Going 10 Rounds with Top Bartender Matt Belanger
The head bartender at the new Death & Co Los Angeles, tackles our speed round of questions.
What do you like to drink after a shift? “I’m a big fan of the classic bartender answer to this question—a short, cold pilsner and a shot of something—but, having worked for so long in bars that always have dry sherry sitting around, I think I’m now more frequently polishing off whatever quarter-full bottle of Manzanilla or Fino has been open for a couple days. Dry sherry is so crisp and delicious, especially after a long shift... I might need some right now.”
What is the all-time best dive bar jukebox song? “The first two jukebox staples that come to mind are “The Boys Are Back in Town” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” If we’re being honest, though, I’m usually looking to inflict my obscure taste on the poor unsuspecting public, so I’m probably going to put on a Fugazi song if they’ve got one or something else really obtrusive.”
After all these years bartending and creating drinks, do you still enjoy going out to bars? “Oh yeah! I mean going to bars in general I love, just because there is always such energy in a social space that’s really buzzing. They’re just fun places to hang out. And cocktail bars specifically, I still love going to and ordering a drink off the menu. I’m always looking to try new things and to get different perspectives on the craft, so I usually pick something that doesn’t make sense to me and order it.”
Name the first good drink you ever drank and where you had it. “Oh man. It’s really hard to remember back that far. My real start in this industry was barbacking at a restaurant in Manhattan where the drinks were actually quite good, but I don’t think I realized it. I remember some firsts though: a 151 Swizzle at my first Tiki Monday, a Mai Tai at Dutch Kills...Makes sense that I’m still a sucker for tropical drinks.”
What book on cocktails or spirits is your go-to resource? “Having just opened Death & Co Los Angeles, and with our team in the process of working on the next Death & Co book, it’s actually been really inspiring to go back to Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails. I definitely know all those drink recipes off the dome by now, but there is so much in there about the culture, the energy and ethos of the bar from the early years. It’s helpful to keep that in the rearview mirror while we’re trying to capture lightning in a bottle again, both here in L.A. and on future projects.
Aside from that, I don’t find myself reading many cocktail books for technique assistance these days, but I love reading anything new just to get exposure to perspectives outside my own. Ryan Chetiyawardana’s two books keep finding their way off my bookshelf. I think, though, the one I most frequently crack open as point of reference is Dave Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence.”
What’s your favorite cocktail and food pairing? “A dry gin Martini and French fries. It’s a good high-low combo, the saltiness is a good foil for the Martini. It’s a go-to date night for my partner Lauren and I.”
What drink are you most proud of creating? “I’m always pushing myself to come up with new ideas, or at least improving on old ones, so I hope it’s the next one! One that the D&C staff might vote for is called Palm Dreams, which is a pretty simple variation on a Daiquiri: rum, arrack, honey, calamansi (a southeast Asian sour orange) and Angostura Bitters. It is just complex enough to be its own thing, but so obvious and crushable, too.”
Is there one person (dead or alive) you’d like to make a cocktail for? “Sasha Petraske. Sadly, I never had the opportunity to meet him while he was with us, and he clearly touched so many and transformed this corner of our industry. We certainly wouldn’t be having this conversation without him.”
What’s your favorite shot-and-a-beer combination? “Really, whatever you’re pouring, but we have a Boilermaker on the menu in Standing Room (the front room at D&C L.A.) that I’m pretty proud of—it’s an Orion and a frozen shot of Cobrafire Eau de Vie de Raisin, which is an over-proof blanche Armagnac. Frozen eau de vie improves most things!”
What is the one tool that you always make sure to pack when you’re traveling for business? “I don’t have a specific physical tool that I always bring, but the most essential part of my creative process is probably my cell phone and specifically the Evernote app. I’m always jotting down inspiration there when it strikes, and when we’re in development that’s where I get my creative work done. There’s probably hundreds of half-completed drink ideas in there waiting for their time to shine.”
Matt Belanger is the head bartender at the new Death & Co Los Angeles.
Interview has been condensed and edited.