Proof + Pantry's Michael Martensen Is Battling the "Pretentious Asshole Bartender" (Interview)
It's Drinking Week at City of Ate, which means even more stories than usual about our favorite pastime. Check back for more stories about craft beer, killer bartenders and more.
via Twitter Michael Martensen opens Proof + Pantry today.
Even though it's been a relatively enduring trend in bars across the country for nearly a decade, Dallas has only recently caught on to the appeal of cocktails that are much more complex in both flavor and preparation than your average vodka cranberry. Fortunately for mixologists in our fair city, the trend has caught on like wildfire.
Which should be credited in large part to Michael Martensen, the expert mixologist who is opening up his very first concept, Proof + Pantry, today in One Arts Plaza. You'll probably remember Martensen from his stints mixing up some of the city's best libations at Cedars Social and The Mansion at Turtle Creek, but now he's struck out on his own to intensify his focus on making creative and high-quality cocktails. One day before his restaurant was scheduled to open, I sat down with a surprisingly calm Martensen to talk about the history of the craft cocktail trend, what boozers in Dallas like to drink, and what we can expect from his highly-focused cocktail menu at Proof + Pantry.
When did you first start to notice a renewed interest in craft cocktails?
I wasn't in Dallas when it happened. I was on Nantucket Island working at a hotel bar. There, we had a cocktail list. We made fresh juices every day. We were doing it right then, and you could just see in people's faces that they were so excited to have something that wasn't an appletini or a processed sour mix cocktail. That would have been ten years ago, and really, in Dallas, this thing really didn't get started until seven years ago. I was doing fresh juice cocktails at the Mansion in 2007, so there was a little blip there. Then Victor Tangos and Cedars Social opened, and it's just kind of snowballed into what we see today.
Do you think people are really excited to finally have a drink that's worth a damn thanks to the craft cocktails movement?
In a relatively young market, we do see a lot of people who have never had a well-mixed cocktail made for them. Once you have them, you've got 'em for life. What does happen though, is that you're trying to make these cocktails that are so complicated, and you've got to do it quickly.
But you also can't be an asshole. You're in the hospitality business, you've got to stay humble. Dallas had the asshole thing going on for a while, and it still does to some extent, because it's still pretty young here. You get these fucking pretentious mustachioed guys who think they're so much better at making cocktails, and you have a bad experience. But I think we're finally starting to battle the asshole bartender. At the Prairie Cocktail Conference, they were all about "death to the asshole bartender." Everyone wants to get back to being hospitable and taking care of people. Hopefully that trend makes its way here pretty quick.
Was it easier or harder than you thought to convince people to try "weird" stuff, like say, egg whites in their cocktails?
No, it's pretty easy, actually. I always ask people if they like meringue, and once they think of it like that, it's a lot easier. We're whipping it just like a chef would, just using a shaker instead of a whisk. There really hasn't been anything that people have just flat-out said no to, but you always have to feel out your guest. You don't want to force a drink that they don't want on them, but you can give them something that's going to be really good based on what they like.
After being behind various bars in Dallas since 2007, I'm interested to know your thoughts on what Dallas drinkers are really interested in when they belly up?
It's really an open crowd. Between the suburbs and Fort Worth, there are six million people in the area. How many of them truly go out to cocktail bars? I'm going to say maximum, 10 percent, and I think that's pretty generous. There are gateway drinks for people. The Moscow mule is probably the biggest gateway drink, I think. People already drink vodka, and you just step it up a little with some ginger beer and mint. Once they try it, they're smitten. So it's open game, honestly. If a bartender is nice, the cocktail is going to taste a lot better than if the bartender was a complete asshole. I can go into a place and have a subpar gin and tonic, and if I like the bartender, I'll probably go back in there?
On the other side of that, the Dallas drinker also needs to understand the establishment they're drinking at. I'm not going to walk into, say, the old Slip Inn, and ask those guys for an old fashioned. Why would you do that? I'm going to go in there and ask for a Miller High Life and a shot. That makes sense. It's kind of a learning curve on both sides, and I think Dallas is really in the middle of that. Restaurants and bars here want to be there for everybody, too. They'd rather have 20 sub-par drinks because they know that people are going to order them instead of focusing on giving people ten really badass drinks. That's a Dallas restaurant thing that's fucked up. I don't understand it. The cocktail menu here is 14 items. That's all we're going to do, and they're going to be badass. Can we make you something that isn't on the menu? Of course we can, and it's going to be badass too. But we want everyone to understand that we're focusing on our own thing.
What constitutes a subpar gin and tonic? I think most of the ones I've had in my life were probably sub-par.
Probably. Tonic from a gun behind the bar isn't very good. It's too syrupy or not bubbly enough. That's a common gin and tonic. The Dallas gin and tonic, in fact, is a subpar gin and tonic. If you go into a bar that's actually serving tonic from a bottle, you're already going to have a drink that's thirty times better than what you're used to.
Is there one spirit that you think is more popular than others? Is Dallas a vodka city, or maybe a whiskey town?
I've actually talked to a lot of distributors about that. While I was bartending at first, I was working a marketing job. That's made me always interested in what people are drinking because if you know, then you're going to be successful. When I did that job for three years or so, I would know exactly what was going on. Dallas is still very much a vodka city, like 38% of people here are vodka drinkers. Second is tequila, and it's not far behind vodka. Does that have something to do with all the shitty margaritas that Tex-Mex restaurants are serving? Probably. Whiskey falls in right after that, with Crown Royal being the number one whiskey in all of Texas.
Do you think that people really give a shit about the difference between a really ultra-premium, craft spirit and some shit that they can order out of a well for $3?
Yes and no. There's a reason that some people buy expensive cars and others who don't. It's the same game. Do most of your drinkers know that you're serving them a well spirit compared to a call or premium spirit? No, no they don't. They have no clue. And that's across the board. It has nothing to do with mixers, especially with neutral grain spirits. The definition of vodka is that it should be tasteless, odorless, and clear. If you're a vodka that's not hitting all of those marks, you should probably stop making vodka.
In your experience, do diners think that craft cocktails are worth their occasionally steep price tags?
Sure. Unless you're drinking totally out of the well at a dive bar, no matter where you go, you're going to spend at least $7 a drink. So if you want a cocktail that's mixed properly, you're willing to pay a little more. It's like the difference between ordering crappy chicken tenders at a bar and then deciding that you want roast chicken instead. Of course that's going to cost more.
I don't think there's a miscommunication at all between bartenders and patrons when it comes to price. Half of the game is the experience, and that's what people pay for. If your bartender is doing this lame shake, that fucking sucks. Who wants to go to that guy? If the bartender is being really interactive and making everybody have a good time, you're going to love your experience.