New York City or Bust
When Nick Hogan started as a bartender, he focused on learning everything he could about craft cocktails and the spirits industry, spending time reading books as well as picking up shifts behind the bar. In his ongoing quest for knowledge, Nick has found inspiration from culinary sources, international markets, his fellow bartenders and cocktail contests. Competitions have become an avenue for bartenders to promote not only specific spirits but also their profession; winning mixologists are held in esteem by both other members of their trade and customers alike. Nick recently entered his first national competition, The Manhattan Experience sponsored by Woodford Reserve, and his hard work paid off, winning several rounds to become one of 7 finalists competing in NYC. While representing Northeast Florida was a personal victory for Nick, his presence in the final round also put St. Augustine on the map as a noteworthy craft cocktail scene, one that continues to develop and nurture new talent. We consider that a double-win for our region.
Tell us about your background and how you got started as a bartender.
I fell into the craft bartending scene two years ago when I was really into craft beer. My initial goal was to work as a sales rep for a local brewery in St. Augustine or Jacksonville so I spent all of my time and energy learning as much as I could about beer: from homebrewing, to the different styles, increasing product knowledge, and networking in the local community. I figured my best route into the scene was to start from the bottom since I was knew to St. Augustine so I started as a bar back at a craft beer bar. This was when I met Cesar Diaz who was bartending at the Ice Plant at the time, who told me he was opening a new bar and was looking for some help. He gave me the opportunity to bar back when Odd Birds opened up and I put every ounce of energy and focus to learning the spirit side of the industry rather than beer. The world of spirits and traditional bartending was so complex and interesting to me that I picked up as many books as I could until I had a really comprehensive understanding of the history of what went into creating the world of spirits as we know today.
What are your thoughts on the craft cocktail scene in St. Augustine, and Northeast Florida?
Northeast Florida holds a really special place in my heart. I was born and raised in Jacksonville, a majority of my family is from Gainesville, and I have been living in St. Augustine for nearly three years so I proudly represent Northeast Florida in everything I do. I think Northeast Florida is perceived as a smaller market but in reality it is one of the biggest craft markets in Florida and the quality of its top bars speaks for itself.
What is your approach to creating a new cocktail?
Inspiration for a new cocktail can come from anywhere really and that's the beauty of it. I get ideas all of the time and a lot of it stems from using interesting ingredients. It's always about using either really obscure ingredients that have never been used before or using something really mundane to create something you never thought could work or exist. One of my coworkers, Josue, blew my mind when he brought in a popcorn syrup one shift. I was expecting something absolutely disgusting but it was delicious and worked extremely well with bourbon, which is also primarily corn based.
I spend a lot of time reading books on herbs and spices, worldly cuisine, walking through specialty grocery stores and farmers markets, and drawing a lot of inspiration from chefs. As far as the creation process, sticking close to classic cocktail builds and tinkering with them works wonders.
What is your favorite cocktail or drink to prepare for a customer? Do you have a favorite ingredient to use?
Making drinks is all about giving the guest an awesome experience so anything I can do to make the guest happy, makes me happy. On that note, introducing a guest to a new spirit or being able to change their mind on a spirit that they have previously had a bad experience with through a great cocktail is one of the most rewarding experiences. Recently I have been a huge advocate of really bright, sugarcane based spirits like rhum agricole and cachaça. They are beautiful spirits that are extremely versatile but shine through best in the most simple cocktails.
Where do you get your inspiration? Do you have any mentors?
At Odd Birds, bartending isn't our job, it's our way of life. We are passionate people who push each other constantly. It's an extremely competitive scene and you have to be active to stay ahead of the curve. My personal mantra is that the more each individual bar succeeds, the more we all succeed. It's our job as bartenders to educate our guests on quality spirits and cocktails which will enhance our guests experience and bring them back time after time. I'm constantly inspired by other bars, bartenders, distilleries, competitions, events, and USBG meetings.
I owe everything to Cesar Diaz for taking me under his wing. I started as a really motivated and passionate worker but knew nothing of the scene. He gave me the opportunity to work for him and really pushed me out of my comfort zone which allowed me to grow.
How do you think a vibrant cocktail scene enhances a region?
What makes up culture better than food and drinks? When you think of France, Italy, Japan, etc. what do you think of? People are picking travel destinations these days based upon restaurants and bars and it's a beautiful thing. Bartenders really are the gatekeepers to great experiences when traveling to a new city so having a bar focused on hospitality can single-handedly change the dynamics of an area.
Want to try one of Nick's award-winning cocktails? Visit him at Odd Birds in St. Augustine. www.oddbirdsbar.com