UB Insider #12: HSL’s Scott Gardner Shakes, Stirs His Way to Success
About this episode:
HSL’s Scott Gardner has made a name for himself making carefully crafted mixed drinks. That effort and innovation earned him the title of the 2016 Bartender of the Year at the Utah Restaurant Association Heart of the Industry Awards last month, and is something he’ll take with him when he opens a new bar this fall. In this episode of UB Insider, Utah Business’ online editor Lisa Christensen talks with Gardner about his past, present and future in the world of drink making. Subscribe or download this episode on iTunes and Stitcher.
Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor at Utah Business magazine. With me today is Scott Gardner of HSL.
Scott Gardner: Hello.
Lisa Christensen: Even though the restaurant has only been open for about eight weeks, Scott was nominated for and won the title of Bartender of the Year at the Utah Restaurant Association’s Heart of the Industry Awards a couple of weeks ago. Scott, what does being recognized with an award like that mean to you?
Scott Gardner: That is an interesting question. For the longest time, I tended to not put a lot of stock into things like that. But more recently, especially since I’m moving forward into my own ventures, that type of recognition is awesome. I was also really pleased that it happened so quickly, and that I was recognized for HSL. We tried to create a program there that was a little bit different, a little more compelling. It was just great that people, you know, they resonated with that, you know. So I was definitely happy about it.
Lisa Christensen: When you say the programming at HSL is a little bit different, what do you mean?
Scott Gardner: Sure. The food itself, and the way that they run that restaurant, it’s incredibly seasonal. To the point where they’re printing menus on a daily basis. The setups for different dishes, and even just the dishes themselves and the food oftentimes will change on a daily basis. And so, to create a drink list that is supposed to accompany a menu that has so much care and attention and thought put into its dishes. We wanted to have a drink list that was, even the way that it’s worded or written on the menu is really, really simple, really clean. We kept the options down.
I think, kind of…I think if you go around to a lot of places, a lot of menus tend to stick around like nine to ten drinks. And we pared ours down to five to six, which gives us the ability to focus in a little bit more on technique and, you know, refine the flavors. Try to create dry, light, fresh, high acid drinks that are actually capable of pairing with food, rather than, you know, in a bar, you make a drink that’s delicious and it stands on its own. But with a restaurant specifically, you want something that people can actually enjoy with their meal. So it’s a totally different ballgame.
Lisa Christensen: Yeah, can you speak a little bit more about the difference in working at a bar at a restaurant versus an establishment that is solely a bar?
Scott Gardner: For sure. I did a lot of work just in bars for a long time, and I loved it. You know, making drinks in a bar is a lot of fun, but in a restaurant you have a lot more tools at your disposal. You know, in a bar that’s just a bar, beyond alcohol and, you know, liqueurs and vermouths and any aromatized wines or whatever, you have grapefruits, oranges, lemons, limes, sometimes the odd pineapple. That’s about it. So all of your creativity has to be sort of pigeonholed into those things. You know, maybe there’s some mint lying around. It’s easy to go buy herbs. But with a restaurant you have an entire walk-in refrigerator full of in-season vegetables and, you know, produce, and you just have the ability to do a lot more. That and you have an entire kitchen at your disposal. You know, burners and fryers and vacuum sealers. There’s a ton of technology. Where at a bar oftentimes all you have is a hot plate and a pot. And so, what can you do with this, you know? Go for it.
The restaurant is great, and the chefs are incredibly helpful. So if you want, if you have an idea or a flavor that you love and you want to understand how to process that into an ingredient for a drink that’s still going to maintain a good texture, provide good flavor, you have a lot of help. So I think that creatively, you can do a lot more in restaurant bars than you can in a regular bar.
Lisa Christensen: That’s so interesting. I never considered that before. How did you get into bartending and drink creation?
Scott Gardner: Those are two separate answers. How did I get into bartending? I started off serving in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And honestly, I wanted to bartend because a bartender at a restaurant I was at was this really cool dude. He looked cool and he got all the ladies. And I was like, man, I should do that. He became a good friend of mine. But I kind of like, I guess in a way looked up to him. I started bartending, well bar backing for him and just sort of cocktailing and taking tables and eventually I got the chance to bartend. From there, I enjoyed it. Versus serving where, I love the social interaction. I enjoy taking care of people. I love the hospitality angle of bartending and service. But I still like to do things with my hands.
