Spirit of Philadelphia First Friday 2018 Leaderboard

Behind the Bar: Jefferson Oatts of Double Knot

by Drink Philly on Jun 30, 2017 in Culture

For this installment of Behind the Bar, we checked in with Jefferson Oatts at Michael Schulson’s Midtown Village izayaka Double Knot. Hailing from Des Moines, Oatts, who now, lived in Philly, started working at a BBQ joint at 14 as a dishwasher, rose up in the ranks, spent time at a.bar and Fork, and has been at Double Knot since January — and 2 months after working at Double Knot, he got a spring menu of his own creation approved for the bar. We talked to Oatts about jazz, tiki, and the former POTUS he’d most like to drink with.

Drink Philly (DP): Tell me a little bit about the place.
Jefferson Oatts (JO): Double Knot is completely different than anything I’ve ever seen, especially coming from the Midwest to a Japanese speakeasy. Between the food and beverages, it’s full of new experiences for almost any guest. It’s as much an experience as it is a meal.
 
DP: Have you bartended elsewhere?
JO: When I was moving to Philly, I was in the car with no job options and Googled “best restaurant in Philadelphia.” It was the year that Fork had topped PhillyMag’s top 50 list, so I looked at their website and really wanted to work there. When I got here, I gave everyone my resume (which had a few spots on it, but nothing that really stood out), got on Craigslist, and found an anonymous ad that turned out to be Fork! I interviewed and got the job as both a bartender and backwaiter, but within six months I had transitioned into a full time bartender. At age 20, I was a bartender at a Ruby Tuesday’s in Urbandale, IA, and actually learned a lot there.  After that, I got a job at Centro Restaurant in downtown Des Moines.  Incredible Italian Bistro.  I learned a lot from people I worked with and consider them mentors and friends, like Simon Stillow and Harry Jamison (from Fork), Chris Brown (from Ruby Tuesday’s), Andre Davis (from a BBQ joint in Des Moines), and at Double Knot I’m fortunate to be surrounded by people who are really passionate about this work.
 
DP: What’s trendy right now?
JO: A few years ago, the cocktail renaissance really started to emerge – people started returning to classic cocktails and rediscovering them. When that happened, I feel like people really followed the same trends — pre-Prohibition one month, tiki drinks the next month, and so on. Now I think we’re seeing restaurants and bars owning their own voice. If you want to be a pre-Prohibition bar, great! If you serve Mexican food, make your margarita the best around. I’m also seeing a lot of growth in vodka, like publications writing about vodka that I never would have expected.
 
DP: What are some trends you wish would die?
JO: Tiki. While I enjoy having a mai-tai by the beach, I think more often than not, tiki drinks are tacky and egregiously sweet, though they can be done well.
 
DP: Any predictions about where the industry might go next?
JO: The industry will go where the customer wants it to go.  So ask your local bartender, and make some suggestions.
  
DP: One unexpected fact about you?
JO: I’m a triplet from a family of jazz musicians. I live with both of my brothers in Fishtown.
 
DP: Favorite beer?
JO: Boulevard Wheat.
 
DP: Favorite liquor?
JO: I love every spirit category, but my favorite spirit is Barr Hill gin on the rocks with a twist of lemon. My favorite thing to work with is Ransom Old Tom gin, which has a pleasant sweetness and roundness about it.
 
DP: Favorite cocktail?
JO: My first answer is all of them. I get asked this question a lot, and I always say I love all my children. How you enjoy cocktails is so dependent on your environment and who you’re with – I could be on the beach drinking a mai-tai or at a great Italian place drinking a glass of Brunello. They’re all exceptional, and you can’t pick just one, really.  My second answer is a Martinez.
 
DP: What’s your favorite kind of customer?
JO: Someone who’s open to try something new. So often, people pay to get intimidated, whether it’s a raw piece of fish or a glass of soju, it’s a new experience.  People who are open to new experiences and people who have memorable experiences are usually the same people.
 
DP: Favorite joke?
JO: A guy walks into a bar and hears this beautiful piano music. He looks around and doesn’t see a pianist anywhere, so he says to the bartender, “I hear this beautiful music. Where’s it coming from?” The bartender pulls a box out from behind the bar, and inside is a miniature piano player, and then pulls out a magic lamp and says “If you rub this, you’ll get one wish.” Gentleman goes home with the lamp, rubs it, out comes the genie, and the gentleman asks for a million bucks. Suddenly, a million ducks have filled the gentleman’s home. The guest goes back to bartender.  He says, “You didn’t tell me the genie was hard of hearing!”  The bartender says, “Do you think I asked for a twelve inch pianist?”

DP: What do you think the essentials are for a good home bar?
JO: A mixing glass and a shaker, first off, because you don’t want to be shaking drinks that should be stirred. Beyond that, start with your base liquors — bourbon, rye, gin, vodka, rum, tequila — and then beyond that, look up cocktails, see what you want to make, and go with that. For example, I always have Luxardo, because I like drinks with maraschino in them. In regards to tools, Cocktail Kingdom has great ones, but a good knife is also incredibly important.

DP: Where do you go for a drink when you’re not working?
JO: I usually go to Cook and Shaker, which is four houses down from me, and I try to make the rounds to know what’s relevant.
 
DP: What’s the secret to being a great bartender?
JO: Not being afraid to fail. Some of my best drinks on paper have also been my worst tasting drinks in reality. Nobody ever bats a thousand, so get weird, try new things, ask questions, and see what works. I’ve gained so much knowledge from people in the back of the house, especially pastry chefs (like Samantha Kincaid at Fork).
 
DP: If you could have a drink with any person alive or dead, who would it be and what would you have?
JO: A beer with Barack Obama. I miss him.

Photo via Drink Philly

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