Amanda Blair

A Bartender Comes in From the Cold

For Amanda Blair, the transition from Wisconsin to Florida was more than a change in climate from snow days to beach days. It was a lifestyle change from a beer to a craft cocktail culture.

Blair, originally from Kenosha, a city on the shore of Lake Michigan, relocated to South Florida seven years ago, spring-boarding the fast-food restaurant experience she acquired as a teenager into a career in hospitality. “I wanted to get out of the cold and try something new,” she recalls.

Today, the 28-year-old manages and tends bar at Tacocraft Taqueria & Tequila in the Fort Lauderdale neighborhood of Victoria Park. Tacocraft specializes in modern Mexican cuisine and operates a collection of restaurants in the South Florida region. “I love the fast pace of bartending and the chance to create cocktails that are personalized to each guest,” she says.

Blair gained her first experience behind the bar at the Westin on Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort at the property’s pool deck rum bar, Waves Bar & Grill. Her eventual move to Tacocraft “really expanded my knowledge of tequila and craft cocktails,” she says. “In the beginning, it was a lot of trial and error figuring out the right proportions, techniques and the mix of ingredients to determine what flavors flow best.” A quick learner, she now helps train the bar staff and creates drink specials. Margaritas are her specialty. “To make a good cocktail, you have to put the time into it.”

The ex-Midwesterner has found her footing in Florida. She says she loves the diversity of her adopted home. “South Florida is a melting pot of people from all over the world, whether it’s my coworkers or the guests. The best part of bartending is getting to know people and having fun while I’m doing it.”

WHY BARFLY MIXOLOGY GEAR

“The first time I ever bartended, I used a Barfly shaker and said, ‘I don’t want to use anything else.’ They’re my go-to shakers. The right tools are so important for proportion, precision and for keeping drinks fresh and cold.”

– Bartender Amanda Blair, Tacocraft Taqueria & Tequila


Israel Diaz

Showcasing the Flavors of Mexico

Israel Diaz is a busy man.

Over the last decade, he’s received awards for his bartending skills, been named a mixologist ambassador, traveled the world promoting his craft, consulted with restauranteurs and lectured at universities. And that’s just for starters.

Diaz, 38, grew up in the Pacific Coast beach destination of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. He studied as a chef but ultimately preferred working the bar to the kitchen where he could interact with customers and enjoy their reactions to his creations.

“Making drinks is my passion,” he says. “When a customer is happy and says, ‘Hey man, you’re doing a great job,’ that for me is the most incredible feeling.”

Diaz managed several bars and restaurants in Puerto Vallarta and then opened his own in 2017, the Alquimista Cocktail Room in the nearby resort town of Nuevo Vallarta while simultaneously running his own catering business. The name—Alquimista—hints at his skills as a kind of alchemist who experiments with spirits, flavorful infusions and imagination to transform his cocktails into sensory experiences. “When you make a cocktail, you have to work with the senses,” says Diaz. “Drinks have to look beautiful. De la vista nace el amor.” It’s an expression that roughly translates to: the heart follows the eye. In other words, you have to first see something to love it. “You also need to use your nose to get all the notes, the aromas,” Diaz continues. “It must have good balance and good flavors. Even the feel of the glass is important. And you have to tell stories about the drinks.”

Diaz’s cocktails are quintessentially and proudly Mexican, made with quality local spirits like tequila, mezcal and Mexican-made whiskeys and lots of native fruits and herbs–lychees, pears, mangos, spicy peppers, and hibiscus. “The flavors of Mexico,” says Diaz. He’s helped to boost his country’s profile by representing Mexico in gastronomy events in London, Paris, Spain, South America, the United States and Canada. And while one might wonder how he has the time; Diaz has also been a featured mixologist on the Mexican edition of the popular TV series MasterChef. He described the opportunity as life changing. Mexican chefs have had long been celebrated on TV but mixologists never enjoyed the spotlight. “Never, never, never,” he says. With his appearance, the public learned what it takes to be a skilled bartender and the whole profession started to gain a new level of respect. “For that I feel bendecido,” he says. “I feel blessed.”