I like the ability to have a product knowledge that other people don’t have. So I just kind of kept running with it. I remember getting serious about bartending, again, down in Albuquerque where they had kind of a focus on whiskeys. And I remember a handful of well-dressed older gentlemen asking me questions that I didn’t understand, and I felt really silly. And even though I was very young at the time, I still felt like, hey man, this is my job. I’m the professional here and I need to know this stuff. And so that sort of started me on, alright, let’s get serious. I bought a bunch of books. I learned up on a lot of different regions in Scotland so that I could learn my scotches and, you know, what makes bourbon, bourbon. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
As far as actually creating different drinks, the first opportunity I had to do that was when I moved to Salt Lake. I was working at Pago, which is one of Scott Evans’ restaurants, and it was only about a year before he opened Finca. And, you know, he’d kind of planted the bug in my ear a little bit about, he’s like, hey, I’ve got this other restaurant that I’m going to do sooner-ish. Don’t tell anybody about it. We want to have a heavier cocktail focus. And so I put my hat into the ring and I think I was the only hat in the ring so it made it pretty easy for me to move over to Finca and run that program. Which I’m ever grateful for, to him, because having the opportunity to have something that’s your own and run it and make sure that the numbers are tight, and put together a list of drinks that you need to be compelling and creative, it kind of forces you to become that person very quickly. Because, the food there was amazing.
They opened there in Sugarhouse. He already had a reputation for food and wine with Pago, so I didn’t want to blow that for him. So I put a lot of work into that initial cocktail list. We actually, we got some great coverage and press and won some awards for the bar program there. And that blew my mind because it was my first program. And people were like, hey, this is amazing. So I was like, ok, I could do this. And so I just kind of kept going from there and I haven’t really looked back.
Lisa Christensen: Well you have earned a reputation for yourself as a drink creator, and putting a lot of care into your drinks. How do you approach drink creation? And why does it mean so much to you to put all that effort into your craft?
Scott Gardner: I think it gets really easy to rely on classics. It’s sort of a fallback move. They’re classics for a reason. They work really, really well and they’re really good. And so, it’s really easy if you don’t put a lot of time and effort into building flavors by yourself, to fall back on a classic and just tweak it a little bit. I did that for so long. I mean, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Because some of the best drinks that are sort of modern classics were created from that approach. I just wanted to do something a little different.
I wanted to involve kitchen techniques and equipment a little bit more. And the thing that I’ve always kept, or at least try to keep true with myself, is if I choose a base spirit to work with like gin, or tequila, rum, bourbon, scotch, if I can’t actually taste that when I’m drinking the drink, then I have no business putting it in there in the first place. So I’m always cognizant of what I want to use. And then I try to build around it. And I use a lot of, sometimes I do look at classics and look at flavors or ingredients that they put with those things and try to figure out exactly why. And then maybe I use those things but I try to add a little bit more technique to refine it.
Sometimes it’s not playing with the flavor as much as playing with the texture. Or if we wanted to do a bourbon milk punch maybe we would clarify the milk and pull out all the fat so that it’s kind of a creamy texture, but it’s also silky. It’s not fatty and mouth coating. It’s little things like that that I try to take into consideration to provide a drink that’s a little bit more refined, and hopefully different than what people have had before.
Lisa Christensen: What are your favorite kinds of drinks to make?
Scott Gardner: My favorite kinds of drinks to make are…I mean. I could even say my favorite drink to make. My favorite drink to make is a daiquiri. Hands down. Not like the over-sugared nuclear red strawberry daiquiris that you get at a chain restaurant that are served in a fishbowl. Which, unfortunately, what people think of when you say daiquiri now. But classically a daiquiri is a stellar rum with lime juice and enough sugar to create balance so that it doesn’t feel like the citrus is trying to strip the enamel off of your teeth. And that’s really what a daiquiri is. It’s my favorite drink and it’s equally compelling and refreshing. I’m sort of a rum nerd. So rum is always my go to.
