Adam Hodak: Don't be pretentious

In this interview, Adam Hodak -- the beverage manager for Frank Bonanno's restaurants who's frequently behind the stick at Green Russell, Osteria Marco and Russell's Smokehouse -- weighs in on how he got to where he is, the night he pepper-sprayed himself and the irony of lime usage at Mexican restaurants.

Westword: How long have you been a bartender? What made you get into the profession?

Adam Hodak: It's been almost nine years this April. I started in college. We had two bars on campus, and one of them was an Irish pub. I made friends with the owners. Bartenders were typically seniors, but I was a little older junior, so I got a job younger and then worked there for three and a half years.

I graduated, moved to Denver, and started looking for jobs for a couple of months, but I realized I didn't really want to do business stuff in an office. I'd always wanted to go to culinary school, but my family has always been about normal education. But I'd gotten my normal degree, and I decided to bartend. So I found Frank Bonanno and thought, "This guy really cares about food." I went and applied, and I was the first person he hired at Osteria. I'd never served food -- I was just a fast bartender. I wasn't an idiot or some random sloppy dude, but holding three plates was interesting.

I've worked for Frank going on five years this summer. I was hired at Osteria, and we had a straightforward, simple bar menu that had a couple of takes on cocktails and a lot of vodka; this was before cocktails had really hit Colorado. After about six months, I started really getting into it -- I'd always loved bartending, but I did my first competition and came in a close second in the 42 Below cocktail world cup. That's what hooked me. I started getting into spirits and I started studying, teaching myself and researching flavor profiles. Another nine months or so after that, Frank was going to open Bones. I volunteered to do a cocktail list. It really opened me up to the world of Asian flavor -- sake is one of my favorite things to drink; I drink more sake than red wine. I did a whole staff training that Frank sat in on, and I think that's when I impressed him. A few months later, they asked me to be beverage director.

Bartending rule to live by: Don't be pretentious, either the bartender or the guest. Bartenders always call each other out, but don't call out the guest. And if you're the guest, don't tell me that absinthe isn't real or rye isn't whiskey. I don't tell you that tax laws don't exist if I find out you're a tax lawyer. In the end, it's all about education and not making people upset.

Five words to describe your drink list: Innovative, unique, balanced, fun and enjoyable. Favorite drink on your list and why: Depends on the day. There are too many things to drink and too many lists. I guess I'll say the honey badger at Osteria. It's a boulevardier made with half an ounce of honey liqueur and a quarter ounce of allspice dram. It's spicy, yummy and whiskey-y, so all of my favorite things. [Technically, a boulevardier consists of bourbon, Campari and sweet vermouth.]

Favorite item on your back bar: That's like telling a parent to pick a favorite kid. I guess, generally, it's housemade bitters. I just finished housemade angostura bitters from 1883, and they're awesome. I'm just in love.

What was your craziest night behind the stick? There are a lot of crazy weird ones, but one time, in the middle of a fight of forty guys, I pepper-sprayed five people, including myself. That was back in college. We were in a small town in Ohio, and we were super-busy. Our crowd was a bunch of kids -- preppy kids -- running around with money (none of their own) and town folks. I was friends with all sides. One night, a group of townies and another group of townies got in a fight. We always kept pepper spray behind the bar, but if you don't shoot that for a few months, it produces a cloud. I'm walking toward them to pepper spray them, and I got them, but in the meantime, I walked through a cloud of pepper spray. It was terrible. That stays on your clothes. We also pepper sprayed their car, which they crashed a couple of blocks away. The cops were like, "If they ever go claim their car, they are never getting that out of the seats."

Favorite Denver venue for a drink that's not your own and what you order when you're there: Steuben's oak-aged Martinez. I love hanging out with Randy and Ryan [Layman].

What's next for the Denver bartending scene? Hopefully, every dive bar will start making their own sour mix. That would be a good place to start. Or Mexican restaurants. A lime comes out on every dish you order, yet there's no real lime in your drink. I just don't get that.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk