The Musician Mixologist: Kevin Denton

Bar director & musician Kevin Denton's cocktails go beyond the ingredients to explore the moments that form them

Published September 26, 2013 4:01AM (EDT)

This is the eighth and final installment in a new series called Keepers of Curiosity, featuring interviews with intrepid performers, artists, writers and culinary-minded individuals with a thirst for discovery and innovation. The series is brought to you by Hendrick's Gin. To read the other interviews in this series, click here.

What do you do?
As I see it, my calling in life is as an entertainer, a creator of things delicious, and a rabble-rouser. My primary occupation is bar director for chef Wylie Dufresne’s restaurants WD~50 and Alder. That said, I am also a guitarist and singer in the country/blues/bluegrass group The Crooners. We are the house band for the New York restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, among other things.

How would you describe your work?
My work as bar director officially includes: creation of cocktails that are on par with the food at these acclaimed restaurants; curating a diverse and unique selection of beverages; and educating and training the staff at both restaurants. The work environment is highly creative, intensely collaborative, and has a time-tested track record for innovation. I also get to pick the music that is part of the guest experience, which satisfies my desire to help create the right vibe for these places.

When are you most inquisitive?
There isn’t a particular moment when I am most inquisitive because I feel like my mindset is to be constantly questioning, asking “Why?” and “How?” about everything. That seems to be true of most creative people, though. I expose myself to a number of different inputs, things I watch, listen to, ingest. I’m brave—and dumb—enough to try everything.

In terms of my profession, I think there is tremendous value in learning about the food and drink of other cultures because of its universality; it’s a great starting point for conversation. Trying to understand that basic need and how it is translated through geography. The way culture intermingles it, is imminently fascinating. It’s also the easiest way to mine new ingredients and techniques. So in that regard, I always ask the people I meet what they eat and drink back home, no matter where home may be.

What drives your curiosity? Downtime usually—and natural competitiveness.

How do you keeping things curious? Living in New York, you are surrounded by people that are intelligent, talented, connected, scrappy, and wealthy. I feel that I have to work pretty hard to keep up. My desire is that our restaurant is on the cutting-edge—globally—therefore, my curiosity is somewhat prodded by the accomplishments of others. If I were back home in Kansas on our family farm, I would probably be curious about how to make tomatoes tastier, or how to scare birds away from grapevines. As a musician, I want the songs I write to veer off in their own direction, to satisfy my aural curiosity. I guess just living in this big crazy world keeps me curious.

What’s your next project? The band needs to do another record. I want to create a drink that will become as pervasive as the margarita or daiquiri. I’d also like to go to Japan. I have a lot of next projects.

Where do you mine inspiration? Everywhere. Music, books, stores, talking to people, the Internet, old folks, kids, drunk people, movies, National Geographic. If I could be doing anything right now I would just be walking around aimlessly. That’s when I get things done.

It is a fascinating thing: people have been creating things for thousands of years. Seldom do we stop to consider the life spans of our predecessors, even though we owe it all to them. Their curiosity slowly evolved into the world we live in. If ever I feel like I created something “new,” if I look hard enough I see that someone else has probably already done it—and they probably did it better. Humbling, yes, but it keeps the motor running.

Is your work for now or later?
My intention is always for things to be right now, but I am a lifelong procrastinator.

What curiosity does your work satisfy?
I think people are fascinating—in the best and worst ways. After work, when their guard is down, after they’ve had a few, I observe the heartbreaks, the successes, the buffoonery, the selfishness, and the generosity of strangers and friends. It’s my time to be an amateur Oliver Sacks. The core of my job is being a conduit for the wants of others. Mining for those “wants” is certainly part of the fun. Observing the human condition, or at least a fairly specific slice of the human condition, keeps me entertained and engaged.

The other side of the gig is the actual creation of cocktails. In the past few years much more relevance has been placed on craft cocktails and as a result the field is chock-a-block with outstanding talent. Cooking is my favorite thing in the world. I love learning how to make new dishes, how to perfect technique, and how to include esoteric ingredients. Translating my culinary interest into beverage has allowed me to do what I love most in an environment where I also get to entertain people. I get to be a bigger part of their experience than if I was stuck back in a kitchen. It’s having my cake and drinking it, too.

Click here for more about Kevin Denton's adventures at Alder and with The Crooners.

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