Alden & Harlow’s Beverage Director Dan Pontius compares bartending to being part of one big dinner party every night. The New York native loves the buzz that’s central to bar life — specifically the chance to chat with captivating patrons — all while bonding over good food & bevvies. Here, he talks egg white cocktails & clarified sours, the six spots he frequents in his free time and why he’s obsessed with Oaxacan rum lately.
Briefly, how did you get involved in restaurants (and, specifically, bartending)? What draws you to this line of work?
My first job at age 15 was as a busser at an Italian restaurant on Long Island. I didn’t get into bartending until I moved to Philadelphia in my 20s. I was a server at Midtown Continental in Center City Philadelphia when I first trained as a bartender. I’m drawn to both the social and creative aspects of bartending. Shifts are rarely dull, especially in Harvard Square! Essentially you’re having dinner and drinks with a few hundred people each week. I’ve met all sorts of interesting people over the years, some friends for life.
What’s your favorite drink to make (or wine or beer to pour)? Least favorite?
I like plating up egg white cocktails. Good looking foam is very satisfying. There aren’t any drinks I don’t like to make. For sure when I first started bartending I’d encounter drinks that were frustrating to make, but it wasn’t too long before I realized it was best to just set my mind to not judging what people ordered or why. And any drinks that maybe I thought were too labor intensive I eventually realized were just opportunities to become stronger. If you’re going to tend bar for a living, it’s in your own best interest to shed all those sorts of judgmental habits and hang-ups. Growing as a bartender has definitely helped me to grow as a person.
How do you feel about the ‘mixology’ movement—does that term appeal to you, not appeal to you? What do you think it means to be involved in the bartender culture, if you agree that there is one?
I’m thrilled that there are always bartenders looking to find new ingredients and methods. The term bartender suits me just fine, personally, but I’m all for people describing themselves and their jobs however they prefer. There are many different ways to be involved in the bartender culture and many different subcultures, but the culture at large I believe is driven most by a desire to connect and create. The community thrives on sharing, whether it’s via social media or behind/over the bar. In my personal experience, bartender culture is more about cooperation and support than it is about competition.
On your days off, what kind of places do you frequent? A lot of industry folk are happier with a Miller High Life and a Fernet than composed cocktails or craft beer. You?
Ideally, I get to experience as much of Boston’s industry as my free time allows, but I do tend to fall back on a few places: Sycamore, Benedetto, Sichuan Garden at The Baldwin and Sarma. Two of my new favorites are Shore Leave and the Saloniki in Harvard Square. I generally keep it simple with orders on nights off, but I’ll always hand myself over to whatever experience a spot is offering. I’ll drink wine with an entire meal or pair tiki drinks, I like to experience concepts as intended whenever possible.
What do you always keep stocked at home? Are there different things you like to drink or to make for special occasions? Snow storms, sick days, having friends over, drinks for dinner, etc.
I’m a big fan of gin martinis. Currently stocking Miro, a bone dry vermouth I only came across in the last year, and Monkey 47, which I find to be a veritable labyrinth of palate and aroma. As far as entertaining, I’ve been taking advantage of all the prep I do for Longfellow and making myself a lot of clarified sours. I have yet to find someone who doesn’t love a Hibiki Harmony clarified sour. They’re delicious and generally a conversation starter.
Are you excited about one spirit in particular? Is there something really overrated or underrated, in your opinion?
I’m loving Oaxacan rum currently. It’s aggressive and funky and I’m a sucker for any product that tastes so regional. As far as underrated, I feel like most spirits have had their moment even just in my time behind the bar. As far as cocktails go, I think I’ve just come to terms with the fact that I’ve been ignoring vodka as a go to spirit. At Alden & Harlow, Waypoint, and The Longfellow Bar, so much of our menu is about highlighting housemate ingredients that there’s no reason not to use an alcohol that just stays out of the way. Just sayin’.
What’s something you wish the average guest knew about your job—not service-wise, but related to the craft of bartending. (In other words, apart from common courtesy and being a good guest, what’s something you think everybody should know about bartending?)
Creativity runs on trust; it’s an honest form of self-expression. When someone makes you a drink, they are either creating something specifically for you or they’re executing a build that they or someone else created for their specific program. There’s risk associated with putting your creativity on display and I think having that in mind can really make the experience richer for all involved.