Proof + Pantry's Michael Martensen Is Battling the "Pretentious Asshole Bartender" (Interview)

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It's Drinking Week at City of Ate, which means even more stories than usual about our favorite pastime. Check back for more stories about craft beer, killer bartenders and more.

Even though it's been a relatively enduring trend in bars across the country for nearly a decade, Dallas has only recently caught on to the appeal of cocktails that are much more complex in both flavor and preparation than your average vodka cranberry. Fortunately for mixologists in our fair city, the trend has caught on like wildfire.

Which should be credited in large part to Michael Martensen, the expert mixologist who is opening up his very first concept, Proof + Pantry, today in One Arts Plaza. You'll probably remember Martensen from his stints mixing up some of the city's best libations at Cedars Social and The Mansion at Turtle Creek, but now he's struck out on his own to intensify his focus on making creative and high-quality cocktails. One day before his restaurant was scheduled to open, I sat down with a surprisingly calm Martensen to talk about the history of the craft cocktail trend, what boozers in Dallas like to drink, and what we can expect from his highly-focused cocktail menu at Proof + Pantry.

When did you first start to notice a renewed interest in craft cocktails?

I wasn't in Dallas when it happened. I was on Nantucket Island working at a hotel bar. There, we had a cocktail list. We made fresh juices every day. We were doing it right then, and you could just see in people's faces that they were so excited to have something that wasn't an appletini or a processed sour mix cocktail. That would have been ten years ago, and really, in Dallas, this thing really didn't get started until seven years ago. I was doing fresh juice cocktails at the Mansion in 2007, so there was a little blip there. Then Victor Tangos and Cedars Social opened, and it's just kind of snowballed into what we see today.

Do you think people are really excited to finally have a drink that's worth a damn thanks to the craft cocktails movement?

In a relatively young market, we do see a lot of people who have never had a well-mixed cocktail made for them. Once you have them, you've got 'em for life. What does happen though, is that you're trying to make these cocktails that are so complicated, and you've got to do it quickly.

But you also can't be an asshole. You're in the hospitality business, you've got to stay humble. Dallas had the asshole thing going on for a while, and it still does to some extent, because it's still pretty young here. You get these fucking pretentious mustachioed guys who think they're so much better at making cocktails, and you have a bad experience. But I think we're finally starting to battle the asshole bartender. At the Prairie Cocktail Conference, they were all about "death to the asshole bartender." Everyone wants to get back to being hospitable and taking care of people. Hopefully that trend makes its way here pretty quick.

Was it easier or harder than you thought to convince people to try "weird" stuff, like say, egg whites in their cocktails?

No, it's pretty easy, actually. I always ask people if they like meringue, and once they think of it like that, it's a lot easier. We're whipping it just like a chef would, just using a shaker instead of a whisk. There really hasn't been anything that people have just flat-out said no to, but you always have to feel out your guest. You don't want to force a drink that they don't want on them, but you can give them something that's going to be really good based on what they like.

After being behind various bars in Dallas since 2007, I'm interested to know your thoughts on what Dallas drinkers are really interested in when they belly up?

It's really an open crowd. Between the suburbs and Fort Worth, there are six million people in the area. How many of them truly go out to cocktail bars? I'm going to say maximum, 10 percent, and I think that's pretty generous. There are gateway drinks for people. The Moscow mule is probably the biggest gateway drink, I think. People already drink vodka, and you just step it up a little with some ginger beer and mint. Once they try it, they're smitten. So it's open game, honestly. If a bartender is nice, the cocktail is going to taste a lot better than if the bartender was a complete asshole. I can go into a place and have a subpar gin and tonic, and if I like the bartender, I'll probably go back in there?

On the other side of that, the Dallas drinker also needs to understand the establishment they're drinking at. I'm not going to walk into, say, the old Slip Inn, and ask those guys for an old fashioned. Why would you do that? I'm going to go in there and ask for a Miller High Life and a shot. That makes sense. It's kind of a learning curve on both sides, and I think Dallas is really in the middle of that. Restaurants and bars here want to be there for everybody, too. They'd rather have 20 sub-par drinks because they know that people are going to order them instead of focusing on giving people ten really badass drinks. That's a Dallas restaurant thing that's fucked up. I don't understand it. The cocktail menu here is 14 items. That's all we're going to do, and they're going to be badass. Can we make you something that isn't on the menu? Of course we can, and it's going to be badass too. But we want everyone to understand that we're focusing on our own thing.

