Bill DeGroot at Quiessence

Categories: Behind the Bar
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Bill DeGroot

​Bill DeGroot is an oddity for us here at Behind the Bar, for he no longer works behind the bar at all.

A veteran of the cocktail scene for more than 15 years, DeGroot paid his dues at establishments throughout the valley, including Star-Spangled Tavern, Canal, Estate House and Metro Brasserie. He now brings his vast knowledge of spirits and cocktail culture to Quiessence (6106 S. 32nd St., 602-276-0601), the farmhouse-turned-restaurant located at the Farm at South Mountain. Rather than mixing drinks, DeGroot works as a consultant for the eatery, crafting a drink menu that makes use of ingredients grown on neighboring farmland while training the servers to make them.

Has all your experience come from being on the job, or have you been formally trained?
I've had some training. I grew up in the New York/New Jersey area. The cocktail scene is very different from what goes on here now. I attended a lot of seminars and that type of thing. I had some training classes with some big-name bartenders in New York. I also read a lot about classic cocktails.

How is the cocktail scene back east different from the current scene in Phoenix?
It's night and day different. There's been a real cocktail renaissance in the major cities of this country in the last 10-15 years, going back to classic cocktails and the art of bartending. It's becoming not just a job you do until you find your real job; it's a profession, and it's taken much more seriously. It's getting that way in Phoenix, but much more slowly. It'll take time.

What's the major difference between classic cocktails and the more modern stuff?
There are far fewer ingredients. Now, there are so many liqueurs and liquors and things at your disposal, whereas you'll see a lot of the classic cocktails have very similar ingredients done a different way.

What are you doing differently at Quiessence?
Here we're doing what we call "farm-to-table" cocktails. We're trying to utilize ingredients from Maya's farm and what's in season and available locally, and trying to incorporate those into the cocktails, whether they be classic cocktails or something that we've come up with.

Can you give some examples of how you merge farm and cocktail?
We're doing a basil gimlet right now, so we're using fresh basil, lime juice and vodka. We're doing a blackberry bramble, since blackberries are in season. We're also making a blackberry liqueur. We try to make a lot of our own liqueurs here and do a lot of infusions with herbs and vegetables that are predominant at the garden.

What's your approach to crafting a cocktail?
I like to do things that are unique. I like to use the classics as a basis for what I do, but you always want to put a unique spin on it. You do that through experimentation and a lot of trying to look at it from a different angle. I also like things to be precise. If you go to a classic cocktail lounge in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, you don't see anybody free-pouring at all; they're all using jiggers. The reason somebody uses a jiggers isn't to short you on the amount of alcohol, but to make sure you have precise measurements each time. Whenever I do a cocktail list or train bartenders, I make sure the bartenders always have their own straws for tasting, and before the cocktail goes to a guest they taste it. That's important because juices, fruits and other seasonal ingredients vary from season to season. You need to know how to adjust a cocktail if it's too tart or too sweet.

What's your approach to crafting a cocktail?
I like to do things that are unique. I like to use the classics as a basis for what I do, but you always want to put a unique spin on it. You do that through experimentation and a lot of trying to look at it from a different angle. I also like things to be precise. If you go to a classic cocktail lounge in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, you don't see anybody free-pouring at all; they're all using jiggers. The reason somebody uses a jiggers isn't to short you on the amount of alcohol, but to make sure you have precise measurements each time. Whenever I do a cocktail list or train bartenders, I make sure the bartenders always have their own straws for tasting, and before the cocktail goes to a guest they taste it. That's important because juices, fruits and other seasonal ingredients vary from season to season. You need to know how to adjust a cocktail if it's too tart or too sweet.

What do you drink when you go out?
Captain Morgan and ginger ale. It's simple, it's easy, and I find that if I'm going to have a number of them, I can do that and not get retarded, for lack of a better term. But it kind of miffs me that in Phoenix a lot of the bars don't have ginger ale, and the bartenders will try to make it on the sly with coke and 7-up and try to trick you, but it never works. I also like cognacs and things like that. It depends on the social setting.

What's the biggest thing you see people do wrong when they mix drinks?
People at home just don't know what they're mixing. You'd be amazed how many people don't know what they're pouring or why they're pouring it. But that's a home bar, and it's going to be filled with whatever that person likes, so you can't really tell them they're wrong. With bartenders, I just see a lot of sloppiness. I don't think everybody embraces -- or cares -- to have a large knowledge base. With a lot of programs I've laid out, people will say they've never even seen a particular spirit before. They're common spirits if you do your homework and study, but not everybody does.

How do you go about putting your own twist on a classic cocktail?
Sometimes, a cocktail shouldn't be twisted because it's perfect on its own. I always want to leave something that's recognizable in classic form but give it a different flavor profile.

Do you get behind the bar anymore?
I'm just a consultant, really. Here we don't have bartenders, per se. The servers produce all the cocktails. So the challenge here was creating a program that would have the look and feel of higher-end classic mixology, but still would be workable enough so the servers would be able to do it. So what we've done is we've laid everything out step-by-step and done a lot of training, and we've gotten pretty good results. I'm here periodically checking the servers' work and we do training once a week.

How does someone acquire the knowledge base that you have?
For me, it's been being in bars for a long time and seeing things that pique my curiosity. I'm just naturally curious like that. I also read a lot. I worked with a chef a couple years ago whose favorite saying was, "Pick up a book!" It couldn't be more true.

Is there any drink out there that you're well-known for?
I made a pear martini once and got some good press for that. Southwest Airlines picked it up and ran it in their in-flight magazine as a nonalcoholic drink. I got phone calls from old ladies all over the country asking me for the recipe. That was one of my bigger mistakes.

Nearly everything served at the restaurant is grown or created right here. Is it the same for liquors?
We make a lot of our own things: limoncello, peach-cello, a version of Grand Marnier. But those take from 90-180 days to mature, so it's an ongoing process. We're also doing barrel-aged cocktails. It started in London -- a guy was aging cocktails in glass bottles with wooden staves. A guy from Portland saw it and decided to put a Manhattan into an oak barrel and has gotten great results. There have been some other copycats, and I'll be one of them. I experimented over the summer with wood chips and jars and got decent results, so now we have in the back office two twenty-liter oak barrels filled with Manhattans that should mature in the middle of October. It's a rye-based Manhattan with vermouth. The vermouth will oxidize a little, the rye should mellow, and it'll take on a little of that woody, smoky flavor. It should be perfect for that time of year.

Sounds interesting. 
There's a lot of good stuff. When I first spoke to the guys about working here, we decided it would be baby steps. We're kind of just at the beginning right now. We hope to build it and keep growing, and make some really unique product along the way. 


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Quiessence Restaurant & Wine Bar

6106 S. 32nd St., Phoenix, AZ

Category: Restaurant

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