Behind the Bar with Dead Drop’s Colby Zito: “We Are Really Just Making Chilled Soup Here”

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It wasn’t until after culinary school, during stints at restaurants in Seattle and New York, that Dead Drop bartender Colby Zito realized his penchant for the drinks world. “At each place I worked in, I found myself educating the service staff about wine from behind the line,” he explains. And while he didn’t drink until he was a ripe 22 years old, his involvement in culinary school at the time schooled him on exactly what to drink. “Looking back, I feel that this was tremendously helpful in that never I have never uttered things like: "eeww...gin" or "I don't drink brown liquor,” he notes. At Dead Drop, Zito leans on this culinary background (his service resume also spans Eleven Madison Park and Maialino) for playful riffs on classics that feature kitchen-ready ingredients, from sweet corn and candy cap mushrooms, to banana jam and peanut liqueur. Here, we chat with the Rochester native about why balance is everything, why he is grateful for his kitchen experience, and where he saddles up in the neighborhood for inspiration.

BoozeMenus: How would you describe your approach behind the bar, and, in particular, at Dead Drop?

Colby Zito: Coming from CIA and fine dining restaurants my goal is always to make anything, the best way I possibly can. There are always limitations to control and issues to work around, but my team and I shoot for the highest quality we can.  What our guests experience is a fun, small cocktail bar where they can try something they haven't had before that is super delicious, super cold, and balanced.  For us behind the bar that means jiggering ingredients, pulling very cold ice out of the freezer for every cocktail, stirring and shaking for proper amount of time for the specific cocktail, and tasting as we go.  With that said, I never take myself too seriously.  At the end of the day, my guests are looking to enjoy a cocktail and some conversation after a hard day at work or as a fun place to hang out on the weekend.  I just want them to have a good time and a great drink.

BM: How do you come up with such inventive flavor profiles for your cocktails -- what's the creative process behind it?

CZ: I like to look at what specific role each cocktail ingredient plays in classic recipes.  You can't expect to start throwing spirits and modifiers into a mixing glass and have the resulting concoction be a winner.  I look at a successful classic, split it into its parts and ask what can be substituted for that ingredient to make something balanced but a little different.  You can change the spirit in a negroni and end up with something pretty tasty, very easily.  This "Mr. Potato Head" strategy is the way that most successful bartenders create new drinks.  We know that there are hundreds of years of history that got us to where we are today.  Using that foundation will give you pretty great results without trying to reinvent the wheel. 

Coming from a cooking background, I realize that certain flavors go well with others.  In tasting different culinary ingredients daily, I realize that some herbs, spices, and nuts would be quite useful as supporting flavors in a balanced cocktail.  I will taste something in the kitchen and think, "which style of cocktail would this best support?" Then it's just a matter of finding the best way to integrate that ingredient into the cocktail — and sometimes that's the tricky part.  You can't just make an old fashioned and put a scoop of peanut butter in it.  The difficulty lies in trying to change something without really changing it — to add a new ingredient with out throwing off the balance.  That's also the fun part.  Being in New York City, we are so fortunate to have access to so many delicious and high quality ingredients, including produce.  But seasons change. We had a sweet corn cocktail on the menu for a little while. Finding delicious corn became impossible after a while, so we moved on to something else.

BM: Can you tell us more about how you decided on the venue name, along with how you organized the menu into its quirky “lively” and “lethal” categories?

CZ: My wife came up with it.  We wanted something masculine, dark, and memorable.  From there we let the name create the bar.  A Dead Drop is a place where spies make an exchange without actually meeting, in order to protect themselves. While our guests do actually meet, the name has secret, secluded, and illegal or even super-legal connotations.  What's more regulated than consumption, specifically that of alcohol?  We try to have fun with the comparisons between classified information and drinking cocktails — a practice that was illegal for 13 years in America.  The menu has reference to that with sections like "recently declassified" (original cocktails with classic foundations) and "yet to be classified" (recipes with non-traditional ingredients like mushrooms, peanuts, sesame.)  To give the guests a little bit of an idea of what they are about to drink each cocktail is labeled "lethal" for spirit forward, usually stirred drinks or "lively" for shaken, more refreshing drinks.

BM: Which experience in your bartending career has proved to be the most pivotal, thus far?

CZ: I really think that my experience cooking was the most helpful.  I learned a lot about creating flavors and textures.  We are really just making chilled soup, here.  I also think that some of my most educational experiences have been "in front of the stick," if you will.  I have had many tasty cocktails at some really great places nearby and I try to learn something from the drinks I order.  I look at the ingredients listed and try to imagine how the drink is made — I even guess at the specs.  Some of the drinks on our menu are definitely inspired by cocktails at other cocktail bars.  I am not saying I steal other people's cocktails, but I might learn about an ingredient or how it interacts with another and use that to inspiration to create a new cocktail.

