How bartender Jeff Bell is making a difference in the world of mixology

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In just a few short years, Jeff Bell has become one of the most recognizable figure-heads in the bartending industry. In 2010, Bell started working at the famous New York City speakeasy PDT. His expertise in all-things spirits helped the bar earn a 2012 James Beard "Outstanding Bar Program" award. Then three years later in 2013, Bell won the title of the U.S. Bartender of the Year and was ranked #1 during the Diageo World Class (or in Bell's words, the "Olympics of bartending") and was ranked #2 in the world. It cemented his position as one of the leading figures and tastemakers in his field.

But if you think the fame has gotten to Bell's head, you'd better think again. The incredible mixologist still remains at the helm of PDT six years later, which he notes "...is an eternity times 10 to work at a bar." He still loves the sense of community he feels while manning his bar and knows that being a great bartender isn't about winning titles or becoming a recognizable face, it's about putting the customer first; "At the end of the day, being a great bartender is all about helping people."

We recently had a chance to sit down with Jeff Bell to talk about his experience in the bartending industry and how he's seen the rise of the mixologist in the past few years. Ahead, find out how he first became a bartender, what it was like for him to compete in the Diageo World Class, and more!

#OnOurRadar is a feature that showcases creative minds and up-and-coming talent. To see more past interviews, click here.

How did you first fall into mixology?

I became a mixologist by chance. It was the natural progression for me. Most people in our field fell into the position; it wasn't a job that existed 10 years ago when I started bartending. The industry is new. Bartending has been around for a long time but the focus on cocktails and the popularity behind it is at its peak and is still growing. I was a bartender for a long time and I loved it. I found cocktails as the kind of bartending I wanted to have my emphasis on. I never thought, "I'm going to grow up and focus on mixing complex ingredients together to make something exciting" since that didn't exist back then. A bartender was more of Sam Malone from "Cheers." I liked being that person when I first started. I worked the same shift for four years and I had this group of people and we had ongoing relationship, and that sense of community kept me in bartending. I felt like a beacon in that little neighborhood in Seattle. Then I moved to New York and learned more and grew as a person and as a bartender. I learned more about the creative side of things here.

What is it like developing your palate to become a mixologist?

Everyone has a palette and it should be thought of as a muscle; it just takes practice to get better. You have to try to taste different things. The best way to learn about spirits is to taste categories side by side. So if you want to learn about gin, you would taste a bunch of London dries together to see their nuances and flavors you get which are different from each other. That's how you start to understand the flavors and distinguish the flavor. That's the base level. When people come to me, I'm the expert. When people come to me, few of them are hobbyist and know about mixologist. The bulk of them don't and they trust me to help guide them.

What goes into the art of crafting the perfect drink menu?

There's a lot of external influences on creating drinks like the availability of products or the seasonality. Our menu has 18 drinks and there's a specific needs for lighter spirits, like gin or tequila, in the summer time and more rich or fuller-body ones in the winter. We slowly change our menu over time to reflect those influences. We also like to showcase new stuff on the market since people are constantly making new products. We're trying to find fun, unique things to offer people. We want to be at the cutting edge.

How did you prepare for your cocktail competitions, like the Diageo World Class?

I did the Diageo World Class and won 1st in the United States and finished 2nd in the Global competition. It was like the Olympics of bartending since it's the top bartending competition. I think that it's the hardest competition to succeed in because it has the most challenges and is all encompassing. There's a speed component and challenges where you have to think on your feet. It challenges all the different aspects of being a bartender. But at the end of the day, a cocktail competition can never be the same as bartending since bartending is all about variables and dealing with people. But going back to the competition itself, it was crazy. I spent a week on a cruise ship sailing into the Mediterranean. We went from Nice to Monte Carlo to Saint Tropez to Ibiza. I got off the boat every day for a few hours to complete a different challenge. Each day there was 2 challenges, 8 in total. It was intense. Those bespoke challenges were all about making something with the spirits at hand, the time of day, and the city you were in. When I was in Saint Tropez I decided I was going to make something that tasted like Rose wine because that's what everyone was drinking. I made a cocktail that tasted like that. Then there was blind tastings as well. It took a lot of practice.

How have you seen or experienced the rise of the mixologist in the past few years?

I've definitely experienced it and it's interesting. I think it's great because I'm riding a wave where I get to do very cool things that I never dreamt I would do. I get to travel all the time and I've probably been a bartender in 20 countries. It's amazing; it's not what I signed up for, but I'm happy to take what is coming my way. But I worry about the fame of bartenders as attracting people into the industry who want to be famous instead of people who want to work hard. When I first started bartending, people reacted a certain way when I told them I was a bartender. I used to -- and still -- get asked, "What's next?" It's cool that people now respect what I do, but I think people want the cool stuff I get to do but they don't want to work 12 hours a day, they don't want to work without breaks, they don't want to work on their feet, they don't want to be belittled every night by people telling you what to do. At the end of the day, being a great bartender is all about helping people. The more famous bartenders get, it's advertising a small percentage of bartenders and what they do. It's not a misrepresentation but it's attracting people to the industry who might not have the same intentions or work ethic as the guys who have trained me to bartend. They've done it for forty years and that's what makes a great bartender.

What has been the best moment in your career?

The best thing to ever happen to me is winning the Diageo World Class and losing at the Global finals. I think it gave me a great platform and exposure, but losing taught me a valuable lesson that I wasn't good enough to win. Not that I was belittling myself, but that I need to stop focusing on all the cool things coming my way and get better at what I do. Because after all of that was done, I still had to go back to my job and serve people, operate a business, and come up with new drinks. I got the best of both worlds: I met so many great people but my ego was checked, so that I still worked hard everyday. It still reminds me that I need to constantly improve myself. Losing was great for me to propel my life forward.

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

I've been very fortunate to work with someone, Jim Meehan, who has given me advice along the way but the biggest thing I've learned from him is to observe. I think it's a lost art amongst young people. Someone can tell you advice all day long and they might not do it. I used to watch him and how he interacted and conducted himself. It's not one singular piece of advice, but the big thing I learned from him was patience. Be ambitious, but be calculated and cautions. I think a lot of bartenders bounce around to the next great thing. I don't have that. I've been at PDT for six years which is an eternity times 10 to work at a bar. Also be patient for the right opportunity and having the humility to know that you can take a job that's below you if it's going to propel you forward. Also don't be humble to win something, be humbled to lose.

#OnOurRadar is a feature that showcases creative minds and up-and-coming talent. To see more interviews, click here.

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