What constitutes a subpar gin and tonic? I think most of the ones I've had in my life were probably sub-par.

Probably. Tonic from a gun behind the bar isn't very good. It's too syrupy or not bubbly enough. That's a common gin and tonic. The Dallas gin and tonic, in fact, is a subpar gin and tonic. If you go into a bar that's actually serving tonic from a bottle, you're already going to have a drink that's thirty times better than what you're used to.

Is there one spirit that you think is more popular than others? Is Dallas a vodka city, or maybe a whiskey town?

I've actually talked to a lot of distributors about that. While I was bartending at first, I was working a marketing job. That's made me always interested in what people are drinking because if you know, then you're going to be successful. When I did that job for three years or so, I would know exactly what was going on. Dallas is still very much a vodka city, like 38% of people here are vodka drinkers. Second is tequila, and it's not far behind vodka. Does that have something to do with all the shitty margaritas that Tex-Mex restaurants are serving? Probably. Whiskey falls in right after that, with Crown Royal being the number one whiskey in all of Texas.

Do you think that people really give a shit about the difference between a really ultra-premium, craft spirit and some shit that they can order out of a well for $3?

Yes and no. There's a reason that some people buy expensive cars and others who don't. It's the same game. Do most of your drinkers know that you're serving them a well spirit compared to a call or premium spirit? No, no they don't. They have no clue. And that's across the board. It has nothing to do with mixers, especially with neutral grain spirits. The definition of vodka is that it should be tasteless, odorless, and clear. If you're a vodka that's not hitting all of those marks, you should probably stop making vodka.

In your experience, do diners think that craft cocktails are worth their occasionally steep price tags?

Sure. Unless you're drinking totally out of the well at a dive bar, no matter where you go, you're going to spend at least $7 a drink. So if you want a cocktail that's mixed properly, you're willing to pay a little more. It's like the difference between ordering crappy chicken tenders at a bar and then deciding that you want roast chicken instead. Of course that's going to cost more.

I don't think there's a miscommunication at all between bartenders and patrons when it comes to price. Half of the game is the experience, and that's what people pay for. If your bartender is doing this lame shake, that fucking sucks. Who wants to go to that guy? If the bartender is being really interactive and making everybody have a good time, you're going to love your experience.

What do you think makes a really great bar experience?

The bar is such a ball of energy that when we designed the barstools, I made sure that they didn't have backs. I wanted that energy to kind of poke through to the rest of the restaurant. Everyone loves to hang out with a good bartender, and I really try to communicate that to my staff here. Passion is also a huge component of that, especially at a so-called cocktail bar. We make less money than the fucking other bartenders around town, I guarantee you, but we work really hard. When you're three deep at the bar trying to get drinks out as quickly as possible, it's stressful, so you have to have that drive. At the end of the day, you're making the same cocktail, for the same price, and getting the same tip. So I'm not sure who is actually the smart one here.

What is your favorite spirit to make cocktails with? Any drinks that you just hate to pour?

The one that anybody's drinking. Honestly, that's not a bullshit answer. I swear, I'll make whatever. I don't like making the sour pucker apple martinis, but that's pretty much it.

Did you think that it might be difficult to make craft cocktails take off in Dallas, especially in such a vodka-driven city?

Not really. When I came here, though, people told me that I was crazy and this trend would never last. And I would say "ok, but that's what I like to make, so I'm going to keep doing it." And here we are, you won't go into a restaurant now and not find a craft cocktail. So I go back to those naysayers and think "hey guys, how's that club business going? The one you flip over every six months because you're the one that's the flash in the pan?"

So what does the term craft cocktail actually mean? Obviously it's been pretty bastardized by the likes of Red Lobster at this point.