WHY BARFLY MIXOLOGY GEAR

“A quality cocktail made by a quality mixologist requires quality bar tools. Together they form a social glue that adds a level of engaging professionalism and comfortable hospitality to the experience.”

– Israel Diaz, owner of Alquimista Cocktail Room in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico


Mixologist Matt Levy

Out of the Shadows

Some things seem meant to be. Like the side hustle Matt Levy dreamed up of opening a speakeasy-style lounge in his home called the Covert Cocktail Club. The address? Covert Street.

For five years, until the pandemic forced the mixology enthusiast to pivot in 2020, Levy and his now ex-wife welcomed strangers into their two-story house in Bushwick, Brooklyn, for a hush-hush cocktail experience.

“Hospitality is about sharing your passion and sharing your knowledge with people who are interested in the things that you do,” he says.

Levy describes himself as a cocktail nerd. “I’ve never worked a day in a bar in my life. I kind of fell down the craft cocktail rabbit hole about 15 years ago because making craft cocktails at home was a perfect Venn diagram of all of the things that I’m into.” He’s a full-time New York City tour guide and a one-time performance artist, careers that are all about hospitality, showmanship and engaging with strangers — just like bartending.

While Levy had been crafting cocktails for friends and family, “I never really had any notion of taking it semi-professional. I just figured it was a fun side hobby,” he recalls. “Then one day I got this idea: If I’m good at this — and I am good at this — I should do this for strangers and invite them into my home.” And so the whisper business was born.

He says he’s a “perfect example of taking your passion and turning it into a profession.”
A typical evening kicked off at 9 when an intimate group of strangers would show up for the semi-private cocktail experience, having learned about it through word of mouth or Levy’s Instagram. It was a kind of social experiment. Levy loved the connections made among strangers, how they came together and opened up about their lives. “What surprised me was how passionate people were and how engaged they were,” he says. After a few months, the media got wind of it. Punch Magazine and The New York Times ran stories about the club and Levy’s kitchen island was suddenly booked solid for over a year.

Covid forced Levy to close his doors to the public, but he carries on the role of cocktail evangelist. In the fall of 2020, Levy transitioned the business to an online model, the Virtual Covert Cocktail Club Experience. It’s targeted to consumers and corporate clients. And he’s taken the act on the road with a venture called Have Shaker, Will Travel, in which Levy brings his mobile bar to homes, offices and event spaces. Still, he hasn’t given up on the idea of reviving his original Covert Club. Some things will be different. For one thing, Levy no longer lives in the home on aptly named Covert Street. But wherever it is, Levy’s unsanctioned space will undoubtedly still be a craft cocktail sanctuary.

WHY BARFLY MIXOLOGY GEAR

“A quality cocktail made by a quality mixologist requires quality bar tools. Together they form a social glue that adds a level of engaging professionalism and comfortable hospitality to the experience.”

– Mixologist Matt Levy, Covert Cocktail Club


Mixologist Chris Bidmead

The “Mechanic” of the Spirits Industry

Chris Bidmead recalls the evening years ago when he walked into a Manhattan lounge and “fell in love with the fact that I had no idea what I was drinking.”

Bidmead was no stranger to the bar scene. He had tended bar in his hometown in New York’s Hudson Valley, a community that had “more bars than people,” and where most spots served cocktails “that tasted like candy bars.” For Bidmead, “slinging drinks” was a chance to make money until he landed a real job. But when he found himself in the Manhattan lounge, tasting flavors he never knew existed, it “blew my mind,” he says. Bartending not only turned into Bidmead’s real job but into an all-encompassing career, taking him from mixologist to mentor to what he calls a mechanic of the spirits world—someone who builds better bars.

Bidmead, now based in Brooklyn, would go on to work in other facets of the business, including experiential campaigns for clients in the spirits industry. It opened his eyes to the global nature of the business and the sense of community behind it. He loved the camaraderie.

