Oceana bar manager Dan McLaughlin has cut his teeth in this industry doing it all. “I was a glass polisher, back waiter, food runner, waiter, bar back, and, eventually, a bartender,” he explains. He’s talking about his work at Red Hat on the River, a French bistro in Irvington, New York. “That first job really paved the way for me — I loved everything about the fast-paced hustle of a busy restaurant — it inspired me to always be better.” Now settled in the heart of the city, the Crestwood, New York native is behind the bar at Oceana, the Theater District seafood spot that’s been reeling in high brow diners for years. Here, McLaughlin discusses what makes a grade A bartender, the makings of a proper pumpkin cocktail, and why classic cocktails still reign.
BoozeMenus: How would you describe your approach behind the bar?
Dan McLaughlin: My approach behind the bar has always been fast, but casual. I believe a good bartender is also a good listener; a great bartender is a phenomenal multi-tasker and has a vast knowledge of food, wine, beer, and all spirits; and the best bartender will have an in-depth conversation with a guest but his hands will never stop moving.
BM: What should people know about pairing wine with seafood?
DM: Working at Oceana, I have learned a lot of old school tips and tricks, but I also have developed a lot of new ways of thinking, especially when it comes to pairing food and drink. The two are definitely a marriage. The old school ways of thinking is white wine with seafood and red wines with steak, but like some good relationships, opposites do attract. Lately, I have been pairing a red burgundy with our seared scallops a la plancha, or a spicy Gewürztraminer with a blackened fish.
BM: What about when it comes to pairing beer with seafood?
DM: My favorite lunch pairing is Guinness and our fish and chips. I also like a light crisp pilsner with oysters and white fish, while IPAs and hoppy beers work well with a full flavored fish.
BM: Which cocktail on the menu was the most enjoyable for you to create?
DM: The Pumpkin Alexander cocktail was fun to make because it can be a challenge to make a proper pumpkin cocktail. I had a lot of help from the kitchen, pastry staff and my bar team—we were able to put our heads together to make something delicious that actually tastes like pumpkin.
BM: What cocktail(s) are you working on now, and what's the process been like?
DM: Right now at Oceana, I am creating a cocktail menu that appeals to both the old and the new school. I have split the cocktail program into two parts—Signatures and Classics. To develop a mind blowing, deliciously fresh signature cocktail, I work with the chefs and my bar team to come up with in season ideas and combinations. I’m also bringing back the classic cocktails because there is nothing better than a daiquiri, negroni, or a Manhattan.
BM: What, for you, is the ultimate fall cocktail?
DM: When I think of fall, I think of jeans, t-shirts, football, dark spirits, pumpkins, apples, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. Right now, we are creating the ultimate fall cocktails—the first one is a twist on a Brandy Alexander. It’s an easy drink to make with only three parts—cognac or brandy, dark crème de cacao, and cream—and we are taking it one step further and infusing the cream with pumpkin and turning it into The Pumpkin Alexander. We are also working on a twist on a Pisco Sour. We are infusing cinnamon and apples with mezcal, ultimately creating fall in a glass.
BM: Who is your favorite drinking partner in crime?
DM: My favorite drinking partner is definitely my fiancée Sue. If we both have the same day off, we like to explore new restaurants and bars. It’s a great way to get inspired.
BM: When you hear the words "classic cocktail," what comes to mind?
DM: When I hear the words “classic cocktails,” I think of pictures of New York City in the Prohibition era when every man wore a suit and a hat, and when the mayor was drinking a scotch cocktail hidden in the basement behind the stonewall of the 21 Club. These recipes are time machines and they should be enjoyed just as they were 100 years ago. There is no need to change them.
BM: What is your favorite time of the shift?
DM: Every Wednesday I train the staff on new cocktails, beers, and spirits that are new to the bar. This is a great opportunity for me to brainstorm ideas with my staff and also hear feedback from our guests.
BM: When was the last time your work was inspired by your travels somewhere?
DM: I visited Prague, Germany, Austria, and Poland on a trip to Eastern Europe. I was really taken aback by how many different kinds of beers and unusual cocktails were offered. It led me to really think outside the box.
By Nicole Schnitzler
(Photos by Paul Johnson | From Left: Interior; Negroni; Dan McLaughlin)