Kevin Denton of WD-50 and Alder: Why Sophisticated Drinking Begins With Vermouth
It was his culinary inclination and penchant for performing that led wd~50 and Alder bartender Kevin Denton to the New York bar scene in 2005. "It was a great way to make money while pursuing music," he says. "Plus, I think you're kind of always on stage behind the bar." After his first role as head bartender at Tabla, Denton stepped behind the bars at Hotel Delmano, Mayahuel, and Gramercy Terrace before becoming the bar manager at wd-50 and Alder, where he creates playful and beguiling cocktails in line with the fare coming out of Wylie Dufresne's kitchen. Here, the Kansas native discusses his appreciation for line cooks, the power of the trial taste, and his disdain for the classic mimosa.
You have an impressive bartending resume that spans the city, all of which have likely contributed to your work behind the bar. What have you gained in your experience at wd~50 and Alder, specifically?
Countless things. Wylie and the team have given me great license to follow creativity and follow ideas to great lengths until you get it right. There has never been a time where I've been confined by costs or timing. If something takes 100 tries to get it right, we'll do it 100 times to get it right. I'm really lucky to run these two programs, but every chef and cook who walks in the door -- whether it's someone who's doing a stage for a couple weeks or someone who has been on the team for a few years -- everybody collaborates with everyone else. When I have an idea, we bat it around the horn to everybody. I've had some great breakthroughs talking to line cooks. It's not just going to Wylie or Jon [Bignelli] and saying, "I have this idea; what should we do."
What inspired the "shorts" -- the half sized, half priced drinks -- on the menu?
I think that the proliferation of restaurant bars is such a cool thing -- every great restaurant now has a great cocktail program. The bummer is that making craft cocktails takes time. What I was finding when I was going out to dinner is that sometimes I would be getting food before I'd be getting a drink, and I'd think, "how can a kitchen pump out something so intricate more quickly than a drink?" The idea for the "shorts" was 100 percent a function of consistency and speed. Also, it's expensive to go out in New York, and I hate it when I go out and spend money on something I'm not completely satisfied with. I think the "shorts" are a nice way to give someone a taste of something first.
What qualifies a cocktail as a worthy on-tap offering?
It's largely based on what I predict is going to be the most popular. Sometimes my guesses are way off, and we adapt to that however we have to. I initially thought the vodka drinks were going to be the most popular, and it wasn't the case, so we made adjustments. Also, anything with perishable juice, I generally don't like to put in the kegs. As I learned from Dave Arnold when he was doing his carbonated drinks, "you want the juice to really sing." Citrus especially -- the flavor, brightness, and acidity go pretty quickly. It's mostly spirituous, stirred drinks that I think benefit from sitting and letting those flavors marry together overnight. It really makes a more harmonious final product.
What about the idea behind the half sizes?
One reason was to give guests the option of trying a lot of things -- it's hard to drink through an entire menu. Also, I drink a lot faster than most. If I finish my drink and my friend is only halfway through his, I can get a short and keep pace. It's a nice option for people who come in here on a budget, too. They can order pigs in a blanket and some shorts, and it's under $30.
Do you feel like your culinary curiosity works its way into your bartending style?
Without a doubt -- everyday that I'm in the kitchen. I spent the first half of today in the kitchen of wd-50 trying out some techniques for the spring menu there, then I went to SOS Chef and a tea shop. I really live it. I really am so fascinated by ingredients and different ways to extract, build, and compound flavor. I have the utmost respect for cooks -- especially in light of celebrity chefs. It's one thing to see those guys going to events, but these cooks are a bunch of kids working for no money, all day everyday, bleeding and burning themselves. They work so hard.
When someone tastes one of your drinks, what would be the first giveaway that you made it?
I would imagine they wouldn't know what the hell they just drank, and that's what I hope for. If you know what every ingredient is on the menu, then I haven't done my job.
Is education at the bar an important element for you?
If I was working at a dive bar or a classic cocktail lounge, then I'd want to be true to the spirit of the place. But I think to be true to what Wylie has created means showing people something they maybe haven't seen before, and doing it with that wink and a smile that says, "This is familiar, but it's sort of turned on its head." I really like that about his philosophy and his cuisine, so I feel like being true to the place means doing the same with the beverages.
With spring in motion, what can we look forward to at the spots?
We're currently retooling our brunch juices. I think that mimosas are totally daft and not delicious. Usually it's shitty Champagne and fake orange juice, so we try to do different juice combinations. One is coconut water, calamansi, and cucumber, and another is raisin water and bergamot.
The kitchen was rehydrating raisins to puree them for a dish, and the water has all of that good flavor and a really cool mouth feel and texture to it. The bergamot is what you associate with tea but without the tannins -- it's not bitter or aromatic. You get all the sweetness and base notes from the raisin, and the bergamot provides some nice top notes.
What do you drink most of, and what will you be drinking more of?
From working at Mayahuel, I love agave spirits. That's where I find my home, and that's what I drink way too much of. But I think that vermouth and fortified wines are definitely taking off. There are more being imported, and more interesting stuff coming into market. Kind of back to the "shorts" thing, they're not as high in alcohol, so you can drink more of them. Having a great aperitif is a really cool and sophisticated way to drink instead of going straight to that negroni, Manhattan, or old fashioned. Those are all great drinks, but it's a little limiting to stick to variations of those drinks alone.