Belle Shoals head bartender James "Jimbo" Palumbo entered the hospitality industry at just 14 years old, when he worked at the coffee shop of a neighbor and family friend. “The owner Marty gave me a job and taught me a lot about what good hospitality means,” he says. “People would drive in for hours just to enjoy a cup of coffee at his shop, and it wasn't like the actual coffee was that great — it was about how warmly they were treated when they were there.” He carries out that hospitality these days at Belle Shoals, the recently opened In Good Company concept espousing Southern comfort in the heart of Williamsburg. Here, Palumbo shares with us his go-to spots from coast to coast, the drinking buddy that never lets him down, and why music and bartending may have more in common than you think.
BoozeMenus: Where and when did your nickname come about?
James Palumbo: The whole “Jimbo” thing? I don't really know. Maybe it's because I’m from the south, but up here people just started calling me Jimbo, and honestly I kind of like it. My name is Jim Palumbo so it's sort of like the quick route — a cutting out of all those middle letters to get to the point sort of thing.
BM: What was the first drink recipe you ever learned?
JP: The first drink I ever truly learned how to make was a margarita. I was working at a Latin bar and restaurant in Wilmington, North Carolina on the waterfront of the Cape Fear river. In the summer, the place would crush margaritas and mojitos. I had to learn to how to make them fast and make them good.
BM: How do you go about learning recipes?
JP: Begrudgingly. That's of course a joke, but here's my thing: You do it because you have to, and it's all muscle memory. When you think about it in music terms, it's like learning to play other people's songs. Other people's songs are great, but nobody wants to just play covers for their whole career. People pick up an instrument wanting to write their own stuff, but learning other people's styles and technique is the only real way to progress and develop on your own. In the end, every art form is a conversation, so whether it’s cocktails or music, you have to know what’s out there before you can begin to contribute. So I jokingly say, ‘begrudgingly’ because memorization and repetition of the classics is the hard work that you put in so that you can start having fun.
BM: What’s the last drink you and beverage director Pamela Wiznitzer collaborated on, and what did that look like?
JP: We collaborate on all of the drinks. It's always good to have another opinion because everybody's tastes are different. The julep menu has been really fun because we both like to approach things that people are familiar with and make them wild and new. My favorite is definitely The Elvis. We modeled a julep on the favorite sandwich of The King. Bacon, bananas, peanut butter — not your typical Derby drink at all!
BM: Your menu showcases the glassware that each drink is served in. Why is that detail important?
JP: The aesthetics of a drink is all part of the total experience, and the glassware is a big part of that. Somebody might not like to drink out of tall stemware, or may not like their drinks on the rocks. Either way, showing the glass just gives the guest one more tool to help them navigate towards the drink that is perfect for them on their own, and isn't that what a menu is really for in the first place?
BM: When’s the last time a drinking experience really wow’d you?
JP: I'm always impressed by the Dead Rabbit. The Nomad Bar is also at the top of my list in New York. I have to say the Jack Rose in Washington D.C. — it was just awesome to be surrounded by that much whiskey. On the West Coast I loved Bit House Saloon. Jesse Card really built a bar that I could just drink in for days. I think all of these places just do a really fine job of knowing what they are and delivering an experience that is the total package for that style. That's what I look for in a bar.
BM: Who’s your favorite drinking buddy?
JP: Danny Neff. There's just never a dull evening when we hit the town.
BM: Whose cocktails would you travel far and wide for?
JP: Bill Murray. I hear he pours a mean glass of whiskey.
BM: You guys are big on music there. What’s the ultimate cocktail and song pairing under your roof?
JP: My favorite album of all time is Paul Simon's Graceland. Just give me that and a glass of Highland Park and I'm in heaven.
By Nicole Schnitzler
(Photos from left: Auntie Bellum; James Palumbo; Lil' Slice of Heaven)