BM: Which cocktail on the list proved to be the most surprising in terms of a successful, but obscure, flavor pairing?

CZ: I really enjoyed the combination of yellow Chartreuse, sweet corn, and honey in the "National Pride."  In the "False Flag" we shake brandy, Rhum Agricole, housemade banana jam, with lime juice and Kümmel, a European liqueur made with Caraway, Cumin, and Fennel. I find that those spices for particularly well with the banana.  Our guests get pretty excited when we tell them that the maple flavor in the "Field Agent" comes from Candy Cap Mushrooms.

BM: When someone orders dealer's choice and they say they're open to any kind of cocktail, what do you make for them?

CZ: I usually try to get something more out of them.  "Do you prefer a certain spirit?" "Do you want something refreshing, shaken with juice — or something spirit forward, a little boozier?"  I try to stick to tried and true recipes — cocktails that are classics that most people haven't had. A Rolls Royce (Gin, Sweet and Dry Vermouth, and Benedictine) or a Boulavardier (Rye Whiskey, Campari, Sweet Vermouth) are two that we make for a guest looking for a stirred drink.  For shaken drinks we like to keep things fresh and simple. A Brooklynite (Jamaican Rum, Lime Juice, Honey, and Angostura bitters) or a Last Word (Gin, Maraschino, Green Chartreuse, Lime Juice) are tasty drinks.

BM: What spirits do you enjoy working with the most?

CZ: I like gin and rye whiskey — they make up a lot of the classics.  They are extremely versatile and provide great structure for stirred drinks.  They also shake very well.  Both work very well with fruit additions.  Gin makes a more interesting cocktail than vodka, but it's not too big of a jump for a vodka drinker.

BM: If you could use just one type of glassware and two bar tools all night, what would they be?

CZ: A rocks glass, my jiggers, and a bar spoon.  I would make Old Fashioneds, Negronis, and Manhattans all night.  With high quality spirits and a big cold chunk of ice, you can't go wrong.

BM: Where do you find inspiration?

CZ: In cocktail books, cocktail menus, and at great cocktail bars. 

Old Cocktail books are great for discovering classic ways of thinking and forgotten recipes.  I love looking at other bars' menus and seeing what others are working on.  It keeps me on my toes.  Even better than that is visiting those places.

BM: What do you drink post-shift?

CZ: Before the bar opened, I used to drink at Amor y Amargo and its neighbor Death & Co.  Unfortunately, now that I am working into the later hours, these hard-working bars are closed by the time we are all done cleaning up.  Thankfully, my new best friends at Bua and Boilermaker are usually still going.  Nowadays, after tasting many cocktails throughout the night, I like the simple pleasure of beer and a shot. I don't necessarily shoot it, but sip it. I like Miller High Life and Old Overholt Rye Whiskey.  I think I stole the order from a fellow bartender — thanks, buddy.  Rye whiskey is delicious.  It tastes like everything. It's simple and complex at the same time.  The High Life is refreshing. I should probably be drinking water after a long shift, but I don't like water — it's boring.  So I drink a clean tasting beer.

BM: How do you define a successful cocktail?

CZ: It's really all about balance.  Whether it's a simple daiquiri or a complex negroni variation: you want to experience the spirit and its supporting flavors and have the tastes — bitter, sweet, sour — compliment each other in such a way that you finish one sip and want another.  You can try to get many ingredients and flavors into a cocktail, but if it doesn't balance out, you aren't going to want to drink it.  

BM: What do you enjoy most about the NYC cocktail scene?

Bartenders are good people, and usually they are smart, passionate people as well.  I mentioned those bars earlier not just because they make great drinks but also because everyone who works at those places is so welcoming, helpful, and talented.  I love supporting people that love what they do and being supported by them in return. 

I can't express enough gratitude to the generous and knowledgeable bartenders in this neighborhood.  Whether they realize it or not they really helped inspire and improve Dead Drop.  Sother Teague at Amor y Amargo has helped shape the way I look at cocktail recipes.  The entire bar staff at Death and Co. taught me about creating complexity in drinks and how to use ice to get the most out every cocktail.  Joaquin Simo at Pouring Ribbons showed me what a true bartender should look and act like, as bartending is hospitality.  I've never worked for these people but you can always learn from every experience — even if it's just grabbing a drink.

CLICK HERE for more information on Dead Drop and to view the complete booze menu.

By Nicole Schnitzler

(Photos by Jonathan Meter)

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