Behind The Stick
Interviews with the Movers and Shakers Of Mixology
Hosted by Blair Frodelius of Good Spirits News

DrinkBoy Tells All
A Conversation with Robert Hess
Robert Hess is the brains behind one of the most popular cocktail websites "".  He also is a featured mixologist on the Small Screen Network with "The Cocktail Spirit".  In the Autumn of 2008, Robert had his first cocktail guide published by Mud Puddle Books entitled, "The Essential Bartenders Guide".  I recently spoke with Robert about all of his accomplishments over a virtual cocktail.

GSN: With so many cocktail guides out there these days, why did you decide to write "The Essential Bartender's Guide"?

The vast majority of what I often refer to as "Wad-O-Drinks" books tend to focus more on the quantity of recipes they include instead of the quality. I also find that their "how to make drinks" text is usually just the same old stories from other books told over and over again. In "The Essential Bartender's Guide" I wanted to focus on providing a hand-picked selection of cocktails, with some historical details when I knew it, as well as a little more depth to the "how to make drinks" part. I also reached out to a bunch of my bartender friends around the world and asked them for some of their personal recipes so the book could also have a nice collection of new drinks as well.

GSN: Did you uncover any surprises while doing research for this book?

RH: Well, to be totally honest, there wasn't a lot of research that I did specifically for this book. It basically represents me simply sitting down at my computer at home and gathering my thoughts together and putting them to (electronic) paper. I had a rather short deadline I had to meet, as well as a limited page-count target, so that not only prevented me from spending too much time on it, but also forced me to try to focus on just the key details that I felt was most important for the reader. The hardest part of doing this book was stopping myself from going into details which perhaps aren't really necessary to the reader at this stage.

GSN: What do you feel has created the new level of interest in well crafted cocktails?

RH: I think the interest has always been there, scattered around the world in little pockets of folks trying to perfect their craft. I think it was the Internet which finally allowed them to discover one another, exchange thoughts and ideas easily amongst themselves. Which allowed them to not only grow in their skills, but also grow the size of the overall community as well.

GSN: Who are some of your favorite bartenders and where do they work?

RH: Living in Seattle, I am of course a bit bias towards my home town. Murray Stenson is the reigning king here, and deservedly so. He works at the Zig Zag Café, Seattle's own cocktail mecca. Other Seattle bartenders of note are Jamie Boudreau, Jim Romdall, Andrew Bohrer, Jay Kuehner, Zane Harris... dang, if I keep this up I won't be able to get to anybody outside of Seattle. It's hard to think of great bartenders without Dale DeGroff coming instantly to mind, although he isn't working officially as a bartender anywhere at the moment, he is still the standard by which others are measured. And personal bias might be rearing it's head again, but Audrey Saunders has to be highlighted here as well. And then there is Francesco Lafranconi, Jim Meehan, Phil Ward, Kenta Goto, Ryan Magarian... and a list which could go on forever, and I suppose if I didn't mention Gary Regan he'd be pissed as hell, so I won't.

GSN: The Small Screen Network has been airing "The Cocktail Spirit" video series online for a few years now.  Do you see this as the direction mixology is heading?

Here I think you run into issues as to if this is the way "mixology" is heading, or simply the way information/education/entertainment in general is heading. Mixology is simply participating. But overall, I think the ease of access to information on the internet is opening up a great resource to bartenders around the world. Through email, discussion forums, blogs, and videos it has become easier to help spread the word about great bars, bartenders, and the cocktails that they make.

GSN: You work for Microsoft.  Have you ever thought of creating some kind of cocktail software?

RH: What? You mean doesn't count? :->... I have thought about it periodically, and when I finally can find the time I'll probably do something. But I want to try to think of something that provide more than just a "recipe book in your phone" approach, since with web browsers on your phone, any cocktail website provides that already.

GSN: What five cocktail related books do you feel are essential to a cocktailian library?

RH: It is tough to work this down to just five, but here is a "well rounded" selection.
"The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks" by David Embury
David Embury was never a bartender, but he was clearly passionate about "great" cocktails. Because this was so important to him, he felt the need to codify his thoughts about mixology which to this day provide inspiration and insights to a broad range of bartenders. I believe this was the first book to go into such detail about the actual thought process and methodology of making many of these drinks. 
"Imbibe" by David Wondrich
David Wondrich is a very studious researcher, and he's pulled out all the stops on this little gem. In it, he uses Jerry Thomas, the first celebrity bartender, as the foundation upon which he recounts the history of the cocktail and various other mixed drinks. After reading this, you'll have a much better understanding of where the cocktail came from, and what folks were drinking during the 1800's.

