Greg and The Rogue Barkeep talk hospitality abroad, the grueling practice of agave harvesting, and getting “lost” in the South Pacific
Gregory J. Buda is the Director of Education and Training Manager at both the Dead Rabbit and BlackTail. When not tending bar in Dead Rabbit’s cocktail parlor, he conducts trainings on spirits and bartending technique and travels the world promoting Dead Rabbit’s acclaimed cocktail program through pop-ups, guest shifts, and seminars. Greg is passionate about spirits education, specifically that regarding whisk(e)y, agave spirits, and sherry, and is currently a lecturer for the Middleton Whiskey Academy, an in-depth industry training course on pot still Irish whiskey production and history.
We begin with a Manhattan.
Greg, always the professional, has his jiggering down to a pristine, well-practiced science.
Rogue Barkeep: What’s the strangest beverage you’ve tried abroad?
Greg: Mezcal. I know that’s not a crazy weird spirit-
Was it how you consumed it?
No, not quite… Obviously I’ve been involved in spirit production for a long time, toured many distilleries around the world, learned intimately about many different types of spirits. But mezcal is set so far apart from anything I’ve ever experienced, because of the amount of work culture and patience that goes into making a bottle. Mezcal puts anything else I’ve ever seen to shame.
First of all, agave is not a yearly crop. It’s something you need to invest so much time and patience into. It takes seven to over thirty years before a plant is ready to be harvested.
Seven to thirty years? Shit.
Yeah, I mean depending on the species. You’ve had Tobala?
That’s a 25-35 year maturation, and the agave is as big as a basketball. So, between the number that you need and the amount of time you have to wait, getting a batch of Tobala is ridiculous. And the people that do it are not from Ivy League schools. These are people that have learned the skills of agriculture and fermentation and distillation from their parents and their parent’s parents.
Also, the amount of skill they have without any scientific equipment is amazing. They do everything by smell and taste in the field. They have it, ironically, down to a science- without having any real science involved. They can measure the amount of alcohol in mezcal by looking at the size and distribution of bubbles. They can do it visually, without tools, and get it within a degree of alcohol.
It’s a fucking lot of work, since agaves are harvested by hand with axes and machetes. When they’re on hillsides they roll it down the hill, put it on a donkey, and bring it miles home on dirt roads. It’s not like harvesting barley and putting it through a mill, not that that doesn’t take certain work, but this is absolutely backbreaking. And they get very little out of it for the amount they put in. I kind of knew that before, but It didn’t really sink in until I saw it first hand, how much work goes into a bottle of mezcal. It made a lasting impression on me.
How do you feel that working in hospitality has influenced your travels? Or vice versa.
I grew up in a family that liked cooking and experimenting with flavor in foods. My parents were not ones to really go out for dinner. We cooked a lot and I developed a love of food from my parents but we never really went out. So there was a kind of disconnect.
I was always adventurous trying new things with food and experiences but I was never around restaurant culture. So it was kind of an eye opening experience joining the restaurant industry, because I had never really had the experience from the other side. But I started off as a cook and I think my travels revolved very heavily around food, before I was even in this industry. Because I love trying new things and I love food and I love drinking. Even when I’m on vacation I usually plan a lot of my days around new food to try, not necessarily expensive or classy spots, but just the truly cultural food experience.
Also, based on my parents and my background in science, I’m very fascinated by how people use plants in food. My PhD was in plant biology, so I put a lot of time into learning about plants and their applications in our lives. And I love how that comes across in alcohol production as well. Understanding how booze, food, agriculture, and culture all collide.
Is there any spirit or cocktail trend you’ve seen abroad that you think New Yorkers are missing out on?
No? We’ve got it?
No, I mean New York sets the trend and the rest of the world follows. There’s a diversity to trends here in the city. This sounds so cocky-
-but cities are really ranked by number of years behind New York. I would say there’s only a couple of cities comparable to New York in how progressive we are. London would be the easy answer. There are also some other cities that have very much impressed me over the past few years… Paris and Prague really blew me away. They’re doing some very cool things.
Tell me about a surprising experience of hospitality abroad.
