This is the Barkeepers, a feature in which Eater meets the fine ladies and gentlemen behind the bar at some of the world's hottest cocktail parlors.
[Photos: Katie Chudy/Eater]
Hospitality is in bartender Kevin Mabry's blood. Mabry — who has worked at spots like Bobby Flay's Bar Americain in Connecticut, downtown Boston destination jm Curley, and currently manages the bar at jm Curley's three-month-old sister restaurant Merrill & Co. — has fond memories of growing up in his parents' bar in Watertown, Connecticut, where he'd help clean on the weekends. The elder Mabrys are no longer the day-to-day operators of Ordinary Joes, but their son can identify how much he learned from his days sweeping up. "They instilled quite a work ethic in me," he says. "My mom is the most hospitable person that I know. She is just selfless... She has a heart of gold and I translate that into my style of service every night."
Mabry still heads back to Ordinary Joes each Thanksgiving "at 6a.m. help cook eggs and put together Bloody Marys for everyone," he says. "It's that sense of community that keeps me going back year after year. I have a big smile on my face right now because that's the thing I cherish about the bar community: Those memories and [how the bar] brings everyone together." Mabry chatted with Eater just as he was compiling a bar book for Merrill, "something I have been trying to do my entire career." Here, he reflects on maintaining law and order, his newish love of sherry, and why affectively banning douchebags puts the staff on their toes.
How did you first get into bartending?
Bartending is something I always had an infatuation with. I grew up in sports bars, and I was able to see the liquor inventory, the liquor and all of these bottles were fascinating to me. It wasn't so much what the effect [of liquor] was, it was the fact that people came together around this community at the bar: The bartenders had 10 different things going on, but were always able to make a personalized experience with someone, carry a conversation. That is the most important part of bartending to me. Those experiences captivated me when I was young.
Were your parents, being bar owners, supportive when they found out you also wanted to go into the industry?
They always taught me that anything worth doing is worth doing right.
Yes. My parents instilled a really great work ethic in me. They always taught me that anything worth doing is worth doing right, and to always be the best representation of what you're doing at any given moment and the best representation of yourself. They were really supportive of me. I think at first they were confused by it. They were like, "Well, you were going to go to med school, and now you want to bartend?" So that was a little bit of a sticker shock, especially after all the student loans I took out and everything. [Laughs] They see how happy I am now, how hard I work, and the progress being made with my career moving forward, and I think they're really proud of me. I have them to thank for it.
How did you first link up with the group behind jm Curley?
One of my regulars at Bar Americain was Andy Cartin, who is the owner/proprietor of jm Curley. We always clicked, we've always had a really good rapport. [And one day he says] "I'm opening up this spot in Boston and so I drove back down here tonight to talk to you about it." From that moment on we just started emailing, texting, and I started visits up to Boston. He formally offered me the job soon after that and we just started moving forward. I moved up here in June of 2011 and I oversaw the whole project management side of things, and was able to get really good experience in that regard.
When jm Curley first opened, there was a lot of fuss made about a sign up at the bar, which basically banned "douchebags." Obviously it was tongue in cheek, but was that based off a personal experience, or a worry about the neighborhood?
No, it wasn't the neighborhood. We always joke that we wanted to open up a neighborhood bar in downtown Boston but there's no neighborhood down there. Downtown Boston's really going through this renaissance, and we just wanted to be a part of it. But we all got together, and Andy was really adamant about having this law-and-order — rules of our establishment. It wasn't a reverential thing, it was very tongue in cheek. It was more like us sitting around the table and having a conversation: "We've all seen so much. Let's put something on paper that says to people, 'We're people too, and at the end of the day we're going to take care of you, but just remember to [expect it] with a lot of humility and make sure that you're not the end all be all.'"
If we're going to say "Don't be a douchebag," we can't be douchebags, either.
And we got an industry following from putting our necks on the line a little bit, with the irreverent nature and the context of it. I think people really understood it and it was a breath of fresh air for people. The guests walking in may not like some of it, but they laugh about it. They're like: "Okay, these people are really down to earth and they get it." At the end of the day, if we're going to say "Don't be a douchebag" on our menu, we can't be douchebags, either. If anything, we have be on our toes giving 100% more, making sure that we are offering top-notch hospitality across the board and not being lackadaisical. Because it's on our wall and it's all over the restaurant and it's on the back of our menus, we have to stand by it.
That said, do you have an example of someone not getting it, or having to throw someone out of the bar?
There's no guidebook for throwing someone out of a bar. There really is no way that you can do it the same way every time. I observe and make sure I go about it very respectfully and I'm not insulting anyone. I think sometimes — because we have that law and order bit — people are a little like, "Okay, I really can't fuck up here. I don't want to mess this up." Sometimes if someone's doing something, I'll take a highlighter or a pen and I'll circle it on law and order on our menu and I'll just kind of slide it to them on the bar top. They're like, "Oh shit, okay." So in their head they're like, "I can shape up a little bit or I'm going to get tossed."
To change gears: How do you conceptualize new drinks?
I get inspired by new ingredients. I get inspired by the seasons. I like to be able to work with produce. I like being able to work with different fruits and extracts and different ground spices and things of that nature. It's really where I try to find flavor profiles. [...] Whatever new product's coming out, those are the ones that I'm really trying to work with, see how they work, and then get behind it. [I like] a lot of things that have more story behind them: Cocktails, a specific product, something that's close to home that I can share with someone. I'll take the bottle off the back bar and then I'm able to talk to [the guest] about this product. You gain their attention by showing them something that's new, and gain their trust by making them something that's unique, something that they really enjoy. I really like working with spirits I truly believe in and can share the story with people.
Do you think that sort of educational element is something that's key to your job?
I don't take myself very seriously, but I take my craft very seriously.
Every day I'm telling someone, "Hey check this out." I really try to not push the education: I don't want for them to come in and feel like it's work. But I do, every day, talk to people like, "Check this beer out. The brewing method on it is this and it's got this flavor profile." Moving education forward with the consumer is big in our trade. Bartending has been for years — it's not so much anymore — but it was a laughing stock of the service industry. Nowadays, this is my profession; this is my craft. I take it very seriously. I don't take myself very seriously, but I take my craft very seriously. In order to do that and say that, I'm constantly picking up books and educating myself new trends, and also the history.
With that in mind, what was it like compiling the sherry menu for Merrill? Was sherry something that you were already familiar with?
I've had a love affair with sherry for about two years now. What captivated me about it was how unique it is, and then I really started trying to understand it because there's so much mystique about sherry. At the end of the day, you have to treat it like wine, like a white wine: You have to treat it in that same vein and drink it in that same vein in order to appreciate it and to pull out those nuances.
Compiling the sherry menu at Merrill was a real challenge quite honestly because there's not much sherry being distributed up here in Massachusetts. It was talking to the distributors around here, saying, "Hey, you got any sherry?" and they're like, "Uh, what, like, to cook with?" It was kind of a learning curve for them, too.
And finally, what's your must-have bartender tool?
Not enough bartenders shake hands anymore.
I think it's eye contact and a genuine smile when someone first walks in the door: It's that disarming kind of charm when someone first walks in the door. You make eye contact and you smile and then they put their guard down a little bit. Not enough bartenders shake hands anymore. Honestly, when someone sits down and I put my hand across the bar and I go, "Hey how are you? My name's Kevin. How you doing today?" really genuinely, a handshake goes a long way.
This little idea of a handshake across the bar, that's one thing that I try to stress to my bartenders at jm Curly and at Merrill: eye contact, say hello when they first walk in the door, [offer] a nice smile and a firm handshake. It says a lot about your character and the character of the establishment.