Bars get a lot of press in this city. We know the hotspots in each part of town and we know what dive is worth the drive. On the First Coast, we love our nightlife and we love the untiring souls who serve us the spirits that warm our own. But when it comes to the difference in watering holes found in town versus the beach, it’s a matter of taste.
Dave Catullo and Kurt Rogers II are longtime acquaintances. The two have artfully mastered the science of making a good drink or molecular mixology. Still working in their hometowns, but on either side of the ditch, I spoke candidly with them about the obvious divide in clientele, demand and culture – and how this factors into their creations.
Complicated Fresh Mixtures
Dave Catullo grew up at the beach and was with Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion for seven and a half years, three in Jacksonville Beach and the most recent four and a half years in Southwest Florida. He is now the bar manager at Flying Iguana in Neptune Beach. In charge of designing the cocktail list, (specialty margaritas, anyone?) his goal was to set the place apart from traditional beach bars.
“At the beach, it’s a vacation atmosphere, so the drinks are going to be on the tropical side … the fruits, the herbs. But I wanted something for everybody. I have a drink called ‘Amargo’, the Spanish word for bitter. ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ is with mezcal, giving it a smoky finish. I didn’t want everything to be sweet, sweet, sweet.”
Even for a guy who feels at home with laid-back patrons, he much prefers things complicated. Using fresh muddled ingredients, made-in-house mixers and higher-end liquors, his staff joke that they love his drinks, but hate making them. Catullo says you can taste the difference in the quality of the drink. That quality is selling – very well. People appreciate them and pallets are developing.
“Brown liquor is the king downtown, whiskey’s been around forever. I feel like tequila’s going to be the next big thing and I hope we have something to do with that.”
Original Local Cocktails
Rogers grew up on the Westside and was a bartender for 11 years at Fly’s Tie in Atlantic Beach, while he has been bartending for a total of 13 years. He is now in his second year as the director of spirits at Avondale’s Orsay and Riverside’s Black Sheep restaurants. The owners have a vision of what they want Jacksonville’s cocktail scene to be, and have given him the freedom and tools to take it forward. It’s been an exciting transition, but it hasn’t come without culture shock.
“I was at the beach mainly through my twenties, which was great; people are free-spirited, they like to party, that’s the lifestyle. It was jack and cokes and Jäger bombs and tall boys. In the urban core, the outlook is more forward-thinking. People are more conscious about where their food is coming from and how it’s prepared and that carries over into their cocktails.”
Some of the clientele are extremely particular, keeping him on his toes. He’s in a place where people expect the luxury of going out and getting a properly made drink. He uses fresh juices and herbs and homemade cordials and syrups.
“Anything you can use as fresh as you can get it makes the biggest difference. Your cocktail’s only as good as your worst ingredient.”
The restaurants are just over a mile apart, but the menus cater to the crowd each pull in. At Orsay, the focus is on pre-prohibition era cocktails while Black Sheep is more casual and whimsical with its list. It allows them to hit the cocktail world from both sides, paying mind to their backdrop.
“It’s important to be locally inspired in the industry, whether you’re a chef or running a bar.”
Mixing the Spirits
Both men are hopeful that a revelry of fine cocktail culture will pour out of the First Coast.
“Every time I go see Kurt, we’re bouncing ideas off each other. I’d love to see that alliance between the beach and downtown,” said Catullo.
No matter where the First Coast takes them, it’s being behind the bar they truly love.
Would your career be the same on the other side of town?
Catullo: I have to be by the water and this is my favorite job I’ve ever had in my life. I have a homage to pay here.
Rogers: Absolutely not … the move to the urban core has been the greatest thing I could’ve done for my career.