25 July 2014

"Pouring Reign (The Director's Cut)", Part IV: Frederic Yarm of Russell House Tavern

Frederic Yarm of Russell House Tavern, Cambridge, MA
Photo courtesy of  Maggie Campbell of Privateer Rum
In April 2014, I wrote a cover feature for The Improper Bostonian entitled “Pouring Reign”, in which I interviewed twelve Boston bartenders I admire. Six are veteran talents I felt had been overlooked by local media; six are newcomers promising enough to get themselves situated in some of our top bar programs. All had many more interesting things to say than I could fit in the space allowed.

How many more? My initial draft ran to 10,000 words, but the feature was allotted 2500; I begged my editors for more room, and they generously let it swell to 3500, a very long feature for the publication.

As happy as I was with the piece (and especially the gorgeous accompanying portrait photography by Adam DeTour), a lot of great material got left on the cutting-room floor. I got permission to run the unexpurgated interviews here. Here’s the fourth one, my unedited interview with Frederick Yarm, a relative newcomer to the bartending scene whose work as a cocktail writer I’ve been reading for years, both for his blog and his 2012 book Drink & Tell: A Boston Cocktail Book, a historical tour of Boston's cocktail scene. His was another interview that space constraints forced me to slash drastically, so I’m glad to be able to offer the unwhittled version here.


MC SLIM JB: Improper readers may not know about your Cocktail Virgin blog, or how it has found you sampling and documenting thousands of cocktails from Greater Boston bars for over six and a half years. Russell House Tavern is your first professional bartending gig. How has being a prolific cocktail blogger shaped your experience and outlook as a bartender? And vice versa: how has manning the stick professionally changed your perspective as a cocktail blogger?

FREDERIC YARM: Tasting and writing about a lot about drinks has not shaped my outlook as a bartender so much as the experience of sitting at lots of bars in the process; observing both the good and bad of hospitality, techniques, recipes, and interactions has been an invaluable learning experience. My work with the blog has given me a lot of exposure to a wide variety of styles out there and the pros and cons of each. Discussing my knowledge about cocktails, techniques, and local establishments does help with guest rapport and has helped to solidify some regulars.

Manning the stick professionally has encouraged me to be a more easy going guest, and this has caused me lighten up a bit both in my attitude and the posting rate. If I do not see something on the cocktail menu that I wish to write about, I often will order a beer. If it is a slower night, I will see if the bartender has some off menu items that they wish to make, but I will not push the issue. I definitely want to keep the blog going, but it has become one of my cocktail outlets instead of the main one.

MC: Measure or free-pour?

FY: I originally thought I was only going to jigger everything, but after working a few busy brunches, I got tired of the amount of washing it took to get all traces of serrano pepper-infused mezcal that we use in our Mezcal Mary out of a jigger. I tested out my free pour, and my count is pretty solid for a 2 ounce pour. I will not free pour for anything other than simple drinks like Highballs and Bloody Marys though.

MC: Drink that you wish more customers would order?

FY: Drinks with vermouth. For some reason, the Manhattan drinker does not shy away from vermouth nor specify the proportions, but the Martini drinker does. Fresh vermouth is delightful, and I often opt for a 2:1 or equal parts Martini at home. And many guests look confused when you tell them that vermouth and other aromatized wines are a delight to drink on the rocks with an orange twist.

MC, aside: Right on!

MC: Drink you wish customers would forget existed?

FY: I have a section in my bar notebook dedicated to “those 70s drinks.” I cannot (or choose not to) remember the difference between a Bay Breeze and a Sea Breeze, and most of them are just fruit mixtures to hide the flavor of vodka.

MC: What is your most prized bartending accoutrement, e.g., spoon, ice tool, ice mold, shaker, mixing glass, knife, Lewis bag, cocktail book, serving glass, other piece of barware or glassware?

FY: A beautiful inlaid three-wood ice crushing mallet made by CME Handworks that I have at home. Actually, it’s a furniture wood carving mallet and they were surprised and amused by my application. I also bought one for Ryan Lotz when he was at Lineage for I felt that he deserved better than the camping mallet he was using to crush ice at the time. At work, I have access to crushed ice from our Kold-Draft machine, so the mallet stays at home.

MC: Most annoying customer behavior?

FY: Impatience, feelings of entitlement, and lack of sense of humor when things get busy. If guests want a more perfect experience, they should go on the off hours and slower nights. Then again, that suggestion would fall on deaf ears to those types.

MC: Every bartender has a collection of Fiasco Moments, e.g., the tray of glasses smashed into the ice bin, the flyaway tin that resulted in a guest wearing a shakerful of cocktails, the strangers you introduced at your bar that ended up in a murder/suicide, your proud original creation that customers hated, etc. What’s a particularly egregious / entertaining one of yours?

FY: So far there has been little that has gone too wrong bartending-wise save for a few customers who have gotten a little splash of water from our glass washer or other minor mishaps. Therefore, I’d have to say go with not refusing service to disruptive customers. There was one guest who kept harassing customers more so with each return to the bar during the day, and had to be ejected after the third return. Or the two townie drunks who made such a mess of the place. Besides sucking up a lot of my time, it can make the other guests rather uncomfortable to the point that they transfer from the bar to the table or leave the establishment completely.  I am getting better at dealing with these characters but it is sometimes difficult to switch from a hospitality mode to a more authoritarian state. And this discomfort to guests is probably far -worse than splashing a customer or spilling some drinks.

