In this edition of 120 Seconds, we had the pleasure of talking to Aaron Defeo, Phoenix’s Most Inspired Bartender. The resident bartender of Casino Del Sol in Tucson, Defeo has been chosen as as the Phoenix finalist in Bombay Sapphire’s Search for the Most Inspired Bartender. His outstanding cocktail, Eastern Promises, has garnered his success in the Valley and will bring him to Las Vegas in September.
Competing against 52 top mixologists from across the US, the winner will be featured in and on the cover of GQ magazine. We asked him about drinks, life, and how to win in Vegas. Let’s take a look. We’ll keep you posted on how Defeo does in Vegas.
DLT: What was your inspiration behind Eastern Promises?
I really think that gin–in general–benefits from England’s colonial exploits, much to the detriment of the rest of the world. In particular, some of the eastern & middle-eastern flavor influences and notes stand out… cassia, licorice, cubeb (allspice flavor), and, of course, Coriander, from Morocco. Thai basil, one of the key ingredients in Eastern Promises, is a distinctly Eastern ingredient. It meshes very well with the rest of the notes, especially the licorice botanical, which lends a subtle, basil-like anise to the gin. I also used Ramazzotti Amaro, which not only goes well with the pineapple in the drink, but also carries that anise note. Of course, the pineapple syrup is also made from Chai tea, which evokes so many Eastern flavors (many of which are also found Bombay).
What is your favorite thing about being bartender?
I think I was born to host parties. I really do. Unfortunately, you can’t host parties every night without a job, and bartending is the closest thing to being a host. You are directly in control of people’s enjoyment of nightlife, and it’s a daunting task at times… but ultimately, more rewarding than any other profession i’ve tried.
Without question, the 20th century cocktail. Gin, lillet blanc, fresh lemon, and creme de cacao. One of the weirdest and most sublime cocktails I’ve every had. It’s even better with Bombay Sapphire.
What is an easy, delicious cocktail to make for that special someone?
I’ve found that a simple cocktail of a white spirit (vodka, gin, rum, tequila) with fresh berry sour and champagne is almost always a winner, especially with a romantic interest. There’s an innate sexiness to champagne or sparkling wine that always seems to do the trick.
What do you look forward to most about heading to Vegas in September?
Any chance I have to compete against the best bartenders in the country not only makes me a better bartender, but it’s also fun. I have a competitive streak in me that most people don’t necessarily see, but it’s there. Who wouldn’t want to be on the cover of GQ?
Do you have any tricks up your sleeve to help you win?
I think that I probably make as good a culinary foam as any bartender in the country, and any time i’ve employed it in a cocktail, I’ve won. That being said, I think I’m kind of a darkhorse in this event, and people might not take me seriously until it is too late.
Craziest experience while working at a bar?
I worked at a hotel bar where we once had to remove a Elderly man from the premises who was dressed exactly like a baby: diaper, pacifier, and all. That ranks as one of the weirder moments.
In a perfect world, how should patrons act towards their bartender?
People should always tip, and tip well, but they should also get their money’s worth. Patrons should display a certain reverance towards their bartender, but in exchange the bartender should bend over backwards to make it a memorable night, every time.
Favorite alcohol to work with?
Tequila, followed by gin. They are very interchangable in my mind, since I like to work with fresh herbs quite often, and the both have such amazing herbal profiles. I like highland tequilas in particular. When it comes to gin, however, few gins mix as well as Bombay in a wide variety of cocktails.
Least favorite drink/drinks to make?
I really don’t like Bloody Marys because of the consistency of the tomato juice… it just gets everywhere. But that’s a pretty cliche drink to hate. Honestly, I also think that the “Manhattan” style of cocktail that is so popular (stirred, mostly alcohol, with no softening qualities) is highly overrated. The cocktail community at large is so obsessed with all things Rye & overproof that they sometimes forget that drinking should be fun.
For those of you who want to know how he won the Phoenix title, here is is recipe.
1.5 oz Bombay Sapphire
.75 oz chai tea pineapple syrup
.75 oz fresh lime juice
.5 oz Ramazzotti amaro
1-2 oz thai basil foam
Combine gin, syrup, lime and amaro over ice and shake hard. Double-strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Top evenly with thai basil foam. Garnish with small thai basil flower.