In this interview, Noah Heaney, Big Red F beverage purchasing agent and bartender at Boulder's Bitter Bar, weighs in on the business card takeaway, the most unconventional thank you he's ever received and the places he finds a great experience, no matter who's behind the bar.
Westword: How long have you been a bartender? What made you get into the profession?
Noah Heaney: I've been working in restaurants since I was a kid, including McDonalds at age fifteen in the small town where I grew up. When I moved to Minneapolis fifteen years ago, I valeted for a couple of years at the Minneapolis Cafe, and it was a really hip spot. I enjoyed the space, and I thought it was fun. So I got a job bussing, serving and expediting, and then I busted my bar manager enough that he let me get behind the bar. To even think about getting a position with him, I had to answer tests. Stuff like what goes into a Long Island iced tea? Cocktail programs weren't what they are now. It was a cool spot, and it was an attraction for a 21-year-old that was looking from the outside in.
I lived there for years working in different restaurants, including La Belle Vie, a beautiful, Michelin-starred restaurant. When I decided it was time to get out of that city, I visited a friend in Milwaukee. We were hanging out in a restaurant, and they mentioned that they needed a GM. Most of my experience was in management, and two days later, I got the job. I packed up and moved to Milwaukee. There were a lot of good things and bad things, but after two years, I didn't want to spend any more time there.
A good friend of mine was the GM of the Oceanaire, so one weekend, I called him up and said, "I'm coming out." We went to the mountains and went skiing, and I really loved it. He introduced me to Sean Kenyon, who was very responsive -- he introduced me to five job opportunities that weekend. I went back to Milwaukee and turned in my notice. I drove out here without a job on a whim.
Because of those connections, I was lucky enough to have a couple of opportunities right away. I worked at Colt & Gray for awhile, and I secured a position behind the stick at Bitter Bar, and I've been there for two years.
Bartending rule to live by: Show up early. I think it's easy to get caught up in the in-times and out-times of your position. Like, if I'm scheduled at 3, I punch in at 2:58, do my job and punch out. A passionate bartender shows up early and makes sure his mise en place is set up ten minutes before the doors open so he can make sure the guest has the best time possible. If you're breaking down the bar, set it up for success for the next day. That way the other bartenders can get right to work making drinks for the guest who just put in a ten-hour shift at the office.
Five words to describe your drink list: Because of my position, I spend a lot of time making other people's cocktails right now, so I'm not sure how to answer that.
How about when you're creating a drink for someone? Listen to the guest. And seasonal.
Favorite drink on your list: Have you ever had a Jack and Coke? No, I'm kidding. If I were making one drink all night, it would probably be a Mai Tai or a rum-based spirituous cocktail. Or a daiquiri. At the Bitter Bar, we have a daiquiri on the list right now that's made with Smith & Cross naval strength rum, fresh blood orange juice, lime and sugar. Probably one of my favorite drinks to drink these days. Also, Josh [Burbank] has a Campari ice cube cocktail at Jax in Denver made with grapefruit juice that's just amazing.
Favorite item on your back bar: Smith & Cross is one of my favorites; Domaine de Canton is a beautiful ginger liqueur. Asher Greenade is probably my favorite beer of all time, and it's on tap right now at the Bitter Bar. And Chartreuse yellow VEP. I don't get to drink it often because of the price point, but when I do, I'm happy.
What was your craziest night behind the stick? When I was working in Minneapolis, this cat named Ramon used to come in all the time. He was a salsa instructor, and the ladies would really gravitate toward him. On New Year's Eve of the millennium, he gave me a Movado watch. He just tossed me his watch, and at the end of the night, I tried to give it back to him. He said, "No, I want to give you this as a gift. You take such good care of me." It was the first time I'd seen someone recognize good service in a way that was so unconventional. It was one of the craziest things that's happened to me, and it sealed my fate as bartender.
Favorite Denver venue for a drink that's not your own and what you order when you're there: Steuben's. You can find me sitting at that bar a couple of nights a week. The way that entire staff takes care of you is just as important as the technical way they make their drinks. It's not just about craft bartending; it's also about developing a personal relationship with every guest and exceeding every expectation. There's a cat that once said, "I don't visit bars, I visit bartenders." At spots like Williams & Graham and Steuben's, though, you can visit the bar. It doesn't matter who you sit in front of, because you're going to get a damn good experience. What's next for the Denver bartending scene? When you talk about fads or trends in bartending, the trend in cocktails is going to lead away from seven and eight ingredient drinks and back to two, three, four ingredients that preserve the flavor of the spirits. It's not about the tinctures that hide the flavor, or waving your hand over it and tapping it with a wand, or presenting it in a 1940's coupe that's been blessed by the pope. I'd like to see more drinks developed like the Negroni, which is three ingredients. And it doesn't take twenty minutes and five different measuring tools to make.
Also, I'm a fan of business cards that have a blank side on one side. That's a perfect way to develop a personal way with your guests, by sending them off with a recipe for what they drank. What a better way to develop repeat business. Give everyone that remembrance of something that was fun and exciting and the ability go home and recreate it the exact same way. I guess I'd like to see more of that.
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