Behind the Bar with John Fitzpatrick

The veteran bartender shares tricks of the trade and his vision for what’s next

Photo by Cassandra Walker

John Fitzpatrick, the “spiritual advisor” at The Wine Room in Delray Beach, has been a fixture on Atlantic Avenue for the past two decades. He moved to South Florida from New York City in 2000 and managed the bar at 32 East from 2012 until the restaurant closed in 2018. Here, he discusses his beginnings and what’s yet to come.

PBI: Why did you become a bartender?

Fitzpatrick: I was running some billiards clubs in Manhattan, and we couldn’t serve alcohol [due to] a law left over from Prohibition. The owners lobbied to get the law changed, and I was suddenly tasked with building several bars. I was immediately fascinated with it: all the types of spirits and mixes, the different brands, and the social aspect of serving people drinks.

How has the industry changed over the past 20 years?

The biggest change is the growth in the required knowledge base. Years ago, you could get away with just slinging drinks and not knowing much about the ingredients. Today the world is more complex. Every state in the country has a distillery, there are literally hundreds of different labels, and bartenders are expected to be familiar with them.

What’s the most interesting part of the job?

Every day is interesting, to be honest. It’s all about the people. You never know what someone is going through, or what kind of person they are, until you talk to them. I’ve met so many great people over the years who have become friends.

Do you have a favorite spirit?

I’d have to say single malt Scotch. You have this tiny island of Scotland, which is packed with dozens and dozens of distilleries, each with a different style. Speaking more broadly, the entire category of whiskey is my favorite, and I teach classes on it. There’s tremendous variation between bourbon, rye, Canadian, Scotch, Japanese, and lots of lesser-known types.

Can you describe the process of crafting a new cocktail?

I’m better known for taking the classics and finding the ideal ingredients to optimize them. My favorite is the Manhattan. I use Michter’s Small Batch Straight Rye, Dolin French vermouth, orange and mole bitters, and a tiny splash of French brandied cherry juice.

Any tips for the home bartender?

There are so many great YouTube videos now. Companies will give you the ingredients for a kit; you buy them and get an online tutorial from a professional bartender. On a basic level, of course, all you really need is a proper mixing glass, a spoon, and a jigger. But if you have the time and the patience to do some research, there are great resources out there. Consistency is the most important trait to develop. You need to measure and be precise. Don’t be afraid to experiment, but once you get a recipe you like, write it down and follow it.

What’s your definition of hospitality?

It’s definitely something that’s hard to teach. You need to have it in your nature to make people relax and smile, to be happy and forget about their problems. Either you have it or you don’t.

What does the future hold?

It’s a challenging career in the midst of a global pandemic, but I’m not going anywhere. I enjoy mentoring younger bartenders, and we have a team of 12 at The Wine Room; we were able to spend a lot of time together during the quarantine and work on recipes. I certainly don’t see myself in a cubicle or an office. Even though it may not return for a while, there’s nothing more energizing than a packed bar.

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