It was in between plugging hours at a guitar shop and time playing with his band that Damon Boelte realized his calling in the bartending world. “While I was enjoying a Manhattan cocktail at my friends bar across the street, I realized that the answer for my next step in life was right under my nose — literally,” he says. While the realization dawned upon him quickly, it didn’t come as much of a surprise — Boelte had been studying cocktails since he was 11 years old, and his hosted dinner parties throughout his twenties proved him to be a natural entertainer. After notable gigs across town, including eight years at Carroll Gardens’ Prime Meats, Boelte has teamed up with Mile End’s Noah Bernamoff, Rucola's Julian Brizzi, and food photographer Daniel Krieger to open Grand Army Bar, a neighborhood oyster bar in Boerum Hill. Here, the Lone Wolf, Oklahoma (population < 300) native chats about his last day off, the Arrested Development inspiration behind one of his cocktails, and why dinner’s on him.
BoozeMenus: What went through your mind in creating the drinks list at Grand Army Bar?
Damon Boelte: The opening cocktail menu is based on trains and railroads, something I grew up with in the southwest. I've always considered myself very classic when it comes to creating cocktails, but I wanted to have a bit more fun with the style and presentation at Grand Army. Garnishes are extremely important to me, as well as glassware. The fall menu is based on State parks of Oklahoma. The names are just too good.
BM: Can you talk to us a little bit about the dessert cocktails - what inspired this section and how did you navigate the drinks creation?
DB: They are all tongue-in-cheek references to the partners and chef. Again, just fun.
BM: The bosses' cabinet - what is this, exactly, and what propelled it?
DB: We all call each other boss around here. It's something we've always done, and I think it's kind of nice, because at the end of the day we all take ownership and respect what we are doing and each other.
BM: What's the best cocktail-food pairing you've had at the restaurant so far, and what makes it so?
DB: Chef Jon Bignelli has come up with a truly inspired menu, and without a full kitchen. He's a real pro and a great person to work with behind the bar. Mad, crazy respect. The octopus dish is great with just about any drink. I can’t wait for the fall menu to be released!
BM: When was your last day off, and what did you do?
DB: Sunday. I went for a jog, worked on my motorcycle a bit, played guitars with some friends, and watched Lord of the Rings for probably the 1,000th time. You know, Sunday.
BM: You work with a lot of talented folks over there. How and when do you all collaborate, and what's the process been like?
DB: I've been extremely blessed to work with the best bartenders around. You should be interviewing them! The process is different for me this time around. I've often put out some spirits or basic ideas, and then we meet up and taste each others’ cocktail ideas and have a pow wow. It's a great way to learn from each other.
BM: Can you share any great stories or inspirations behind any of the drinks?
DB: The Boardwalk Flyer is the name of an aged cachaca swizzle with banana and chocolate bitters. It's inspired by the Bluth's frozen banana stand from Arrested Development.
BM: Can you share your last favorite conversation behind the bar?
DB: I had a very nice conversation the other day about the recent Willie Nelson show in Prospect Park.
BM: You've worked at some great bars. Which one has proved to be the most influential for you?
DB: Prime Meats was my home for eight years. It was hard to go, but it was time to leave the nest. So many wonderful memories and lessons about some real D.I.Y. projects.
BM: What's one of the biggest lessons you've learned in this industry?
DB: I've learned so much from so many. I always say that the finest thing you can do for another human being is cook for them and listen to them. I owe EVERYONE dinner.
By Nicole Schnitzler
(Photos by Daniel Krieger | From Left: Cocktail, Damon Boelte, Cocktail)