Lisa Christensen: It seems like there has been a lot more attention and value given to drink creation. You know, mixology or what have you lately. Why do you think that is? And what has that done for the field?
Scott Gardner: I think a lot of it has to do with renewed energy and interest in food and what’s happening in restaurants, and what’s happening in the culinary world, and just the fact that the public interest is there and people want a meal that has either been locally sourced or is made from ingredients that have been taken care of with preparations and techniques that elevate food. That is a major driving influence.
I think if you look at every market across the country, the food scene happened first, and then people started putting a little more energy into their cocktails. Food and wine have always gone hand in hand. It’s only recently that people have put their energy back into mixed drinks. Here, I think it followed the exact same trend. A lot of restaurants were trying to do better cocktails and nicer drinks for a while. I think the biggest boon to the industry was when Bar X opened and they were very unapologetically cocktail focused. I think that Salt Lake sort of needed that and it gave a really heavy injection of energy into the cocktail scene. That was huge. And from there, I think the availability of new spirits, of new and better, well-crafted aromatized wines, vermouths, aperitif, amaros, liqueurs, you know, the availability of those has helped a lot.
You know, luckily I think across the country bartending is starting to look like a pretty cool job. And so you’re getting a lot of young interest as well. The younger workforce is always excited and, you know, full of energy. So you have a lot of these guys coming out with tons of ideas. Some of them are great. Some of them are terrible. But at least the energy is there. So we have that. We have a real head of steam right now. And it’s been fun to watch.
Lisa Christensen: Where do you see bartending and drink making heading into the future?
Scott Gardner: I don’t think it’s ever going to go away at this point. I think it might slow down or it might level. I think if anything, the end game is you have people who will always be innovating and, you know, creating better and cooler and different things. But the hope is that at a certain point, bartending becomes a reputable profession again, like it used to be well over 100 years ago. And people take their job seriously. And even if you work at a bar that slings beers and shots, the hope is that that bartender also understands how to, you know, stir a Manhattan.
I think that the ultimate goal is to get to the point where if you go into a bar, you know that your bartender is a professional and is going to take care of you. I think that there’s just as much importance behind working at a dive bar and being incredibly friendly and making people feel welcome and like it’s their second home. And drafting them the perfect beer and pouring them a shot and making them feel welcome. I think that that is every bit as important as somebody who uses eyedroppers and is so careful with their craft. I think they’re on equal playing fields. It just depends on what people want and what they’re going for.
Lisa Christensen: So you’re at HSL now, but you’re going to be moving to a new venture in a few months. Where are you going, what are you doing?
Scott Gardner: I’ve been trying to open a bar for a while. I have two partners, Matt Foal and Sean Nevis. Both of whom have been in the industry for a really long time. And we are going to be opening our own bar in the central 9th marketplace which is sort of, central 9th being sort of a new upcoming neighborhood down on 9th South between 2nd West and West Temple. And we are opening our bar, Water Witch, hopefully sometime in September. But, you know, building can always take interesting turns, so don’t hold me to that. But that’s the hope for sure.
We’re going down there with a handful of other businesses: Meditrina, there’s going to be a Local First office, Lizzie’s is doing a small sort of café/kitchen and, I believe, potentially some sort of storefront for some of their hummus and things like that. I love those guys. Jade Market, I believe is moving there, and also Landis Salon. So six local businesses are going to sort of create the hub of business for that area. And we’re all really excited to be down there.
Lisa Christensen: Yeah, absolutely. Good luck with that. We’ll be watching that. So, thank you Scott so much for coming and speaking with us today. You can catch Scott and see his creations firsthand at HSL on 4th East and 2nd South in Salt Lake City. Or sometime this fall at Water…
Scott Gardner: Water Witch.
Lisa Christensen: Water Witch. Thanks also to Pat Parkinson for production help, as well as Adva Biton. You can also catch us on our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages or contact us at email@example.com. Thanks so much for listening and have a great day.