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Behind the Bar: Colin O'Neill of Oyster House

by Drink Philly on Apr 23, 2018 in Culture

 
For this installment of Behind the Bar, we spoke to Colin O’Neill, who heads up the bar program at Oyster House. O’Neill, who grew up outside of Baltimore, moved to Philadelphia 10 years ago to study sculpture at the University of the Arts, and he now lives in Overbook while pursuing a graduate degree in accounting at Drexel’s Lebow College of Business. We talked to O’Neill about his start at the Franklin, scuba diving, and FDR.
 
Drink Philly (DP): Tell me a little bit about the place.
Colin O’Neill (CO): Oyster House offers a kind of nostalgia - since it’s been open since 1976, we present our guests with classic cuisine and drink in a modern setting. I took over the bar program when Mission Taqueria, our sister restaurant, opened upstairs. I try to concentrate on expanding our gin program and increasing staff knowledge about gin. My bartending background is very classics-based, which I think is the perfect fit here. Novelty wears off on newer things, but you know you can always come here to get a great drink.
 
DP: Have you bartended elsewhere?
CO: My very first bar gig was barbacking and working as a bouncer at Sisters in 2010, before it closed. I started as a barback at The Franklin in the summer of 2011, and I worked there for three years. I was a barback for a year, and because I was barbacking for Al [Sotack], he took me under his wing and he helped me become a bartender. I became the Robin to his Batman. Lindsey [Krueger] picked up a few shifts at The Franklin, and we loved working together, so he told me he had an opening at Oyster House. I started out splitting my time between the two, and eventually I made the jump to being full time here.

DP: What’s trendy right now?
CO: Redefining spirit categories is very trendy right now - I think more people are trying to challenge what terms like “gin” and “whiskey” even mean. More and more people are barrel finishing gins, small batch spirits are everywhere, and everyone is getting more creative. 

DP: What are some trends you wish would die?
CO: I don’t like when bartenders try to put their “craft” before attending to their guest. I think the whole point of bartending is to give people what they want, the best way you know how to make it.
 
 
DP: Any predictions about where the industry might go next?
CO: I think there’s a growing trend where bartenders are trying to take better care of themselves and turn bartending into a career rather than just a “job.” I think more and more people are working to make bartending into a real path.
 
DP: One unexpected fact about you?
CO: I got certified to scuba dive when I was 14 - the best place I’ve ever dived was an island off the coast of Venezuela named Bonair, where there’s an amazing haven for sea turtles. I also love kickboxing, and I’ve been doing that for about a year.
 
DP: Favorite beer?
CO: In cooler months, I usually go for porters, but I’m always a fan of saisons.
 
DP: Favorite liquor?
CO: I love drinking cognac (Pierre Ferrand), but I love working with gin.
 
DP: Favorite cocktail?
CO: An Americano. Super low-proof, and it works all year round.
 
 
DP: What’s your favorite kind of customer?
CO: Someone who comes in, knows what they want, and is excited to have a conversation with me.
 
DP: What do you think the essentials are for a good home bar?
CO: Pick your favorite cocktail and buy those ingredients, and then think of what your friends like to drink, get those ingredients, and build a bridge between those two.
 
DP: Where do you go for a drink when you’re not working?
CO: Oscar’s, definitely. Everyone there is great. I love Fergie’s, because it’s not pretentious. Good Dog is another favorite of mine, and I don’t go there for any one particular person, because I know I’ll always have a good time no matter who’s working.
 
Uncle Buck (Old Grandad Bonded, lemon juice, ginger syrup, Fernet Branca, spiced red wine, mint garnish)
 
DP: What’s the secret to being a great bartender?
CO: Being humble and always listening.
 
DP: If you could have a drink with any famous person, living or dead, who would it be and what would you drink?
CO: Right now, I’d love to sip a Martini with Franklin D. Roosevelt.
 
Photos via Drink Philly

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