In our continuing #FeatureBartender series we are seeking to get voices from bartenders of every level of experience, from every part of the world. We talked to Keith Popejoy (McCarthy), of The Alchemist Gastropub, in West Palm Beach, Florida to gain insights in to his local bar scene.
How long have you been bartending, Keith?
For nine years. I started as a food runner at sixteen and moved my way through serving until I got a shot bartending at a small family run sports bar. Eventually, I made it into the nightclubs and cracked beers and slung vodka sodas for about five years. I learned a lot about volume from the night clubs. Keeping your composure in the weeds is as much a skill as mixing a nice cocktail. I am very new when it comes to craft cocktails. When I picked up a part-time job at The Alchemist Gastropub in West Palm Beach, I had read cocktail books and played around with spirits and bitters at home, I wanted to use my time to try out a higher level of bartending. I started spinning classics and coming up with my own cocktails. After a couple of months, I gave my notice at the night club and took on The Alchemist full-time. Soon, it was my job to write a new cocktail menu. The task was daunting at first, but with study and a steady stream of regulars to taste test my cocktails it came together rather nicely.
Who are your biggest bartending influences?
Dale Degroff is certainly one with his precise detail and knack for story telling. His book The Craft of the Cocktail was one of the first books I picked up when I was at home mixing up Boulevardiers and Last Words. I had opportunity to assist Charlotte Voisey at a William Grant and Sons spirit showcase. The space and event were amazing, with a lot of hard work to pull it off. I had followed Charlotte on the Small Screen channel and was excited to work with her. I would consider her one of my influences not only for her cocktails, but for her poise and grace under pressure. She nearly single-handedly coördinated one of the most intricate cocktail events I had ever seen, seemingly without breaking a sweat. My Uncle was a big influence. He was the closest thing I’ve had to a father, and though he quit bartending years before I came along, he had only good things to say about the time he spent behind the stick. He was probably the only person who got it when I decided to stay in the industry.
Sunday School with Brett Hart
I was working in a downtown club and across the street was a cocktail bar called Hullabaloo. I didn’t have to report to work until 9pm. so I would sit at Hullabaloo and have a couple cocktails. I got to know the head bartender, Brett Hart, who is a free-flowing wealth of information.
Hullabaloo’s Brett Hart. Image credit Ben Hicks.
If you get Brett talking he can go all night. In time, I was showing up on my nights off. Eventually, we just called Sunday nights “class”. After a while, he let me behind his bar to mix my cocktails. Brett would taste my concoction and tell me honestly and in detail why it was good or why it sucked. I think that’s when I caught the craft cocktail bug. I saw how intricate bartending could be really be. Brett really pushed me into getting a gig doing cocktails. Now, we work on the same street at different cocktail bars, but we still get together when we can and talk shop. His knowledge never ceases to amaze me, which pushes me to learn as much as possible.
Bartending on Clematis Street, West Palm Beach
The best thing about Clematis Street, where The Alchemist is located, is that everything is centered around fun. We are not far from the very stuffy Palm Beach Island. Even the affluent come to Clematis to get away from that. I have a silly mustache and I’m heavily tattooed but that doesn’t deter the wealthy islanders from sitting at my bar. Clematis offers everything from casual fine dining, live music and night clubs – so the guests who come through my bar range across the board. I always felt that West Palm was a little behind in the cocktail renaissance. People seemed to keep it simple for so long. The clubs always did well here but I think more of a balance is coming to West Palm Beach. As many people who come to our street to dance, people will come to dine and enjoy fresh cocktails or a nice glass of wine. The club scene won’t necessarily suffer, but the street will be much more alive with activity and variety of people who will only help grow establishments like Hullabaloo and The Alchemist.
Keith Popejoy. Image credit Cassie Petrone.
Florida bar challenges
The biggest challenge in the past was simply being a male bartender. Trying to get a job at a club when you don’t look great in a corset is difficult. I’ve talked to other bar owners about possible spots behind their bars but I’m told that they don’t hire males. I understand the reasoning behind hiring sexy female bartenders, and more power to those girls making the money, but i found it rather frustrating. When considering finding a cocktail bar to work at, I surprisingly ran into some of the same resistance, though on a more subtle scale.
My biggest pet peeve about the industry is sport drinking. It’s amazing to me the amount of people who pound $1 Fireball shots and stumble around the street. Brunch in West Palm is infamous for sport drinking. The Alchemist provides a quiet place to brunch. We don’t do bottomless anything and we tell people when it’s time to leave if they’ve had too much. As aggravated as the drunk guest can get, the laid back clientele comes back for the less rowdy Sunday mornings. As far as fixing the sport drinking problem, I think it’s always been a part of the industry and it always will.
If you could have a drink anywhere in the world – where would it be and what would you have?
My first love was literature so I’ve always wanted to do a drinking tour of Paris and drink where the great expats sipped brandy and whiskey. My bucket list is to find all the bars that the literary greats drank at, find their poison…and drink that.
Flamed Laphroig garnish on the Gold Fashioned. Image credit Cassie Petrone.
What’s a cocktail that you’ve created that you are most proud of?
The cocktail I’m most proud of is the “Gold Fashioned.” Instead of pretzels or peanuts, my bar offers up bacon strips and fried pork skins, as bar snacks. One day, I decided to drop some bacon in a stirring glass with an old-fashioned. It was an instant hit and an easy sell. In time, I started burning smoky Scotch over it with a balsamic mister and a crème brûlée torch.
Gold Fashioned, by Keith Popejoy
2 oz. Michter’s Bourbon
2 strips cooked bacon
1 orange peel
1 brandied cherry
1 oz. honey syrup (1:1 dilution)
Laphroaig torched mist.
Garnish: Orange peel, cherry, strip of bacon.
Muddle bacon strip with honey syrup in bottom of stirring vessel. Add Bourbon and ice. Stir until well chilled and serve over large ice-cube in a rocks glass. Flame drink with Laphroig filled mister and express oil from orange peel.
Gold Fashioned by Keith Popejoy. Image credit Cassie Petrone.
Next time you visit West Palm Beach, head to Clematis street, find Keith Popejoy at The Alchemist and slow it down for a drink, or two.