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Veteran Bartender Tom Richter Wants Chefs to Get Out From Behind the Bar

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Welcome to a special Cocktail Week edition of Lifers, in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives. Up now, Tom Richter, who's been bartending with the best for the past 30 years.

All photos by Layla Khabiri
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What started out as just a way to supplement an acting career has become a career of over 30 years for bartending veteran Tom Richter. In recent years, he served as head bartender at (the dearly departed) Beagle, and now splits his time between Dear Irving, Milk & Honey, and Attaboy, while producing his own artisanal line of tonic called Tomr's Tonic on the side. Read on to hear about his influences, his least favorite drinks to make, and why bartenders should keep their cocktails simple.

How did you get into bartending?

I feel like most bartenders who have been doing this as long as I have lied to get their first bartending jobs. That was about 30 years ago for me in Minneapolis. I told them I already knew how to bartend, but I didn't. Luckily I learned on the fly. I was acting back then, and you have to do be doing something between the shows, so I was always in and out of restaurants. I have actually worked in every capacity in a restaurant from front of house to back of house. The only position I haven't had is executive chef, but I've been on the line, I've bussed, I've dishwashed, I've worked pastry, I've waited, I've bar-backed, I've bartended, I've been a wine director, and I've been a general manager. I pulled out of theater a while back and I just do this now.

Every time I've been in this bar I've noticed you're training a bartender. Did you have any mentors when you got started?

There's a woman named Sylvie Darr who ran the bar program at Zuni Café in the late 80s, when I was there. That was really when this "fresh" thing was happening and we were doing some pretty cool stuff, like fresh squeezing limes into drink and emphasizing quality in the drinks we made. She taught me a lot about wine as well. I split my time between being a bartender and a sommelier/wine director after that. David Drake, a chef that I worked with in Jersey, was another mentor. We got to be really good friends, and he explained to me that I was doing exactly what he was doing, only with liquid. That made a lot of sense to me. And Sasha Petraske was definitely a mentor as well. When we reopened the John Dory Oyster Bar he was definitely hands on. That was the benchmark for me as far as getting into this style of drinks, because he's the one. He pretty much created this style of bar with Milk & Honey back in 2000. Because of him, these types of cocktail bars are all over the world.

How important is it for you to teach younger bartenders what you know?

Well, you can't teach someone to give a shit. You either do or you don't. It's just about figuring about whether you care about this and whether this is what you want to do. A lot of bar-backs who want to learn train with me on Sundays, and a few are starting to move into bartending slots. That's the best way to learn this, by bar backing and really watching. When I was learning, I would go to bars and watch the bartender like a hawk. You can pick up a lot like that, but you have actually practice too in order to really learn it.

How long have you been at Dear Irving?

I have been here since the bar opened about four months ago. Before that I was the head bartender at The Beagle, which was open for about two and a half years. I got to know Meaghan (Dorman) because a lot of bars that are of the Sasha Petraske family all know each other. When The Beagle closed I heard rumblings that she was going to be doing a new project. We met for dinner, talked, and she wanted me involved and I said absolutely. And I've been here ever since.

Do you have a favorite drink to make?

I just like making cocktails. One of my drinks that has actually made it into the cocktail vernacular is the Haitian Divorce, which is basically a riff on an old fashioned (but made with rum, mezcal and Pedro Ximenez sherry). It's on the menu at Raines Law Room and they make it at Milk & Honey and Attaboy as well.

Have you gotten any requests over the years that have been particularly difficult to accommodate?

People will ask for the weirdest things. Like a Sazerac, but no alcohol.

But how would you mimic those flavors without alcohol?

You don't! I just say no. It's all alcohol. There's no way to do that. Also, say there's a really well done cocktail on the menu and someone wants to order a drink, but with vodka instead. Well, I typically say no. We put a lot of time into balancing that drink for the menu and swapping out a liquor would throw it way off balance. If you want a different spirit I'll just make you a different drink. Speaking of which, there are a few drinks that people order that I don't even consider to be cocktails. Take vodka sodas: a mixture of two colorless, flavorless liquids. If that's your drink you should get a therapist and quit drinking.

Tell me about your tonic.

It was when I was doing a bar program for David Drake, I was researching the cocktails that I wanted to make, and the gin and tonic is pretty much the most ordered of all cocktails. At that time, and this was about seven years ago, there was nothing in terms of artisanal tonic. You were starting to get all these cool gins coming out onto the market, but only really crappy tonic. So I went online, found some tonic recipes and started experimenting with them. At first they all kind of sucked, but there were qualities from each recipe that I liked, so I started combining them until I had a recipe I liked. And it really hasn't changed since I first created it. It's a brown syrup, because I use real cinchona bark. Most tonics you get that are clear use chemically extracted quinine, add some high fructose corn syrup, and are then carbonated. That is what most people know as tonic, and that's just not acceptable. So I started making the tonic for this restaurant and people were losing their mind over it. They kept telling me to bottle it, which I avoided for a while because that seemed like too much work. But about two years later I started Tomr's Tonic, and now we have global distribution.

What do you drink at home?

I drink Smith and Cross on the rocks and a lot of sherry, especially Palo Cortado. I was in Jerez recently and, while visiting Bodegas Hidalgo I was told that I could drink anything I wanted to without getting a hangover if I started the evening with a glass of amontillado. It's like medicine.

Did you see Pete Wells' article in the Times about bad restaurant cocktail programs? What do you think about this?

I think there is a little too much ego involved in those restaurants that are always trying to create their own take on a drink. I don't understand why they don't just make a great simple cocktail. Unfortunately, in restaurant bar programs too often the chef is involved. I think that they should stick to what they do and have somebody behind the bar who is also an expert, rather than just an extension of the chef. Often the drinks are overly complicated and self-ingratiating. Let's get down to a maximum of four ingredients if we can handle it. I would rather respect the artist that made that liquor than mess around with it.

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