From dive bar to five star, a lot of decisions and factors go into crafting a beverage program.
We sat down with our beverage director Edgar Garcia and our spirits consultant Matt Hutchens to find out how they built Rockefeller's.
Introduce yourselves and your background.
Edgar: I'm the Beverage Director here at Rockefeller and F+F Concepts. I'm from Central Phoenix. Born at county hospital.
I grew up in the hospitality industry. I started in hotels but then the hotel I was at changed management.
So I started serving at an Italian restaurant called Cucina Cucina and eventually made way to the beverage side. (Edgar also runs the beverage and Italian wine program at Pubblico.)
Matt: So I’m a distributor and spirits consultant. Phoenician born and raised as well. I worked at Basha’s as a teenager and early twenties. I’d see reps from liquor companies come in and realized that’s what I wanted to do.
I applied to a liquor distributor and got the job. I currently just do spirits consulting, but the last 12 years have been everything - beer, wine, non-alcoholic mixers.
Then I started consulting for bars, restaurants, and private country clubs, so I do that along with sales.
Where did you guys meet?
Matt: Cucina Cucina, actually. I was the distributor. Edgar didn’t know his a** from hole in the ground.
Edgar: Yeah, I was super green there. Customer service was no problem for me but I had never done operations until Danny threw it on me at Pubblico since he doesn’t drink.
Matt: Edgar was never given real direction.
Edgar: We weren’t fast friends. If anything he’s kind of an elitist. He only likes reputable friends so until I got my shit together…
Matt: It was an exhausting process.
Edgar: Then we started smoking cigars together and that’s what really got us to be friends.
Matt: No it wasn’t, we were friends before that. It was when they were going to open Pubblico Phoenix on 7th street. A mutual friend of ours that was running it and they said, “Hey, the new operators are getting in there, wanna meet them?”
We actually already knew each other but had never worked together. At that point, we started working on the menu which he did with my distributor at the time.
Edgar: I didn’t know what I was doing yet and needed to surround myself with people who did. And that was Matt.
Knowledge is important but it needs context and with restaurants, you need to understand where the industry and where it’s going. He also wasn’t pushing an agenda all the time.
Matt: I’ll always push for someone and something to be better. I’m a huge advocate for great food and cocktails. My goal is to always elevate them.
Arizona has never had a Michelin star, which is crazy because one it’s the fastest growing cities in the country.
Beverage programs are difficult. How did you go about creating Rockefeller's?
Matt: From the beginning, the whole concept was cocktail-centric.
“How can we do the things that people are doing but in a cooler and different way so we can keep pushing the envelope?”, is what we were intent on figuring out.
The foundational idea was always rooted in envelope pushing.
Edgar: Yeah but we always want to win trust first. That’s how we built Pubblico.
We put a spin on generic things and just kept pushing and pushing. And now when you look at the wine/cocktail program it’s day and night.
Matt: The beginning of Pubblico’s beverage program was so pedestrian. Everything was “fine”. Very basic wines, basic ideas.
In the last four years, it’s really become one of the best Italian wine programs out there. Obviously, we’re biased. But we’re never not pushing to get better.
"Is this working? Is this good enough?" Because if it’s not, it’s like what’s the point? It’s like a fish swimming, if you stop you’re dead.
For Rockefeller, it was, “how do we take some high level concepts and bring them to a clientele that’s pretty stuck in their ways?”
You can make beautiful cocktails that look cool with a high concept garnish but there are places I won’t name where the drink is bad flavors, out of balance, and the actual liquid in the glass isn’t good.
Edgar: From picture to digestion it’s not comparable.
Matt: There are some bad cocktails out there. At places you wouldn't think too. That’s the thing.
Rockefeller has a handful of killer signature cocktails. How did you go about coming up with those?
(Danny chiming in): They were hammered when they come up with them.
Edgar: Not true. Well, not entirely true. So for the matcha milkshake, which we don’t currently offer (we might bring it back), I was literally drinking a matcha latte from Starbucks and was like, “this needs rum in it”.
Matt: Yeah there was that but usually it starts with with, “I need a base (spirit)”, then we’ll stare at what we have then just start riffing.
And then it can take a couple different forms. One, “oh, I’ve been having this food or drink lately - what goes with that?”. Oftentimes, it’s a nostalgic connection.
Or there’s a second way that’s purely scientific, “I know I want this flavor in this”. So you can go to flavor and cocktail books and it will show you flavor affinities.
So then it’s like, “okay well that works, we have that, we can try this idea in a cocktail even though that’s a food affinity”.
Then you balance it.
Spirit, acidity, sweetness, bitterness. That’s the essence of a bad ass cocktail.
Edgar: In other words, “how can you make this absurd idea drinkable?”
Oh and martinis. We knew if we were going to introduce cocktails that would challenge guests, we’d also need some killer, classic martinis to keep them comfortable.
Matt: Yeah again, that balance is key, like a give and take with guest’s preferences.
Rockefeller has an incredibly specific, and at the risk of sounding incredibly annoying, intentionally curated wine list.*
How did you guys decide which wines made the cut?
Matt: Creating a wine list is about distributor connections. It’s about having someone be a good advocate for you.
Working with distributors you like and having a good person in that role who will bring you what you need without wasting your time, that’s who you lean on more.
Edgar works with a lot of small distributors because they’re more intimately connected to the restaurant because he needs answers ASAP, especially with supply chain. It’s a very dynamic process.
So honestly, the whole “small, lesser known but still amazing” winery slant is by default. Sort of like how “small batch” is the default for a lot of mezcal and tequila.
These family owned tequila and mezcal manufacturers pass down their recipes orally and they’re incredibly complex. They literally cannot scale.
So yeah, first you find what’s available and then you try it.
Edgar: It truly comes from supply. The list can be done but a distributor might not have it anymore. Three more distributors that don’t have it.
We thought everything was done and everything changed from opening.
Matt: Yeah but the entire list is approachable with playfulness for people who actually enjoy wine. It’s a really great balance of both geek and novice.
Rockefeller not only has some nuanced, complex, and obscure wines to choose from, but also some nuanced, complex, and obscure descriptions of them.
Be honest, how drunk were you when you guys wrote these?
Matt: 2-3 glasses of Rosé.
What was the inspiration behind them?
Matt: They come from many years of writing wine menus as a distributor.
Wine descriptions in general are silly. And they’re wrong. So many are wrong. But they’re bullsh*t. They’re one person’s opinion. And I got so sick of that.
All I’m trying to do is make people laugh and they should just try an interesting wine. And it was the first time we did that.
Conversation starter. Keep it light.
Edgar: They’re dead serious wines but we don’t need to take them so seriously.
To learn more about the Rockefeller wine list, check out our deep dive on it with Edgar.
And that's a wrap.
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Need something more than than just drinks, small bites, and banter?
*Who are we kidding? We’re the worst of the worst when it comes to wine snobbery.