Featherweight bartender Johnny De Piper credits his nomadic upbringing for his ability to quickly befriend industry contemporaries today. “Restaurant folks are my people,” he says. “We're usually super creative, love our nightlife and could never work in an office — we're the type of people who crave chaos and hate repetition.” Born in Italy, De Piper moved to San Francisco, Atlanta, London, and the Netherlands before making it back stateside for college at George Washington in Washington, D.C. His first hospitality gigs came by way of restaurants in Myrtle Beach and Georgetown, where he learned that what he lacked in kitchen talent might be made up for behind the bar. It was — and he never looked back. He eventually made his way to New York, where he helped run Brooklyn’s Weather Up before opening Bushwick’s Featherweight in September. There, he’s been providing patrons with thoughtful drams that lean Italian, from the Amaro Braulio and bourbon-driven Saw Tooth, to the Good Day Sir, which focuses on rye and Borghetti Espresso Liqueur. Here, we chat with De Piper about the word “speakeasy,” the actor he wants to drink with, and why, with him, flattery will get you everywhere.
BoozeMenus: What will never change about your approach to bartending?
John De Piper: Especially in the cocktail world, I feel that too many people get caught up in the craft and think that it's something bigger than it really is. No matter what, we're all bartenders and our job is to create experiences for and entertain our guests. There are a million bars in the world. What brings people back are our personalities. My goal is for my guests to have a good time. If I can put a smile on their faces, then I've succeeded in my job.
BM: What did you consider when developing the cocktail list at Featherweight?
JDP: When creating a cocktail list, I'm trying to keep a plethora of tastes and desires in mind. I make a lot of drinks that I would never drink myself, but I know that they're good cocktails. Much of the time I'm creating a specific style of drink to plug a whole in my list. I like variety, and I think that there should be something for everyone on my menu. In all honesty, I never really drink cocktails myself, unless I'm conducting a little research and trying to see what other places are doing. I'm a beer and shot kind of guy — almost to a fault.
BM: Tell us a crazy story you've encountered while behind the stick.
JDP: Most of my crazy stories come more from disbelief of others’ complete lack of awareness. On New Year’s Eve this year I had a girl puking behind my radiator while waiting in line for the bathroom — as if the radiator would hide the evidence. When I went up to her boyfriend and asked them to leave, he looked at me and said that I work in a bar and should be used to it. I pointed at his lady, who was still vomiting right in front of me, and asked them to get out of my bar and never come back. I understand that people get wasted and make mistakes, but to write it off as the perfectly normal occurrence is crazy to me! I've been drinking for a very long time and can honestly say that I have never — and would never — puke in a bar. And even if I did, I'd have enough sense to make it to the bathroom before I started heaving.
BM: What's the last conversation you had at the bar that reaffirmed your love for what you do?
JDP: I love it when people tell me that what they're drinking is the best cocktail they've ever had. Even if you're lying to me, flattery gets you everywhere.
BM: How would you describe the drinking scene in Bushwick?
JDP: I would say that the drinking scene in Bushwick is pretty typical. There are a lot of kids from all types of life who like to experience different things. The average age tends to be a bit younger than many of the other neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and these kids sure like to party. Most people are super nice and respectful, though.
BM: We know how you feel about the term "mixologist." What about "speakeasy"?
JDP: I don't mind the word "speakeasy.” Like most categorizations, it's pretty generic, but we really don't have a sign outside, and you have to walk down a hallway and up some stairs to get to my bar — so I guess we fall into that label. Thank God prohibition is over, and we don't have to sneak our drinks anymore though!
BM: What drink on the list has your name and drinking style written all over it?
JDP: I'm putting out a new list with a drink called Nieuw Hoorn on it. It has cognac, Genever, maple syrup and allspice dram in it. It's an old fashioned variation, which if I do drink cocktails, is what I prefer. The name is in reference to a ship from and the hometown of the Dutch East India Trading company, which fits in well with my past — I spent much of my youth in the Netherlands, not more than an hour from there.
BM: Where do you find inspiration?
JDP: I don't really deal in inspiration so much. Sometimes I just like to mess around with flavors and throw different combinations of liquors together. Most of the time they taste like crap, but every once in a while you get a gem. The one problem with creating drinks is that you always end up wasted. Even if you’re just trying a sip of each, you have to play around with the proportions until they're just right — which inevitably gets you shitfaced.
BM: When is the last time you had a drink and thought, "I've never tasted anything like this before in my life"?
JDP: Like most things in life, I feel that everything has been done before. Call me a skeptic, but there's not much, if anything at all, that's original anymore. My favorite drink that I made recently is called Late Lunch. It has mezcal, Amaro Melleti and a dry Oloroso Sherry with two dashes of angostura bitters and a lemon garnish. It's one of those drinks that I referenced earlier that I just threw together and it turned out amazing — in my opinion, anyway. The drink is super savory, almost like beef jerky or something meaty — which might sound terrible, but really works.
BM: If you could have a cocktail with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be, where would it be, and what would the drink be?
JDP: Banana daiquiris with Samuel L. Jackson, at a swim up bar somewhere in the Caribbean.
By Nicole Schnitzler
(Photos by Melissa Hom | From Left: The Witches Brew; Saw Tooth; Good Day Sir)