Issue 30

Portrait of a Bartender: Benton Alexander

Portrait of a Bartender: Benton Alexander

One of the things I’ve learned over the past several years, ever since I started my journey in bartending, to be honest, is that bartenders come in all shapes and sizes. They all have different areas of focus, knowledge, attitudes, passions and interests. Some of them are about the party, while others are career driven, and yet others, still, see it as something temporary that pays bills while they prepare themselves for something different in life. In previous issues I’ve focused on writing articles focused on different drinks or aspects of bartending, but now I think it’s time to turn that focus to something else, to the bartenders themselves. This is the first in what I hope to be a series of articles which introduces you to some of the best bartenders Omaha and Lincoln have to offer.

Benton Alexender and I sit at the bar at MoMo’s Pizzaria in Lincoln. I’ve got this fantastic pork loin in front of me while he prepares to dig into duck and rissotto. Both armed with a glass of pinot noir, we start chatting. I’ve conveniently forgotten to turn the recorder on my phone on, and taking notes seems like a lot of work…

Benton is the head bartender at Issara in Lincoln, Nebraska. We first met through the US Bartender’s Guild (USBG), and I first really became aware of him when he competed in a margarita competition earlier this year. I was one of the judges, and he made this margarita with this amazing Thai Bitters he makes at Issara. Over the months since then I’ve had the chance to get to know him better, and while we don’t always see eye to eye when it comes to cocktail recipes, I’ve yet to try something from him that I haven’t enjoyed.

When he isn’t bartending, Benton is a musician. He has years of training while growing up, and focuses on drum and bass, a style characterized by its high energy beats. If you get a chance to hear anything by Bassthoven, it might be worth checking out. Bartending, for him, is not something he does when he isn’t making music, but is something he does as well as make music. Both, music and cocktails, are aspects of art, and he identifies as an artist before he thinks of himself as either a bartender or a musician.

For me, this is an interesting take on bartending. I’ve heard people describe cocktails as works of art – the balance of flavors, the appearance and presentation, but I rarely hear bartenders talk about what they do as art. For me, when I bartended, I saw myself as a technician with the drinks. My goal was to find that specific flavor that, for me, elevated the drink to something almost sublime. It was through this process of trial and error, of constantly tasting spirits and taking notes, that I was able to achieve what I wanted – but I never viewed what I did as art. Benton does, and this gives him a flexibility and a creativeness with what he does that allows him to venture into flavors and combinations that would never cross my mind. It’s that kind of thing that led him to win the USBG Iron Bartender competition in July over at Joystix in Lincoln.

His wheelhouse with flavor can be summed up in a couple of words: bright and fresh. While we spoke, we talked about how he heads the bar at a restaurant, and how that has influenced his perception on drinks. Working at Blue Orchid first, and now Issara, his palate has been influenced by the bright, fresh and bold flavors of Thai cuisine, and it’s this kind of attitude he puts into his cocktails. He’s at his most comfortable working with citrus, but not just the ones we are familiar with. Kaffir lime and mango are common ingredients for him, and with collaboration with his chefs he is able to explore nuances and flavors that many bartenders who don’t have a kitchen to work alongside with don’t get to experience. He feels that he wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what he has without the help and experience of his coworkers in the kitchen.

Working a bar in a restaurant is a challenge. While you can have a forte, it is tough to specialize. Customers tend to look for wine or beer to pair with their food. Fortunately, for Benton, the beer pairing is easy as the best beer to have with Thai food is, of course, Singha (a Thai lager), but wine can be a challenge to pair. Benton is in sommelier training, something I usually compare to pursuing a masters degree in wine. This knowledge not only allows him to pair a good wine with your food, but gives deeper insights into concepts such as terroir which can play a significant role in cocktail making.

I’ve always maintained there’s a kind of trinity to being a good bartender. You need to have knowledge, the ability to apply that knowledge, and, finally, you need to have what I can only describe as affability. A good bartender knows when to talk to the customer and to draw the necessary information to know what drink to make, or the bartender needs to know when a conversation is flagging and be able to make the right comment to spark it back up, and sometimes, the bartender needs to read a situation and know when to not say anything. With his easy-going manner and his optimism, once you get him talking he might not know when to stop. Always quick with a smile, behind the stick Benton Alexander personifies his cocktails: bright and fresh.

 


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