Every night behind the inconspicuous sign of an old shoe shop in downtown Hudson, Massachusetts, Alan Ercolani works his magic mixing cocktails for patrons. The self-taught barman, who now manages local speakeasy <> (Less Than Greater Than), worked his way from odd-end jobs (including waiting tables at a steakhouse and popping Bud Lights at a dingy night club) to what he calls the “craftier side of the biz”, like <>’s creative (and delicious) boozy ice cream concoctions. Here Ercolani takes a break from behind the counter to talk about his impressive whiskey collection, why copious drinking is crucial to mastering the trade and what he wishes he’d known when he was an industry newbie.
How did you first get involved in restaurants and bartending?
I started out waiting tables at Longhorn Steakhouse. I was waiting tables for about six months when the opportunity popped up and they needed a bartender – I kind of jumped at it and ran with it from there. After that, I went on to a more night club-type place where I was opening bottles of Bud Light all night long but made good money doing it. Then I eventually got tired of it and probably took about a year off from bartending. But then three and a half years ago, this opportunity presented itself with the company that I’m now with, which is more of a craft cocktail type thing. So I decided if I went back into bartending, I’d take it seriously.
What’s your go-to drink after a rough day at the office?
A Negroni or Boulevardier – super easy to build, you know, equal parts of three different things and you can make it in 30 seconds and be happy with it. It’s also my go-to drink if I go to a bar and I’m not really sure what their craft scene is like. If I see Campari behind the bar I’m thinking, you know what, we can make a Negroni happen, we can do this!
What do you keep stocked at home?
I’m a whiskey guy. I have 130 whiskey bottles in my living room right now so there is always a lot of alcohol at my house. And I’m big on Amaros – we carry 30+ different Amaros at the bar and I’m always tasting new things at home to see what I want to bring in, so there’s quite a few at my house as well.
What is your key tip for newcomers to the craft cocktail scene?
For starters, the internet’s an amazing tool. There’s lots of information out there on pretty much anything at your fingertips. Also: drink a lot. People always ask me, ‘how do you know all this stuff?’ well it’s because I’ve literally tasted every single thing behind the bar – multiple times. The only way you’re really going to know is to taste it. If a chef was making food but never tasted it, it’s probably not going to come out very well, and the same goes for cocktails. You need to know what the spirit you’re working with tastes like on its own if you’re going to be able to blend things together to make something good.
What is something you wish the average guest knew about your job?
I wish people knew that our goal is to make them happy, you know what I mean? There are a lot of people who are very set in their ways and push back when we recommend certain things. I’m not recommending those things because it’s something I want to sell or something that I like, we’re making that recommendation because we think it’s something that customer would like. So be open to new things. I always tell people, “Just try it the way it is and if you really hate it, we’ll get you something else – but just try it.” And 9 times out of 10 people will say, “Actually that’s really, really good.”
If you could go back in time and give advice to your younger self when you first started out, what would it be?
I’d tell him to quit that night club job sooner. I enjoyed the job for a brief period of time but getting into the craft side of things and getting into a position where I can put out a product that I’m actually proud of, I wish I had done that sooner in my career. And also, drink more.