While Bidmead was taking advantage of opportunities, he was also creating opportunities of his own. He noticed bars were opening quickly in some markets, but they lacked the trained staff to run them efficiently. “You had people who would go in, open the bar, get it on its feet and then move on to the next project,” he says. “I was wondering where the mentorship was and who would teach the person behind them.”

The realization became the foundation of Bidmead’s venture, Bar Method, a bartender masterclass program he launched in 2016. Bar Method took a culinary approach, emphasizing the why behind every technique. “It’s like cooking. If you understand why you’re using a particular technique, you can better apply it,” he says. The program featured seminars by professionals at the top of their game and attracted people actively perusing growth in the craft from all over the country. Bidmead is now exploring an online version of Bar Method.

Although championing the next generation of bartenders, bar managers and beverage directors continues to be a priority, Bidmead embraces the role of “mechanic” as much as a mentor. “I’m very systems-driven. When I get involved in a new project or the opening of a bar, I figure out how to systemize as much as we can so that it’s rinse-repeat, and we’re not trying to solve the same problems over and over again. The goal is to create a bar like a machine. Let’s put all the pieces together, so everything works perfectly.”

WHY BARFLY MIXOLOGY GEAR

When you use good equipment, it makes things more efficient. It makes things more repeatable. When your tools work with you rather than against you, everything is easier. I think it also gives you a chance to feel good about what you’re doing. Making a drink is so much about the vibe and the atmosphere and the experience. Having the equipment to match changes ther game.

– Mixologist Chris Bidmead, CEO Bar Method


Mixologist Dan LoDrago

Crafting an Experience

A chance meeting at a party changed everything for New Jersey mixologist Dan LoDrago.

At the time, LoDrago was bartending at a chain restaurant better known for its meatballs than martinis. “I thought there was nothing else I could learn, that I was already at the pinnacle of bartending,” says the 23-year-old.

But a conversation at a party with a bartender who worked at a popular restaurant and lounge led LoDrago to an opportunity–and an epiphany. He was offered the chance to barback at the establishment, the Montclair Social Club, known for its craft cocktail culture. It only took one shift for him to realize, “I didn’t know a single thing about anything.”

Instead of feeling discouraged, he was energized.

LoDrago worked his way up to head bartender, stepping into a rock star role behind the bar. He learned how to deal with people, intuit what they need and give it to them. “I learned why certain people came for this and other people came for that,” he says. “For instance, if someone didn’t want to talk but wanted an old fashioned, I’d make them a really, really good old fashioned and leave them alone. And as far as they were concerned, they just had one of the best bar experiences of their lives.”

These days, LoDrago is head bartender at Cellar 335 in Jersey City, NJ.
A bit of bottle-throwing, shaker-flipping flair is part of his routine. And while the spotlight might be on LoDrago, his focus is always on his guests. His favorite moments? “When I’m able to stand in front of a guest and ask, ‘Do you want light and refreshing? Or boozy and straight-forward? What kind of day are you having?’” Hospitality is a collaborative process. And for LoDrago, it’s a transformative one.

“When I found bartending, I was able to step out of my shell,” he says. “Outside of the bar, I’m a little more withdrawn, not so talkative. But when I step behind the bar, it’s a different mentality. I’m almost an entirely different person. More fun, happier. Everyone wants to see you and you want to see everyone.”

WHY BARFLY MIXOLOGY GEAR

When your bar is three deep and you’re in the weeds, you need sturdy and reliable bar gear to help you get through it. Every trade relies on the right tools. Having gear that’s going to get me through years of service is mos important.

– Mixologist Dan LoDrago


Mixologist Douglas Monroe

Good Vibes Only

What motivates Las Vegas star mixologist Douglas Monroe behind the bar is what awaits him at home: his wife, Mykia, and their three children. “Everything I do is for the betterment of my family,” says Monroe, and the driving force that always keeps him “pushing for more.”

That drive has propelled the 31-year-old on an unexpected career trajectory. And, ultimately, a fortuitous one.

Monroe started out in accounting and moved into a warehouse procurement role before finding himself on the receiving end of a layoff in 2014. That very same day, however, Monroe was offered a bartending job. And not just at any bar, but at Bound, the swanky cocktail lounge at The Cromwell Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.