MC: What’s the best day of the week and time of day for a customer to engage you in a leisurely, educational five-minute conversation about drinks?

FY: Lately, I work mostly day shifts during the week that only can get busy during the lunch burst and the pre-dinner rush. Still, I can generally find time to talk to guests at length save for some Fridays, holidays, and brunch shifts, especially if they are fine with interruptions as I attend to drink tickets and other guests.

MC: You may have seen this New York Times article on the in-house lingo of certain NYC bars. What’s one of your house’s code words/phrases for intra-staff communication in front of customers?

FY: Yes, we have them, but they are usually tied to a bartender’s, bar back’s, or regular’s name (making it into a verb), so no I don’t feel at ease mentioning them.

MC: What’s your typical end-of-shift drink?

FY: When I have worked nights, it has been Fernet Branca and/or a shift beer from our bottle and cans collection. During the day, my shift drinks have to be done elsewhere. Often, I just wait until I get home, but on a bad day, it’s often stopping in somewhere close by or on the way home for a beer unless I can think of an out of the way place that has a new cocktail on their menu to check out for the blog.

MC: Do you have a guilty-pleasure drink, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want your peers or customers to catch you drinking?

FY: Not sure I have guilty pleasures like that save for drinking High Lifes although I do that without shame. And when lowbrow things like Fireball or blackberry brandy shots are consumed, I am often with my peers. I do remember when Josh Childs interviewed me for Boston.com after Drink & Tell: A Boston Cocktail Book came out, he forced the question and I answered a Rusty Nail, although that’s a legitimate enough drink that I am not embarrassed about consuming.

MC: What are a couple of dives you favor on your own time?

FY: Last dive I went to was Paddy’s Lunch for one of the Russell House Tavern bartenders does a few shifts there. But that falls into the realm of why I go out drinking which includes being in front of a specific bartender.  Luke O’Neil included Charlie’s Kitchen in his dive bar book [Boston's Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in Beantown], so I’ll add that, but I generally go there with co-workers instead of choosing it on my own.

MC: Dr. Bartender, what’s the best cure for my hangover?

FY: For settling the stomach, ginger beer or Angostura bitters works well, as does dried candied ginger. For the headache, Advil and coffee will be your friend. Getting fluids is key, but water alone will not provide the lost electrolytes. I am a fan of toughing it out, but if the malaise cannot be shaken by mid-afternoon, sometimes a single drink can even things out.

MC: Most ridiculous / overhyped / bullshit trend?

FY: I deleted my response – I don’t want to speak negatively about anyone’s bar program or things they include in their bar program, at least publicly.

MC: As a bar customer yourself, what’s one aspect of Boston’s bars that you wish more operators would do a better job of?

FY: Turning over bar menus. It has become rather common at many establishments that cocktail menus stay static for great lengths of time indicating a lack of focus on the program.

MC: What’s the most ridiculous thing a Yelper (or other amateur reviewer) has ever said about you or the place you work?

FY: I have only made it into one Yelp review; it was more praising the brunch food and it happened to mention that the bartender was great. Between the food order and the party size, I was able to deduce it to the crew of eight who showed up to my ten seat bar on New Year’s Day a few minutes before open.

MC: What bartender or bar manager, currently working or retired, is your first-ballot lock for entry into Boston’s Bartending Hall of Fame?

FY: John Gertsen for having a vision and enacting on it to elevate Boston’s stature in the cocktail world, and Josh Childs for showing that keeping it simple and focusing on warmth and hospitality is just as important as what is in the glass if not more so.

MC: Offer a sentence or two of advice to aspiring bartenders.

FY: Two sayings that stick in my head are Sam Treadway’s “Bartending is about watering down spirits and babysitting adults” and John Gertsen’s “If you know where everything lives and know how to smile, you’ll be a great bartender.” Both of those sayings remove the ego-driven ideals that plague a lot of bartenders, for a great bartender is one that makes the guests feel special and not one that reinforces the idea that the bartender is the star. And lastly, always keep learning. Read, taste, discuss. And know when guests just want a drink instead of even a hint of pleasantries much less a lecture.

MC: Say a few words about your most influential bartending mentor.

FY: I would be remiss if I did not name Sam Gabrielli who helped shape me from a restaurant industry newbie into a bartender. I am also thankful for fellow bartender Adam Hockman; when I have complained about certain situations, instead of just giving me a “that sucks” reply, he offers solid advice gathered from his years of experience behind the stick.

MC: What’s the most surprisingly useful life skill that bartending has taught you?

FY: Always be closing. Bartending is a job that relies on salesmanship, and less about glorified ideals.  Success at previous jobs meant completing projects by a deadline, but that was not tied to my salary which was pretty much fixed. One of the bar backs agreed that learning to close is an important life skill, whether for money or for romance, that should be learned as early in life as possible. Indeed, the movie GlengarryGlen Ross has taught me that coffee’s for closers.