"Jones Complete Bar Guide"  by Stan Jones
Since a "Wad-O-Drinks" book is always important to have, there are few that can claim to have the vast quantity of recipes included here. That's not to say that all of them are good mind you, but sometimes it's handy to have a resource like this at your fingertips. Being written in 1977, it doesn't include some of the more recent drinks (like Cosmopolitan, Lemon Drop, etc.) which may not be a bad thing.

"Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails" by Ted Haigh
To understand the future, it is often useful to understand the past. Ted "Dr. Cocktail" Haigh has always had a fascination with the old and hard to get (if not impossible to get) ingredients, and the cocktails which were made with them. Here he has gathered a wonderful collection of recipes from the past which are not commonly found, while many of them are using obscure ingredients, he's tried to pick ones which are still possible to make.

"The Joy of Mixology" by Gary Regan
And to round out the selection, I think it is important to have a book which provides a well thought out examination of the bartenders craft. This book is essentially a bartenders course in book form. It provides the reader with a well rounded examination of all things related to the bartenders craft, history, methodology, tools, ingredients, as well as a great selection of recipes.

GSN: What is your favorite classic cocktail recipe?

RH: Of course that is a very difficult question, which I get asked a lot. My common response is to say "that's like asking a parent of several kids who their favorite is."... but I think I'd have to say the Old Fashioned is my favorite cocktail. But it is also one that I don't order as often as I'd like. This is because the vast majority of bartenders don't know how to make it properly. If there was one thing I could tell every reader of my book, it would be to read the write-up in it that I did for the Old Fashioned, and really learn how this cocktail should REALLY be made.

GSN: What in your opinion is the origin of the name "cocktail"?

RH: I hate to side with any one story here, there are dozens of different ones, and it's possible that none of them are correct. It is well known however that the story surrounding the Sazerac and "coquetier" is not the right one, the timeline surrounding Antoine Peychaud doesn't allow him to be mixing cocktails the same year that he was born.

GSN: Which deceased bartender or cocktail guide author would you have most wanted to meet?  What would you ask them?

RH: Wow... another tough question. I'd love to talk with a pre-prohibition bartender like Jerry Thomas, or Harry Johnson and get a better idea about their personal approach to cocktails and bartending. To understand what the overall "atmosphere" was like in their world at that time. But I'd also like to talk with David Embury (Author of "The Fine Art Of Mixing Drinks"), who like me, wasn't a bartender, but who wrote perhaps one of the most important books about cocktails. He lived through prohibition, and so saw both sides of this experience. I'd love to find out more about his own personal journey during this time, and what he felt we needed to do in order to restore some of the past glory of cocktails, but at the same time also understand what aspects from pre-prohibition were best left there. (For example, we can thank prohibition for popularizing "co-ed" bars).

GSN: If you were to travel back in time and host a cocktail party with any guests, who would you invite?

RH: Hmmm... Since it would be me going back to a specific time, instead of me bringing up various guests from their time, that means I have to pick "a" time where a good selection of guests would exist. I think I'd have to pick sometime around 1940, and I'd invite Victor "Trader Vic" Bergeron, Don
The Beachcomber, David Embury, Charles Baker (author of "The Gentleman's Companion"), M. F. K. Fisher, Julia Child (ok, maybe I'd have to set the date to 1950 so it could be after she and Paul got married, and she was just starting to get into cooking).

GSN: What is the worst cocktail you've ever had and where was it?

RH: Oh my lord... I have had some truly awful cocktails. I often am asked to judge cocktail competitions, and you can get some real doozies here, but to me the worst ones are the "classic" cocktail which can be totally destroyed by a bartender who doesn’t know better. Of these, I'd have to count the Old Fashioned as the one which is more regularly destroyed than any other.

GSN: What is the best cocktail you've ever had and where?

RH: That's harder, because I also have such wonderful cocktails in my travels, and to try to remember all of them can be tough! One that specifically comes to mind however, is on a trip in London I visited "Trailer Happiness", and the place was PACKED solid, nary even any standing room. The bartenders were busting it out and every drink I had that night was fabulous, but I particularly remember the Mai Tai I had has being especially delicious.

GSN: What is your most treasured cocktail related possession?

RH: Easy. Audrey Saunders :-> Does that count?

- Interviewed by Blair Frodelius; October 16, 2009

"The Essential Bartenders Guide" was published on September 15, 2008 and is available here:

Robert Hess can be reached at
The Cocktail Spirit can be viewed at:

Back to Good Spirits News

Blair Frodelius lives in upstate New York and is the editor of Good Spirits News. 
He is also a professional musician and is co-founder of Out of the Box Entertainment. 

He can be reached at