With a name like Rocco Milano, he could have been a rock star. Or maybe a porn star. Lucky for Dallas, he set his sights on bartending. In less than ten years, Rocco has gone from typical bartender to being celebrated as one of the “grog gurus” of the Dallas cocktail scene. Such drive and determination isn’t unusual in bartenders, but rarely do you see it focused to such razor-sharp precision. His success, Rocco says, is credited to an epiphany he had early on in his career. “I was working at a bar in Guatemala and we didn’t have a lot of supplies we could order, like produce and mixers,” says the ever-humble cocktail artist. “So everything came from local markets. It was amazing the different flavors and qualities that fresh produce gave you.” Rocco started tinkering around with different combinations and soon he was on his way, creating the first of long line of impressive creations.
Rocco’s career took him many places, from a biker bar in Santa Cruz to five-star hotels and casinos. Most notably, he ended up with regular gig at The Mansion on Turtle Creek where he wowed his customers with dazzling drinks like an edible Cosmopolitan and a creation he called the Smoking Pepper. “It’s a cocktail made with mezcal and yellow chartreuse, actually served inside a scooped out bell pepper.” Rocco was happily employed when he got the phone call from the owners of Private Social, a trendy uptown bistro helmed by Tiffany Derry of Top Chef fame. “I went to talk to them dressed in a t-shirt and tennis shoes, they were all dressed in t-shirts and tennis shoes, and the rest is history.” Today, Rocco is the principal barman at Private Social. There, he enjoys creative control, and can often be overheard engaging in conversations with guests revolving around words like tinctures and terroirs. In his spare time, he’s executive director of the Texas Chapter of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild as well as an all-around nice guy. Hey, he may not be a rock star, but being a bar star’s gotta rank as a close second.
Tell me something about yourself that most people don’t know.
I’m actually not a drinker. I like the taste, the flavors, I like everything that goes into cocktail-making but the feeling of being drunk is just not for me. I’ve got a full liquor cabinet at home, but very few of the bottles have even been opened. Also, you might not believe it but I’m an avid farmer. I’ve got a 3,000 square foot garden. In my house right now I have nine different seed catalogs. I love going through them, I love reading about them and learning about self-sufficiency.
Tell us about the art of a perfectly balanced cocktail.
What you’re looking for is to balance three key components: acid, sweet and spirit. If you think about any great wine, this is what the winemaker is trying to do, only they prepare the product months in advance. We bartenders have the benefit that we’re mixing up those three components at the moment of consumption. I used to mix up a cocktail and think, okay this needs more lime juice, which is an acid component. But if you think about it, lots of things can give a drink that quality, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, etc. When you start looking at it like that, then the whole field just opens up,
You’re known for some of your creative cocktail names, like the Velvet Love Monkey and the Bella Ruse. Tell us about the art of naming a cocktail.
This is the most difficult part of cocktail creation. In that name you need to convey what’s so interesting about the drink. It could be a reflection on the drink’s qualities, like its color, or something as unique as a play on the ingredients with which you’ve made the cocktail. Or it could just be a clever turn of phrase that you stumble across, or even by inspired by a video game you’ve been playing, like Skyrim. Sometimes it comes about in a completely different way. There’s no one way to name a cocktail.
Name three bar tools you couldn’t live without.
Bar spoon, shaker, and strainer. The ability to shake and stir a drink is crucial. For everything else, I could probably figure it out. Like in a worst-case scenario I could probably find something else to press with.
What’s the strangest part of your job?
The tour through the human zoo that working behind a bar really is, especially a bar like this where we’ve tried to hit so many demographics, people and different experiences, and then to see how that manifests in an evening. For sure the job has that weird fun element and sometimes you just go, Jesus Christ I could be sitting in a cubicle. My first “Aha! moment” was when I was working at a bar on the Jersey Shore. I was cutting fruit on the beach one morning and I thought how many people at work in a cubicle would want to be where I was right then, cutting fruit on a beach on the Jersey Shore.
Who are your bar heroes?
Of course, there are too many to mention, but Jason Kosmas (click here for an article with Jason) has had a tremendous impact on the Dallas bartending scene, as far as bringing up new people and for introducing new products with his new line, The 86 Company. Sean Conner (click here for an article with Sean) up at Whiskey Cake in Plano is always willing to organize events. I like him because he’s not all Sean-focused. The guys and girls I like the most are the ones who are not in it for themselves or their egos. They’re about growing the industry, talent-wise and guest-wise. Also Michael Martensen over at The Cedars Social has made a huge impression on Dallas.
For more info: Private Social is located at 3232 McKinney Avenue, Dallas, Texas, 75204; (214) 754-4744.
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