Ask anyone in San Diego’s Kensington neighborhood for the best craft cocktails in town and they’ll proudly point you in the direction of The Kensington Grill, home of bartender Dustin DeWinter, whose manager Joe Baumgardner calls, “the chef behind the bar”.
Bartending since 1996, and at the grill for six years, DeWinter is passionate about balancing ingredients so that everything works just right: the feel in the mouth, the nose, and the way it moves all the way through your palate. When Quady Winery’s representative on the move, Dana Fares, caught up with him he was working on making his own strawberry preserves. Ever the conscientious bartender, DeWinter managed to delve into his thoughts on the San Diego taste profile, his craft, and his favorite Vya vermouth cocktails while keeping martini glasses filled at the other end of the bar.
DeWinter’s popular Vya Sweet, Campari, & Whiskey cocktail, Portlandia, referenced below, was named according to Joe Baumgardner, “in homage to Portland and the fun, cool drink scene they have inspired.”
A former Marine Corps member and student of Criminal Justice, DeWinter turned to bartending as a side job and found he had a knack for not only reading his customers, but for delivering them just the right drink. In his own words:
DeWinter: I just like creating. It sounds totally cheese ball, but it is absolutely the truth. I really like mixing, creating things, making new flavors. And making people think about what they are drinking and choosing something that they might not have picked. I am not as crazy about some flavors, there is a difference between putting flavors together that are weird just for the for the sake of being weird and they don’t necessarily taste good. I want somebody to order a drink and have another because it’s good, not order it because it’s crazy.
DF: So you’re into the pairing and the blending of taste profiles?
Dustin: Right, and balancing that all out. [Portlandia] has sweetness to it, but I wouldn’t call it a sweet drink. It’s got the sweet, it’s got the bitter, and it’s got the savory. I think a good drink needs all of that.
DF: How has being a native San Diegan influenced your taste profile? Or has it?
DeWinter: I’m not sure. I’m not an ego driven person to begin with. I try and figure out what people will like, not what I like. If I am making it for me then I’ll make it for myself, but I am trying to create things that the general public will like. I think that’s important as a bartender: to read a crowd and what the crowd wants. If they don’t want it you can make the greatest thing in the world, but it is irrelevant. A lot of people have preconceived ideas: ‘I don’t like whiskey, or I don’t like Campari.’ But [Portlandia] is not just a whiskey Campari drink. There is this synthesis of things happening in there.
DF: Well, it’s like you’ve taken everything and used it properly…you’ve made the ingredients shine in the way they should shine and can shine.
DeWinter: It’s all about proportions. For [Portlandia] I use a jigger pour because the proportions are so delicate. Just like a chef. I’m not comparing myself to a chef, but if you are a chef, you are constantly tasting. The same thing is important with drinks. You’ve got to taste it. If it doesn’t taste right don’t serve it.
DeWinter continues: Sometimes when I’m making my infusions or my syrups the fruit is different; sometimes the vanilla didn’t seep as much. I need to add more vanilla, I need to add more ginger, I need to add more something. You’ve got to figure it out, but if you don’t taste it you don’t know that. So I taste most of the drinks I make here.
DF: So what’s your feeling about vermouth in general, overall, across the board?
DeWinter: I’m not saying this because it’s your vermouth, but because in a side-by-side tasting it’s delicious. It’s also underused. In my Manhattans I put a good bit of vermouth in, because it works in proportion. Manhattan is one of my favorites and people don’t use enough vermouth. It’s not like a martini where you just use a splash.
DeWinter continues: Here we don’t use a lot of vermouth. If somebody asks for a martini they do not get vermouth unless they ask for it, because so many places have conditioned their clientele by the improper use of bad vermouth. San Diegans are conditioned a certain way. I think [vermouth] adds an important aspect to drinks. It’s like layers. If you want vodka you want vodka, but if you want a martini you want another flavor profile added to it.
DF: What does Vya Sweet evoke for you?
DeWinter: I get a lot of port character, almost port and in the best of ways fig vinegar. There’s that little bit of tang in the back. Both the sweet and the dry are really nice. The sweet just makes a Manhattan great. I had a guy last night that asked me for a Manhattan, and I was like you know what I have for you? He was like ‘I was only going to have one but can I have another on before I go?’
DF: What do you do in your spare time?
DeWinter: I cook a lot. I try and come across new things. Going through cookbooks. I spend an inordinate amount of time actually trying to figure out flavors that are compatible. I have all of these notes of ideas… I have little bits of paper always in my pocket, and a notepad in my phone that’s full of different ideas am here until midnight 5 days a week and even when I am off I am trying to figure out different flavors.
Recipes courtesy of Dustin DeWinter, from the Kensington Grill.