Forest Hills Station House general manager and beverage director Robert Burns has spent the last 24 years in the restaurant industry, crediting it as a world that was able to financially sustain plenty of other creative endeavors — including an interest in teaching poetry at a university. “I quickly got turned off by how many people in the literary world seemed to be blowing smoke up each other's asses,” he says. “But there's no lying in the bartender-guest interaction. If a guest doesn't like a drink you put in front of them, you'll see it on their face--they're not looking for a return compliment.” It was that authenticity that won Burns over and landed him behind the bar, where he’s spent the past two plus decades in every kind of imbibing environment, from corporate restaurants and fine dining venues, to nightclubs and dives. Here, the Queens native chats with us about Forest Hill Station House’s Good Whiskey Passport participation, why bartending is much more than meets the palate, and the reason behind the bar’s rigorous training program (hint: interested applicants, get a library card).
BoozeMenus: What’s your approach behind the bar?
Robert Burns: What I try to stress with my bartenders is that the guest experience is not just about the quality of the food, cocktails, beer, or whiskey. It's about the feel of it all. I don't believe that what we’re selling is something tangible — what we're selling is a feeling. It's a combination of sensory and social experiences. The devil is in the details, from how you smile and make eye contact, to how you arrange a plume of sage at the top of a Collins glass, to the short bursts of conversation, to how you move with a seeming effortlessness. Cocktails are a tool we use to add to that feeling.
BM: How would you define the "modern neighborhood bar" - and how do you accomplish that with Forest Hills Station House?
RB: When I think of how we try to craft the "modern neighborhood bar" at Forest Hills Station House, I'm again thinking about history. When settlers arrived in this country there was often a debate over what to build first: a church, or a tavern? Not because people just wanted to booze it up, but because the tavern was the center of the community. It was where you went to get your mail, find a job, hire someone — it even doubled as a courthouse. Taverns were social institutions whose owners were viewed with the same respect as politicians, doctors, and lawyers. Since then, taverns and bars have evolved greatly, but the idea of a neighborhood bar is still tightly woven into the fabric of a community. What I try to do is espouse the idea of the bar as a community center, while focusing on the modern beverage industry. If we have the capacity to introduce guests to modern and classic cocktails, craft beer, and craft spirits, and to entice them to be more adventurous, then I think we’re obligated to do that. Craft cocktails don’t need to be intimidating — they should be shared. It’s just the natural evolution of the food and beverage industry.
BM: Tell us a little about the training program there at the bar, and why it's important to focus on this?
RB: If we’re going to guide our guests towards being more adventurous, then we really need to be educated liaisons to our products. I try to hire staff as barbacks. When I hire someone I’m not necessarily looking for someone with tons of experience; I’m looking for someone with a positive mental attitude and a good natured disposition who is passionate and wants to learn. I let them know up front that there’s going to be well over 1,000 pages of reading before they start mixing drinks. A barback starts out learning that the quality of his or her juices and syrups is extremely important because they’ll go into almost every cocktail we make. At the same time, they’re becoming familiar with everything on the back bar. By the time they become a server, they’ve already read and been tested on books like “Tasting Beer” by Randy Mosher and “Whiskey Distilled” by Heather Greene. They’re familiar with flavor wheels and they’ve begun to develop their own palate. As servers, they learn our style of hospitality and are encouraged to read books like “Bourbon Empire” by Reid Mitenbuler and “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey” by Michael Veach. By the time they’re ready to bartend, they’ve gone through David Wondrich’s “Imbibe” and Gary Regan’s “The Joy of Mixology,” and in some cases Arnold’s “Liquid Intelligence” and Embury’s “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks”. It’s a lot of reading, but we’ve established a staff culture that revolves around learning and teaching. Once they’re behind the bar, I try to guide their creativity by starting simple. I like to start bartenders with the Mister Potato Head method of subbing ingredients in classics. I run a cocktail challenge every week in which the bartenders have to come up with cocktails that adhere to certain rules like “Jamie Boudreau’s Golden Ratio” or “Bourbon and Breakfast Cereal”. This allows me to really keep tabs on their progress and their sense of balance in a cocktail. From here I try to let them develop their own style with some nudging in certain directions. If a bartender only seems to be exploring stirred cocktails, I’ll have them turn their stirred cocktails into sours. If a bartender is creating sugar bombs, I’ll have them start working with Bësk.
BM: Which cocktail on the menu is the one you’d reach for time and time again?
RB: We’ve got over 120 whiskeys behind the bar here, with a heavy focus on bourbon and rye, so definitely the Signature Old Fashioned. It’s approachable, everyone’s heard of it, and it’s simple. But what I love about an Old Fashioned is that it varies tremendously depending on the whiskey you select, the bitters you choose, and whether you use demerara, simple, or actual gomme syrup. It really showcases a mastery of subtlety. My post-shift cocktail lately has been two ounces of Ragtime with a half-ounce of OYO Pumpernickel, a quarter ounce of housemade gomme, and three dashes of Regan’s.
BM: What cocktail did you guys choose to serve for the Good Whiskey Passport?
RB: We’re featuring Pikesville Rye by Heaven Hill. It’s a fairly new overproof straight rye that just won the World’s Best Rye award at the World Whisky Awards. We’re also featuring Blade & Bow Bourbon, which is another fairly new whiskey put out by Diageo and aged at Stitzel-Weller. We’re kind of loose with the rules, and for the most part, we let anyone pick a whiskey or whiskey cocktail at $16 or less.
BM: Which Passport has been your favorite to be a part of, thus far?
RB: Definitely the Good Whiskey Passport. The opportunity to turn new guests onto whiskeys they haven’t tried before is pretty exciting.
BM: What’s the last amazing food and drink experience you’ve had, and what made it so?
RB: Longman & Eagle in Chicago. I had confit beef tripe with pork liver mousse and Szechuan sauce that was garnished with small pieces of sweet marshmallow puffed rice. I love when big flavors and textures contrast and complement one another. I followed it with a Blanton’s Original from 1990. That was an unforgettable meal.
BM: Where would you like to travel to next for a dining or drinking experience?
RB: In the past few years I’ve bar hopped in Portland, Chicago, New Orleans, Boston, and Denver. I’d really like to stumble around Seattle or San Francisco for a few nights.
BM: If you could have a bartender superpower, what would it be?
RB: My palate, and I think most peoples’, tends to change throughout the day. I’d love to have the exact same palate, every moment, of every single day. (Real Answer: Being able to cut people off with the Jedi Mind Trick).
By Nicole Schnitzler
(Photos from left: Oaxacan Cobbler; Robert Burns; Interior)