One of my more memorable experiences was a few years ago, when I went to Trinidad with my cousin. We found a cheap flight on New Years Day and decided to go down for a couple of weeks. Our original plan was to use the couch surfing program, if you’ve heard of that-
I was the ambassador for the couch surfing program in New York for many years. So we had the intention of couch surfing our way around Trinidad and Tobago. When we got down to stay with our first host, he was this kid that lived with his mother in Port of Spain.
We were going to stay with him for a couple of days and move on. But then, we ended up having so much fun with him that every day we would be halfheartedly packing up to leave and his mother would say, “Just stay one more day! Just one more day!” So we ended up staying the entire two weeks with him and his mother… He just went so far above and beyond. He could tell we loved food so he organized trips to see different vendors and really good restaurants. He had access to his mother’s car so he was able to drive us places we never could have gotten to with public transportation. That really blew me away. It was a two day thing that turned into two weeks. He didn’t have to and they pushed it on us and we loved every minute of it.
Did he or his mother cook?
His mother did. His mother was a really good cook. So we had this trifecta of street food, home cooked food, and restaurant food, throughout our trip. I would say hands down, of all the countries I’ve been to, Trinidad is my favorite food location I’ve ever visited. Not even in terms of one specific meal, but the cumulation of all those meals during those two weeks.
Alright, one more then I’ll let you head to your shift. Tell me about a time you got really lost.
Just a time you got lost. Somewhere outside of New York City. Where you might have ended up somewhere unintended.
[Pause as Greg turns his inquisitive gaze onto me]
Or maybe you just don’t have my crippling lack of direction.
Well, one of my favorite places in the world is the south pacific. It’s really my happy place. And, this isn’t quite getting lost, but I was recently travelling around there and kind of exploring where I wanted to explore on any given day.
Not much of an itinerary?
No, no itinerary. I was in the cook islands for a few weeks and wanted to see some of the outer islands, which are exceedingly difficult to get to. Most of them don’t have air strips, don’t have a ferry service, just little dots in the middle of hundreds of square miles of ocean. And I was working in a little restaurant and bar in exchange for a place to stay. It was this old British guy who ran this little restaurant. Built it himself in the 70’s out of drift wood. It was beautiful. And he was a black pearl fisherman as well, so he made black pearl jewelry and sold it in his restaurant.
So I was kind of cool on my heels there for a while, but I kept going down to the harbor to see if there were any boats I could hop on. Eventually there was someone said they had a freighter bringing supplies to the outer islands, leaving tomorrow. It wouldn’t cost much, maybe 100 bucks, to tag along with the crew. So I got on the boat for a week at sea with these guys. Mainly guys from Fiji, a couple from the Cook Islands.
This was the only freighter belonging to the government of the Cook Islands, because these islands are so isolated. You need to get them medicine, food, gasoline, building supplies, stuff like that. So this boat is the lifeline of all these outer islands that don’t have airstrips. It took us a couple of days to get to the first island. I could walk faster than this boat travelled. And I knew the “itinerary” but that’s the thing about the South Pacific: itineraries are very flexible. So I don’t really know what’s going on, they never really give me a good idea. Just “It will take as long as it takes.” They would pull up to the islands around five or six in the morning. These islands are so small they don’t even really have harbors. We’d kind of float off the coast until the locals saw us. Then they’d send long boats out to ferry the supplies. Sometimes it would take a whole day.
I can tell as I listen that part of the reason Greg is such an open-minded traveler is that hospitality comes naturally to him. It's his instinct upon entering a space to help those around him feel welcome and worthy.
How did you get on land?
When the first boat would come, the captain would say, “You’re on the first boat in. We leave tomorrow morning. See you then.”
What if you got left?
They would have left me. It would have been months until another boat came. But it was really cool. We would pull up and I’d just get left on shore. I’d get to meet the locals and explore the island. Some of them aren’t more than a couple miles long, so I could very literally walk the circumference of the island in a couple of hours. Which I did. In one case I met the lone policeman on the island, he brought me back to his place and gave me his bike to use for the day. So that was getting lost in a way. It was very humbling being on an island in the middle of the Pacific. No land for a couple of days in any direction.
That’s a way to make you feel small.
Oh yeah. A very intense idea for sure.
[As the interview wraps up, Greg turns the questioning onto me.]
So… what’s your end game for this Rogue Barkeep project?
That. I want to do more of that. What you just described. That’s why I’m speaking with people like you.