What did he know about bartending? “Nothing,” Monroe admits. That changed in a flash. Working under his mentor, the renowned cocktail “maestro” Salvatore Calabrese, Monroe learned it wasn’t about slinging drinks. “Bound was the best thing to happen to me. It taught me everything; the steps of service, how to treat guests, how to care for the bar and how to craft cocktails.”

Monroe was smitten with the artistry of it all. “The first drink that intrigued me about bartending was an old fashioned. It was cooking and art put together. I call it art in a glass.”

Three years later, Monroe found himself auditioning for bartender at the Cosmopolitan casino-resort. He nailed it. Working under another star of the Vegas strip, then-property mixologist Mariena Mercer Boarini, Monroe upped his game. He became faster, more efficient, and more innovative.

These days, Monroe is the High Limit bartender at Crockfords at the new Resorts World Las Vegas, which had its splashy opening in June. And though it’s been years since Monroe perfected his first old fashioned, he’s still guided by the same principles he learned under Calabrese’s tutelage. A good bartender sets the stage and then recedes into the background. “It’s not about you,” Monroe says, “The guest is the star, and our job is to make them feel better. Good vibes only.”

WHY BARFLY MIXOLOGY GEAR

“The right tools get the job done. They’re incredibly important. It’s no different than a chef using the proper cutlery. Whether it’s a fine strainer or shaking tools, you can’t make a proper cocktail without them. There’s an aesthetic component, too. I especially like Barfly shakers and bitter bottles. They’re not only functional, but they look great on the bar.”

– Mixologist Douglas Monroe


Every Bottle Tells a Story

Not many people can claim the title of tequila goddess. It turned out to be the job that launched the career of Mariena Mercer Boarini who now reigns as mixology royalty on the Las Vegas Strip.

The second-generation Las Vegas native, a rarity in this city, grew up enthralled with the glamour of the Strip, though she was only allowed to visit once a year on her birthday. Everything changed when she was offered a newly created role: tequila goddess. The job would mean traveling to the town of Tequila, Mexico, visiting distilleries and immersing herself in the terroir. “I did what any 21-year-old would do,” recalls Boarini. “I said, ‘Sign me up,’ and got on a plane.”

Becoming a tequila specialist “furthered my love for molecular chemistry and alchemy,” she explains “I just fell in love with the making of cocktails.” Her career trajectory was set.

In time, her home kitchen would come to double as a laboratory where she developed many of her signature techniques such as “champ-feign” foam–a froth that emulates champagne, adds texture to the cocktail and becomes a platform for her edible art garnishes.

“Innovation has always been my jam,” says Boarini.

For a decade, Boarini was the property mixologist at The Cosmopolitan casino-resort. Her show-stopping cocktails won awards and earned her top spots on “best bartender’” lists. In 2015, she entered the International Opihr World Adventure Cocktail Competition in Marrakech, Morocco, vying with bartenders from around the globe. Contestants had two hours to barter for ingredients at the local spice market and then come up with an original cocktail. Her “Classy Lassi” wowed the judges and nabbed her first prize.

Earlier this year, Boarini signed on with Wynn Las Vegas where she is reinventing the cocktail menus of more than two dozen restaurants and lounges at the Wynn and Encore resorts. For Boarini, it’s much more than introducing new cocktails. It’s about creating meaningful guest experiences.

“My style is storytelling,” says Boarini. “That’s one of the reasons I got into cocktails—because every spirit has an amazing story. There’s the cerebral side where I get to figure out the chemistry. Then there’s the part where I get to tell stories through the cocktail, and the bartenders get to tell those stories to guests.”

Photo credit: Eric Jamison

WHY BARFLY MIXOLOGY GEAR

“Having the proper tools is really important. It’s all about precision. Ingredients like juices and spirits have very different viscosities. They pour at different speeds. It’s very important to jigger-pour your measurements, and having these well-designed tools makes it make it easier to be a great bartender and build great cocktails.”

– Mixologist Mariena Mercer Boarini