by Mark Marowitz
[Mark Marowitz is a special correspondent for the Museum of the American Cocktail, and continues his series of bartender profiles with this look at Dink Mertz]
"I like Dink!" And if he was running for public office and no other former serviceman had used it before I would make this his bumper sticker. I hadn’t been on the phone with Dink for two minutes before I knew he was a former serviceman. His two son’s are also former servicemen but if I was to tell you more I would probably be arrested. Wild horses couldn’t drag it out of me that: his son Tracy flew Apache helicopters in combat for many years and his son Scott was in Special Forces for about a decade.
I was introduced to Dink by Bridget Albert, you remember her from the Food Network’s show Iron Chef America. Dink told me that she had but one day to prepare for the show with her chef. There is more to this story but wild horses couldn’t drag it out of me that……..
Dink has been married for 42 years and I would be negligent if I didn’t praise Mrs. Mertz (Lorraine) because it isn’t many mothers who would put both her son’s in harms way in the service of her country.
And Dink’s daughter Debbie, who has provided Lorraine and Dink with their first grandchild, Shawn.
After leaving the service Dink traveled the country in search of work. In every attempt to find work he was frustrated. But one fine evening dining with a couple of Mrs. Mertzs’ friends, who just happened to own a restaurant "The King’s Arms" in Rockland County, New York, Dink was offered the job as manager. Dink possessing a salt-of-the-earth character placed himself in the kitchen as dishwasher so he could learn the business from the ground up. Dink worked the kitchen and then placed himself behind the bar to complete his training. Dink for the first time but not the last improved the bar business to such an extent he never left. More than once Dink told me how fortunate he is to be a bartender. Dink’s mentor was Knobby Armano. Dink describes Knobby as fat, witty and blessed with a great personality. I kid you not when I tell you an evening at the "The King’s Arms" restaurant bar meant hanging out with its two bartenders Knobby and Dink! On Dink’s first day on the job Knobby moved to the other end of the bar and said to Dink, "call me if you need me." Sours in those day’s were made from pre-packaged mixers. The demands on Dink for complicated cocktails were few. But he did learn to ‘sell the taste’. It took three day’s for "it" to come to Dink and he has been behind the stick for ever after.
Three years later the Mertzs’ decided to settle down somewhere and raise a family. For seventeen years they lived in the Pocono Mountains, in a town named West Hazelton, PA.
Dink worked in a family owned restaurant "Rossi’s" where ‘home cookin” was the motto. Rossi’s bar with Dink at the helm was much more than a bar. It was the center of town life. The mayor would come to take the pulse of the town. Business was conducted there, arguments resolved, civil service jobs were allocated, parties and weddings all happened there. Probably, many of the towns citizens were conceived after an evening at Rossi’s! Mrs. Mertz told me that "good, bad or indifferent it all happened at the bar."
After seventeen years living in West Hazleton and their children grown, Mrs. Mertz, an executive for the "Quality Inns" in charge of housekeeping, was transferred to Atlantic City. Dink’s next station was Dolleys Lounge in the Madison Hotel across from the Sands. This was not an ideal job but Dink made lemonade from it. He and Mrs. Mertz would dine together at the Sands making friends of the staff. Dink would pass out flyers welcoming the staff to come and chill out at Dolleys. Business picked up and Dink persuaded the owners to build a smoky glass partition between the bar and the lobby. At the end of the month cash was short for the staff at the ‘Sands’ and they came to Dink hungry and thirsty and tired and broke. Dink ordered pizzas for his customers and paid from his own pocket. Needless to say but this was Dinks’ best tipping job until a bit further on in our story.
Mrs. Mertz was transferred to Baltimore and Dink found new work and has more stories but space being limited, let me just say that Mrs. Mertz retired in a few years and they moved to Sarasota, FL. Not needing Dink around the house there seemed no need for Dink to retire as well, so he went out and found another job. Dink applied for a job at Coasters restaurant, a mom and pop operation with a bottom line that was sinking the entire operation. Here’s where something very interesting happens. The husband convinced his wife to do something counter-intuitive. They had three long-legged and fairly competent girls working the bar and the wife was against bringing the paunchy middle-aged man into the mix. The husband’s pleas were heard and Dink was hired. Dink had by this time discovered the efficacy of fresh juices and would come in early to prep for the show. The drinks tasted good and most of all Dink had the customer’s interested in him!! One of the key’s to success for a bartender, as far as Dink is concerned, is to keep the customer’s interested in you (the bartender). Dink kept the bar full, the bottom line improved, two of the girls were let go and Dink had saved the restaurant.
Dink had tried on numerous occasions to find a spot in Las Vegas, but being a union town he had struck out every time. One day serendipity struck, it just so happened that a retiree from Las Vegas strolls into the Coasters and it turns out he was one of the founders of the Barman’s Union in Las Vegas. Dink looked somebody up who knew someone else and so on until Dink landed a job in the Mirage Hotel, without an application or an interview. Dink worked poolside for three years and was busier and worked harder than he had ever done before. At this time Steve Wynn was building the Bellagio Hotel and in an effort to build a first class hotel he brought in the best people money could buy, like Marie Maher, Francesco LaFranconi and most important to our story Tony Abou-Ganim. Tony in turn went out and hired the best people he could find to work with. Tony found himself on many an occasion poolside at the Mirage taking some time out for himself and, of course, hanging out with Dink Mertz. Tony would order Negroni’s and Dink built them utilizing a free pour but cutting back a little on the Cinzano sweet vermouth. Bombay Sapphire was the gin and Tony taught him the flamed orange peel garnish. Tony brought Dink aboard and today you can find Dink at the Petrossian Lounge in the Bellagio Hotel. Dink gives Tony all the credit for teaching him what balance means in a cocktail. Some of Tony’s signature cocktails utilize the shake and shake method which produces crystals of ice floating on the drinks surface which refract the light into a rainbow and is a lovely effect. Also, the drink is really cold. Dink sells a lot of Grey Goose vodkatinis. The vodka is chilled to -10 degrees Fahrenheit, Dink then bows in the direction of France to pay homage to the vermouth which is excluded from the cocktail. Utilizing the shake and shake method Dink strains his vodkatini into an martini glass and uses an olive garnish. Dink tells MOTAC "that in Las Vegas its all about the buzz."
Dink is very proud of the Cable Car cocktail, which Tony designed and has made justifiably famous. It contains 1.5 oz. Captain Morgan Spiced Rum, about 0.5 oz. Marie Brizzard orange Curacao, and 1.0 oz. fresh sweet and sour. The cocktail glass has a cinnamon sugared rim and an orange twist garnish.
Dink has influenced many people’s lives, including my own, that he doesn’t know.
Dink tells MOTAC that "I can teach a monkey to make a drink but I just can’t make him speak!"
Are Master Bartenders born with the ‘ability’ or can it be taught?