Behind the Pine / Nick O’Brien
Craving's bar manager preaches the gospel of tiki to curious customers
Photo by kc kratt
Name: Nick O'Brien
Title: Bar manager, Craving
Years in food industry: 11
Previous experience: Mohawk Place, Mike A's, Tappo, Bistro Europa, Black Sheep
Nick O’Brien got his start at Mohawk Place eleven years ago, working the door, ordering supplies, and booking shows. That’s where he first started playing around with cocktails, making simple drinks like Old Fashioneds from what Mohawk had behind the bar. When that venue closed its doors in early 2013, O’Brien started working at Mike A’s in the Hotel Lafayette. From there he moved to Tappo, then waited tables at Bistro Europa before helping launch the bar program at The Black Sheep. Today, O’Brien manages the bar at Craving, preaching the gospel of tiki to curious customers.
If you weren’t a bartender, what would you do?
Cook. I cooked years ago and was lucky enough to spend a few months last year working in the kitchen at Buffalo Proper alongside Ed Forster.
What’s one ingredient you’ll never tire of and why?
Amaro. There are so many different kinds and flavor profiles, they’re awesome to mix with or drink on their own. It’s a nice, low-alcohol shot to send friends off with after a big dinner without blasting their palates away, and the cocktail options are seemingly infinite.
What drink most evokes strong memories for you and why?
The many Mai Tais I drank cruising on a catamaran in Hawaii forever ago. When I got into cocktails, I ended up searching for a correctly made Mai Tai anywhere that offered them, with less than satisfactory results. Fortunately, I’m now in the position to not only make myself one whenever the mood strikes, but to offer them to anyone that wants one made to Trader Vic’s original recipe.
Is there one cocktail trend you wish would die?
I’m not a fan of everything mixed with citrus and ginger beer being labeled a “blank” mule. It’s a buck. It was a buck a hundred years before the Moscow Mule was “invented” and it still is.
What’s one trend, technique, or ingredient you are most excited about right now?
I’ve been in love with tiki for years and it’s a constant inspiration, trying to create new drinks in the style that hold up and trying to master the classics. We lost so many cool tiki restaurants and bars, but there’s quite a few neat, new places opening. By the way, if anyone has any menus or memorabilia from Buffalo’s long-gone Mauna Kai, come let me know.
Is there anything you just can’t drink?
Fireball. I shudder just thinking about it.
Are there any bartenders whose style you really appreciate?
Alana Nogueda, head bartender and co-owner at The Shameful Tiki Room in Toronto. She’s doing a bang-up job of serving properly made classic tiki drinks with some very solid originals in a classic tiki atmosphere.
What’s your favorite after-work beverage or meal?
More often than not, a daiquiri or cheap beer and a couple tacos at Lloyd Taco Factory.
What is your least favorite request from guests?
I don’t love substituting vodka in a gin drink. If the cocktail is supposed to be with gin, there’s probably a reason. Usually it’s folks who had a bad experience, like drinking all of a cheap bottle of gin in high school, and I’ll sometimes offer to make it to the recipe first and if they don’t like it, I’ll make the vodka version for free.
Other than Craving, what’s the first place you’d take an out-of-towner?
Either Kelly’s Korner so they can get top-notch weck and wings right from the get-go, or Ballyhoo for their sausages and my annoying requests for cocktails they don’t have on the menu anymore.
Can you name the most exciting thing about Buffalo’s cocktail scene?
With the explosion of bars making craft cocktails these days, it can be tough to find qualified people to make those drinks. I’m amazed at the number of people that have the enthusiasm and dedication to immerse themselves into hundreds of years of knowledge and recipes. These are the people that, in a few years, are going to be running places with solid programs that can make a drink correctly without spending five minutes talking about their bow tie collection.
If you were to eat and drink at Craving as a guest, what would you order and why?
The fried chicken with truffle honey and grits is no joke, and though it’s listed as an appetizer, it’s definitely big enough to be a meal. And nothing goes better with fried chicken than a bottle of champagne!
What do you wish people knew about cocktails in general?
I wish more new bartenders would focus on learning how to make the classics before they start to play around. I’d love to try your variation on a Boulevardier, but I won’t have much faith that I’ll like it if I see you have to look up a recipe twice to make a Negroni.
Lizz Schumer writes frequently for Spree and teaches journalism at Canisius College.