Behind The Bar With Grant Wheeler

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Hospitality comes naturally for Grant Wheeler, who grew up in a home with a mother who found her passion in entertaining. “As a young child, I used to wait for the house to be alive with music and adults having a few drinks, and I would put on a costume and come downstairs — well past my bedtime — to provide some sort of entertainment,” he remembers. “I really like being around people, watching them, hearing what they have to say — both observing and participating.” Wheeler found himself working in restaurants during his college years in Wisconsin, an interest that carried him through to his first New York hospitality job at Brinkley’s, which he landed in 2009. Nearly 10 bar stints later, his work is most recently found in the drinks lists at the West Village’s The Garret and dullboy, Jersey City's first craft cocktail bar. Here, we chat with the New York native about the bartending tip he gained from a wedding planner, how Ryan Gosling made it to the menu, and the bagel-inspired cocktail worth brunching with. 

BoozeMenus: How would you define your approach behind the bar?

Grant Wheeler: My approach behind the bar is entirely based on flexibility. Every bar has different wants or needs, and I try to fulfill them.  Some places ask for a lot of personality, others like restraint. Some bars require precision; others are enhanced by a sense of looseness. Some bars want you to wear a flamingo suit and to pour growers Champagne on yourself, others want relaxation and calm. Some bars require you to function as a zookeeper overseeing a bunch of drunk hyenas. If there is one thing that's consistent in my bartending, is that I'm pretty deferential. I try not to have a lot of opinions or favorites. Within the realm of good taste, everything is good, and everything is not good. It really depends on who you ask. 

BM: How do you differentiate the cocktails and overall cocktail lists between The Garret and dullboy?

GW: The cocktails from The Garret are built in a sort of technical fashion.

I take what people ask for and then I pass it through a filter of my personal curiosity. People like spicy tequila drinks, so we have one that I think complements the vegetal nature of tequila.  People like daquiris in the summer that are really cold, so we have one that I think tastes colder. When it comes to the Garret, I whip a bunch of stuff up when we are launching a new menu, and then I taste my teammates on it, and we adjust everything. I like everyone being involved.

Dullboy is much different. Dullboy is super classics driven, and I'm interested in simple and elevated tastes. All of the dullboy cocktails are re-explorations of classics, and we serve them side-by-side. At dullboy, we have a very captive and curious audience. People come to The Garret to socialize, and to do business, and to find love. People come to dullboy because they want to drink cocktails and to relax and to feel apart of. We are growing more experimental everyday at dullboy. We feature two different classics everyday there — these are often our best sellers for the day, and it's been a great tool for our keeping everyone enthusiastic. 

We are currently in the process of launching a brunch cocktail menu at dullboy that's on the savory and spicy side, a sort of bloody mary menu. We have one with lots of South Pacific spices, coconut and Batavia Arrack, we have a tomato-bacon sour made with white whiskey from Wisconsin, and we have an everything bagel-inspired tomato water cocktail among others. 

BM: Many of your creations are named after the ladies - or they reference ladies (e.g. Hey Girl or The First Lady). What's behind the female representation?

GW: The Freudian answer to this question is a bit complex, so I'll try a simpler route.

The dullboy cocktails are all named after female heroines from literature, basically because I like simplicity, and it seemed like a good formula that we could keep going for a while. It's also a good place to start, as it's much easier to plan or create anything when you have a theme in mind. I learned that practice from a wedding planner.

As for the Garret’s cocktails, The Missus Wheeler is named after my mom, because it has banana and ginger, and my mom, along with lots of other moms, makes great banana bread. The Hey Girl is inspired by Ryan Gosling because Ryan Gosling is inspirational. The First Lady is named for Cyndi Ramirez, who does lots of behind the scenes work for the Garret. She asked very nicely for the name.  

BM: Which one of these - both in creation and inspiration - are the most near and dear to you, and why?

GW: Outside of the naming, I don't really have a strong personal attachment to any of the drinks. I'm most satisfied by happy employees, happy employers and happy customers. The drinks are a very small part in creating a place where people feel comfortable. 

BM: How would you describe the drinking scene in Jersey City?

GW: The drinking scene in Jersey City has been very good to us. They are inquisitive, patient, generous, loyal, and honest. I hope that the Jersey City drinking scene is as happy with dullboy as dullboy is with the Jersey City drinking scene. 

BM: What steps do you take when creating the menu for a new project?

GW: I do some research, both in old fashioned-analog form and on the Internet. I also spend a lot of time thinking about fresh ingredients and walking through Whole Foods or farmers markets. I also talk a lot with our marketing team and with our liquor reps. Both of them can be really pushy, but I'm a believer in the value of compromise. I'm also a believer that innovation is often a result of imitation. I'm really not afraid of stealing other people’s ideas because I think that it's the best way to grow and develop, both individually and as an industry.

BM: Where do you find inspiration?

GW: In how I do my work, I take a lot of inspiration from my two favorite Dannys: Danny Meyer and Danny Bowen. I'm so impressed by how competent Union Square Hospitality is at opening and operating fantastic restaurants that are always welcoming and never imposing. Danny Bowen's food impresses me both in how imaginative it is and also in how it is presented. He makes delicious and inventive food, but it's never about him or the food, it's about having people in his restaurants and feeding them things he comes up with. There really isn't much more to it than that. 

BM: What continues to surprise you about the bartending realm?

GW: I'm continually surprised in how much fun I have and how intense it is.  I get to work really busy nights with some really interesting characters, and every night we get through it. 

BM: If you could grab drinks with anyone, anywhere in the world, who is it, where is it, and what are you drinking?

GW: I'd probably drink some coffee, with my family, anywhere, anytime.  Can Oliver Sacks come too?

By Nicole Schnitzler

(Photos from left: The Garret Interior by Paige Hogan; Grant Wheeler by BFA; The Missus Wheeler by Vanessa Granda)

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