue for a drink that's not your own, and what you order when you're there: I've been really digging El Diablo for awhile. It was between my house and work, and sometimes you want to go to a place where you don't talk about the business, where you can just hang out and be a patron. That's El Diablo for me. And I love, love, love the Diablotini. I dig the cucumber and jalapeno-infused tequila. I love the texture of the cocktail. A lot of times you lose freshness in an infused spirit, but this one is really great.