A self-taught mixologist turned bar manager, David Newman began his career at a Los Angeles catering company in 1990, honing his craft all over the map, from El Jara in Cardiz, Spain, and national bartender trainer for The Cheesecake Factory, to Nobu Malibu and eventually Nobu Waikiki and Pint + Jigger (of which he is owner). Trained under Scotty McGregor, Newman’s self-described “vagabond” style means he'll find inspiration anywhere he wanders, including—and especially—the restaurant kitchen pantry and the local farmers market. Newman is a self-professed obsessive about the seasonal, but also for classical drinks with small, local twists. Though perhaps his greatest joy is the on-the-spot creativity of the bespoke cocktail, drinks that are original and designed with the single customer seated in front of me in mind.
Beyond working the busy bar scene at Nobu (which he left in 2012), Newman soon plans to start BAR&D, a pop-up bar of the modern speakeasy style. And when he’s not mixing, Newman’s busy with responsibilities as president of the United Stated Bartenders Guild, Hawaii chapter. He is now working at Pint + Jigger, a modern gastropub in Honolulu with a constantly evolving food, beer, and cocktail menu. It is there that he added cocktails on tap and a rotating sous vide cocktail program, in which he "slow cooks" cocktails, continuing his quest to push the boundaries behind the bar and what is means to be a true barman.
Interview with 2012 Hawaii Rising Star Mixologist Dave Newman
Nicholas Rummell: What drew you to restaurants and in particular, to mixology?
David Newman: I was working for a catering company in L.A. back in the day. I was at an event, and a bartender had gotten into a car accident. They asked if anybody knew how to bartend, and I said “I do.” Somebody ordered a Cuba Libre, and I had no idea what it was. It got worse. The next drink was a Cape Cod. They knew I had no idea what I was doing.
NR: How did you learn?
DN: I started begging the bar manager to let me bartend. I was waiting tables at the time, making a fool of myself. After about three months, he said “stop asking” and decided to teach me during the day. I brought in flash cards and he started to teach me cocktailing. I got very lucky. He was a very good bartender back when there weren’t many good bartenders. Everybody was making sticky, oversweet cocktails. So he asked me “what is the standard recipe for a margarita?” and he would taste it, and then would make modifications and told me to switch the margarita recipe up to make the one I stand behind.
NR: What influence did he have?
DN: It made me a raging alcoholic, and allowed me to feel that I was putting out the best drink I could make. I don’t like the Cosmo, but I’ve tweaked it thousands of times so it is the one iteration that I like best. I’ve done that with pretty much every cocktail. It definitely teaches you how to fix drinks and how changing a very small amount of every ingredient affects
NR: Have you ever taken any mixology courses?
DN: I followed the typical foray into bartending. Bouncing around to different places, but not taking it seriously as far as crafting cocktails. About eight years I made the switch to a lead bartender in Hollywood to working for Nobu. It just gave me the opportunity to go into the pantry and the kitchen and use the best ingredients that you could possibly get. It was a treat to work for a company like that, because they spare no expense. It got me spoiled as a bartender. I worked in Malibu for three years, and then ran their bar here in Honolulu. And that’s where I really got into fresh ingredients.
NR: What’s your opinion of the Oahu bar scene?
DN: The downside to Honolulu was that there were no mentors out here. So I spent lot of time spent reading classic cocktail books and trying to keep up with trends on the mainland. There is a core group of guys that took it upon themselves like making their own grenadine and orgeat. Because we were doing it on our own, you learn a lot more that way. You learn the intricacies of the thing. You make 20 or 30 variations of grenadine to make sure you get the right one. That core group of guys elevated the scene out here. For a while we didn’t know how we stood. Then the next few years going to [Manhattan Cocktail Classic] or Tales of the Cocktail, you realize that Hawaii is right up there.
NR: Tell me about your new venture, Pint + Jigger? What was its genesis?
DN: It’s so nice to work with friends. I did my five years at Nobu. I had just gotten to the point where it was either keep making them a lot of money, or to open my own place. It’s very cliché but they say things just kind of fall into place. I was looking for a house, and met one of my partners. He said he was going to open a bar, and it turned out he was extremely serious. So I met him and it just clicked. We upped the game in terms of cocktails and beer. I wanted to push the boundaries as far as we could. We have been trying to avoid the label of gastropub because there is a tendency in Hawaii for places to latch onto anything that is popular on the mainland without really being that thing. And calling yourself a gastropub is like saying “I only work with couture clothing.”
NR: What about your other venture, Bar and D?
DN: That got put on hold. It will be something we pick back up here when things calm down. It’s been an absolute blessing with Pint + Jigger. It’s all word of mouth, the Internet. We opened the doors five months ago and we’ve been packed ever since. Being the [U.S. Bartenders Guild] president here on Hawaii gives me a huge industry connection, which is awesome. I put the word out to industry friends, and industry people are really into social media. It spread like wildfire and it was amazing to stand back and watch it happen. I think people are starved for this kind of concept here.
NR: What kind of challenges does the Hawaii market present? Is importing liquor difficult?
DN: It’s definitely been a challenge. We’ve seen that through advertisements and different magazines that getting certain liquors has been challenging. The distributors are hesitant to bring in certain things. Carpano Antica is our favorite sweet vermouth. And it took a year and half of begging to get it out here. Now it’s here and it’s successful. On the other side is how people here haven’t been exposed to good craft cocktails. Lots of people here probably have a bottle of white vermouth sitting on their bar that is now turned to vinegar. But the flip side is that we have so many fresh local ingredients.
NR: What goes into creating a new cocktail? What inspires you?
DN: A couple of different places. Other bartenders here, our peers. Also looking at the “seasonal” local ingredients. I also do a lot of bartender’s choice drinks, where I’ll create a cocktail for the person sitting in front of me. Are they in the mood for sweetness, something refreshing, more booze-forward. And I’ll create the cocktail on the spot.
NR: How do your sous vide cocktails work?
DN: I fell in love with the idea. I first tried a sous vide slow-cooked egg, and remember being blown away by the taste and technique. And for the last 10 years, people have been really into barrel-aging cocktails. I geek out on stuff like that, and was thinking about what that process actually does. The idea is that there is a big difference between the time it takes Scotch to mature and the time it takes whiskey to mature. If you’ve ever been to Kentucky during the summer at one of these distilleries, it is disgustingly hot. I got the idea that the temperature is affecting these whiskies. You can get a great whiskey that is only six years old, whereas Scotch takes longer. So wanted to see if I could come up with the method to speed up the barrel-aging process. It just clicked. Bag it, seal it, and put it in the circulator. Obviously the other aspect is the barrel, so adding toasting barrel chips to the sous vide bag. The results I could get in two days was just as good as seven or eight weeks. Nothing will replace time, but I can produce something similar with the benefit of changing it up. The fun part is taking a cocktail I want to experiment with, and making a bunch of mini-batches with different wood, different char levels, different spirits.
NR: What are the rules for being a good mixologist?
DN: The first thing that comes to mind is at the end of the day, recipes is about 15 percent of what we do; we’ve moved away from the other 85 percent, which is customer service. I also learned that you need to be able to talk to people who come in about any subject they want to talk about. If you just talk about cocktails, you just talk about what you want to talk about. My goal is to have everybody at Pint + Jigger leave with a great experience. At the end of the day it really comes down to them. If we can introduce people to some new amazing cocktails, that is cool. The idea of not carrying vodka is so pretentious. Is it about you or the customer? If somebody asks for a Grey Goose martini without vermouth, I’ll make the best one I can. And you as the customer can call it a martini.