For me, craft is just a properly made cocktail. There are steps to it, there's really fresh ingredients that are being used. I would agree that "craft" is completely overworn in the entire food and beverage industry, so I like to say that I make fresh juice cocktails with high quality spirits. That's what I am, more than a craft cocktail guy. At least I tell people what' I'm actually using - fresh juice, fresh produce, and good spirits. Boom.

Opening up Proof + Pantry at the end of the summer, were you excited about having so much opportunity to make really refreshing drinks?

Dallas is different than basically anywhere else I've lived. We don't have seasons here. We have hot, and we have cold. We still have what, 45 days of hot temperatures? When I was in New York and Labor Day rolled around, we really had to start thinking about fall menus. The three (or two) seasons we have last so much longer, so we can stretch that. You roll your refreshing drinks out all summer, and that's from Mid-May to end of September. So that's five months where you're working off that one menu. Our upcoming fall menu will involve some winter stuff, and our winter menu takes on some of the flavors of spring.

Wow, you haven't even officially opened the doors yet and you're already planning the menus out that far in advance? That's some serious vision.

Ideas? Yes. Recipes? No. I know what spirits we're using and what categories we'll be doing, but I really let my bartenders do their thing. We're a team, and I want them to own their drinks. If they do, then they produce better drinks. We're always testing, tasting, and tweaking, just because you have to.

What about the current Proof + Pantry menu. What should people who are stopping by on opening day plan to booze with?

The word "Proof" comes from the days of rum running and pirates and the Caribbean. Whenever they were trading, rum was always involved. They would take gunpowder and spread it on the table, then pour the rum on top and see if it caught on fire. That was "proofing" that you had good rum. But they really just wanted to get drunk. They were very surly, bad people. So we kind of ran with that concept and divided the menu into three categories. Up first, we have the "no proof," section for our non-alcoholic beverages. I think we're really the first bar or restaurant to offer craft, no-proof cocktails on the menu in the city. We're in a unique area where we have a heavy lunch crowd, and a lot of people just don't really drink on lunch. Maybe they want to try a fresh cucumber-dill drink without getting buzzed.

Then we have the "low proof" section, which is where you'll find our "aperitif-y" drinks, fortified wine. Something that helps you salivate, gets you hungry, and ready to eat. That's also where our highballs are, and carbonated drinks. My favorite on this part of the menu is our Livin' In Paradise, which is made with a fortified rosa wine that has hints of strawberry and lemon. We add a little orange, and some bitter lemon soda. That pairing there is amazing. We're talking about three ingredients. It's not complicated. We want to let the booze talk. Not that I don't want to have fresh berries around all the time, but that cocktail is so overdone in Dallas - the "berry smash" or whatever. So we found some really high-quality cordials to flavor our drinks, like this framboise from France. It's fuckin' amazing. It tastes like you're biting into juicy raspberries, but there's alcohol in it! We're also doing a pickled cocktail, so that's pretty dope.

The high-proof stuff is where you'll find spirits. Our version of a daiquiri, the I'm Rich, is a real winner right now. We made a lime curd with butter, spices, and citruses, and there's egg whites. It's this really rich cocktail in the same way that a real key lime pie is. We've been slinging that drink like crazy. We also have some V.S.O.P rum from Martinique, in the Island Fever. Then I shave tonka beans over the top, which are actually illegal in the U.S.

How do you keep a consistent supply of something that's illegal behind the bar?

Oh, I've got sources. We all have sources for things, right? When I go down there, I buy a plethora. They're banned because they're carcinogenic, but it's literally just a little shave of it in the cocktail. They're the original bittering agents, and just a little bit isn't a big deal. It's this little almond-shaped bean with vanilla and chocolate notes, so it works really well.

So what's your poison?

I really haven't had a drink in like 45 days, to be honest. I think I've gone out two nights in that time because I've been so focused on opening up Proof + Pantry. I drink sherry, and a lot of tequila. I love agave, whether it's in mescal or tequila. Gin is great, too. But I also like just vodka on the rocks with a lemon. Miller High Life is my beer, I love it. If I go out, I'm drinking Miller High Life. It's fucking hot outside, and that shit's like water. When I shoot, I shoot ouzo or sambuca. Bitter things are great, so are anise and licorice flavors.

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