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From Culinary School to Cocktails: A Conversation With Rockefeller Bar Manager Gordon Byrd

Updated: 4 days ago

A native Phoenician, Byrd headed to the Big Apple to pursue bigger opportunities. Now he's back and ready to shake things up in the desert.

Tell us about your background. How did you get into making cocktails?

I went to culinary school in New York City. While I was doing that, I was working throughout restaurants in the city but more so in the kitchen.

I was also doing event stuff – a lot of private parties and a lot of fine dining. And then I got tired of being in kitchens and working for people that, I didn't necessarily have respect for, professionally speaking, in that industry.

I liked hospitality and I wanted to still be able to create in the industry. I wanted to use what I knew about working in a kitchen and realized I could do that on the cocktail and the spirit side.

So you went from kitchens to bartending?

Yeah. Bartending is one of those jobs where it’s impossible to get a job without having experience, but you can’t get experience without having a job.

So just from the knowledge that I had, from already being in the industry for so long, I knew I could work my way up quickly. I just applied for a bartender job saying that I had been a bartender and I got it. That was about seven or eight years ago.

And then I moved my way up from there, always studying and wanting to know more and be better and push the limit with things.

How did you end up in Phoenix?

I was born and raised here. I moved to New York City about ten years ago, my son’s mother is from there. I didn't really have anything going for me out here and there was just a world of opportunity in New York.

Did you know you wanted to be in hospitality when you moved there?

I worked in restaurants out here, but just as a job. Moving out [to New York], once I got into the higher end spots and I started seeing the creativity and what level of money that you can make when you’re really good at what you do in the industry, that motivated me.

I wanted to go further.

I'd always been into cooking. So I decided to go to culinary school. New York City has the Culinary Institute of America, which is one of the best culinary schools in the country.

So I did that and then just kind of went from there.

While I was in culinary school, I was still working. I was serving tables and still doing kitchen work. I was working like 18 hours a day. But like I said, I got fed up with the kitchen. My passion is still cooking and making drinks and creating for people.

But the kitchen aspect. In the high end places I was working, it was just, there is a lot of politics. So many hoops to jump through and like I said in the beginning, I really wasn’t interested in dealing with that.

I wanted to create. I didn’t want to deal with bureaucracy.

Does your culinary background impact or influence how you make cocktails?

Knowing the science behind cooking and flavors for me is huge. And then honestly, just knowing how to make a good f*cking drink. Knowing how to put flavors together.

I'm very good at making sh*t taste good. I don’t know how else to describe it. And I think that's part of the reason why I've been able to get to where I am in this industry.

Well now we've got to ask – how do you define a good f*cking drink?

It’s definitely going to be different from person to person. A good f*cking drink has to check all the boxes.

My thing is not making drinks too sweet. I like making drinks that maybe look like they're gonna be sweet as f*ck but then pulling back. And that sometimes means taking a lot of the sugar element out of it when it comes to drinks like Clover Clubs.

You can use so many different things as modifiers as far as different teas and spices and the 1000 different types of liqueurs, you know, as mixers as opposed to just using different sugars, you know, or different types of syrups.

I have about ten different simple syrups and probably fourteen puree syrups I use.

Like when a group of girls come in and you know that everybody just wants the sweetest f*cking drink in the world. Laughs. I’m sorry, it’s just true. (Our customers are great. We love you guys.)

Then, I’ll use the simple syrups because that’s what they want. And that’s cool.

But personally, I’m just always trying to make a drink more complex. I want people to taste the alcohol as opposed to just tasting raspberries and getting drunk. That’s a huge, huge thing for me.

Are there any classic drinks that you think are better served differently than most people drink them?

I think a Tommy's Margarita is much better than your classic Margarita.

A Tommy's Margarita is just tequila, lime juice, and agave syrup.

A classic, traditional Margarita is gonna be tequila lime juice, simple syrup, and an orange liqueur like Cointreau.

But again, I try to take that sweet shit out of it.

And then Old Fashioneds are give or take. I like them in higher end spots like this.

You don't see as much anymore but a lot of places will muddle cherries and oranges. An Old Fashioned recipe does not call for that. You can't muddle a f*cking orange in it because that means you're introducing citrus to the drink. And there's no citrus in the drink.

What is a super underrated drink that you think should get more attention?

A daiquiri.

Rum, lime juice, and simple syrup.

Daiquiris are traditionally made with a Blanco, so a silver rum, and then lime juice, and then simple syrup but we have a bunch of different rums like Filipino rum and Oaxacan rums and Jamaican rums all that fun stuff.

Let's say you just got off a shift. What's the first thing you're ordering?

Honestly, I drink most of my favorites straight up. Gin.

I drink Bobby's at home. It’s a London Dry gin but it doesn’t really taste like a London Dry.

And then Etsu. That’s going to be my favorite. It’s a Japanese distilled gin with yuzu in it which is a Japanese citrus.

What’s your favorite drink on the (current) cocktail menu?

Pineapple Under the Sea.

So I’m not a mezcal fan. It’s an incredibly complex cocktail that I think will make anyone who thinks they don’t like mezcal like, it’s just an undeniably f*cking phenomenal drink. There’s so many ingredients so it’s hard to make.

But it’s by far the best cocktail we have right now in my opinion.

Last question – why did you decide to come work at Rockefeller?

Easy. I wanted to work with the best.

Pineapple Under the Sea Cocktail
We'll be changing up our cocktail menu in a few weeks so hurry in for this one!

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