Dale Kyd engineers the perfect cocktails at the Gin Room.
Long before he was tending bar at the Gin Room (3200 S. Grand Boulevard; 314-771-3411)
, Dale Kyd was enamored with the botanical-infused spirit.
"I'm steeped in gin — it started for me well before bartending," Kyd explains. "While my parents were getting their master's degrees, my grandparents watched me a lot. My grandmother drank highballs and my grandfather drank gin martinis. He drank it the same way every time, and that has always stuck with me. I love the smell. And the olives. I stole so many of them out of his drinks."
The gin-based cocktails weren't the only thing at his grandparents' house that made an impression. While his grandfather sipped on his martini, he would watch M.A.S.H.
, and Kyd recalls being enamored with the homemade gin still that played a role on the series. The D.I.Y., science-influenced aspects appealed to the part of him that wanted to build things.
In fact, Kyd thought he was destined for such work. He was an electrical engineering major at Mizzou. However, after interning at a small engineering firm, he realized that, although the details of actual work appealed to him, the lifestyle that went along with it did not.
"At first I thought it was cool, but over time, sitting there, crunching numbers and having little human contact wasn't for me," says Kyd. "I love engineering. I'm a nerd through and through and am fluent in technical stuff, but I am not cut out for that style of job."
What did appeal to Kyd, however, was the service industry. During his college years, he would frequent a bar in Columbia known for cocktails and would be mesmerized by the bartenders at work. It wasn't just the mixology that drew him in. The bartenders were professional, competent and respected their craft. To Kyd, they made it seem glamorous.
After realizing he no longer wanted to pursue engineering, Kyd worked at a grocery store and in the front of the house at a few restaurants. One day, while visiting St. Louis from Columbia, he began exploring the South Grand district. When he saw the sign for the Gin Room, he knew he had to go in.
"I thought it was like the Garden of Eden," Kyd laughs. "It looked drastically different than it does now, but they still had 35 kinds of gin and that was completely outstanding to me. I saw things there that I didn't even know were possibilities. It was definitely a Willy Wonka moment for me."
Kyd became friendly with the staff, including owner Natasha Bahrami, so when he decided to move to St. Louis to pursue his bartending dreams, he knew exactly where to apply. Bahrami offered him a position and one week later, he was behind the bar. He's never looked back.
"What I realized after becoming a bartender is that it is a skillset that I thrive on," Kyd says. "In engineering, projects can take years from start to finish, but in bartending, I love how quick it is. I'm an active person, and I need to be on my feet. I should have a drink made, from start to finish, in a minute flat."
But it's not just speed. Says Kyd, "I love being out in front of people and making them happy. I can really add something to their day."
Kyd took a break from the bar to share his thoughts on the St. Louis food-and-beverage scene, his quest for next-level, supernatural bartending and why the most important part of his day is setting his agenda with his cats.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I’ve grown to love all these crazy flavors and spirits since I moved here. When I started bartending, though, the Fernets, Chartreuses, and a lot of the Amaros that I had been exposed to were not for me. A large portion of the last two years for me has been introducing myself to these intense products in ways that are outside of my own box but not so uncomfortable that it blindsides me. I like to think that’s come to make a difference with how I serve guests too. I’ve definitely come to appreciate the ability to serve cocktails with ingredients that are intimidating and sometimes unpalatable in a way that guests can also grow to appreciate and start to love them.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Man, this will sound so dorky but I think the only thing that I do every day is tell my cats what I’m going to do that day. It isn’t really about them, but it seems to be a good way for me to spend a couple minutes and focus on what I want to get done or have to do. I don’t think I’d be nearly as put together if I didn’t make time for that three minutes of conversation with them.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Some sort of crazy foresight or intuition. Being able to serve someone a cocktail they’ll love without them having to browse the menu or have a lengthy exchange with me about their flavor profiles is a skill I’ve been honing for a while, and I’m usually pretty successful because the vast majority of my guests are enthusiastic about my cocktails. But if I could know what the perfect drink for a guest is even as they're walking in the door? That would be some next-level, supernatural bartending.
What is the most positive trend in food, beer, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
This past year I’ve seen a lot of bars that I wouldn’t really expect to roll out basic cocktail menus — and they know they can pull it off. It’s not well drinks or silly shot specials but real cocktails that are at a price point approachable for younger or less-experienced guests.
What is one thing missing or that you’d like to see in the local food and beverage scene?
For me, it would be Missouri wines. I think we’ve gained a reputation for having sub-par or overly sweet grapes and wines, but if you look just a little closer, there are some phenomenal grapes being grown. I’d love to see more of them around. Les Bourgeois has always been one of my favorite vineyards. For the longest time their Solay has been one of my go-to wines. It’s this un-oaked blend of vidal blanc, chardonel and vivant, and it's super refreshing. It has some good grass and tropical fruit notes that add this pseudo-sweetness that I adore. Stone Hill and Augusta are doing some great things with their wine, too. I wish our many wine bars would pay more attention to what we have growing in our own backyard.
Who is your St. Louis food or drink crush?
I’ve recently had the pleasure of meeting Mike Fricker [Cinder House] and getting to spend some time with him. He’s been so generous with his knowledge and inspired feedback about some of my best, and worst, ideas. Being surrounded by someone with his bewildering level experience and ambition is something that I hope everybody can experience in their professional career and social life.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis food and beverage scene?
David Weglarz, who runs Still 630, has had some of the best ideas to come out of this city. The contrast between his two gins is great: The original is sage-forward with elderberry and lemongrass, and his recently released navy-strength is citrusy and tropical. Plus, the experimental booze program they have going on there is on-point. Every time I talk to him he has some new idea, concept or product that blows my mind. I think we would all be remiss to not appreciate his accomplishments, attention to detail and how he will continue to positively impact our city.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Definitely the elderberry. Where I grew up in the country, elderberry is a ditch weed, and you’d be hard-pressed to have someone refer to it as an ingredient or botanical, but it’s bright and tart and has a cheerful color. I hope that I can bring the same brightness to my drinks and, ideally, my guests’ day.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of St. Louis’ food and beverage climate, what would you say?
Hidden and awesome. I don’t think many outside of the city pay attention to what we’re doing with food and booze, although I think that is changing. We have an immense number of bars and restaurants that are adding value to the culture. I think it's just a change in mindset for people to go into an unassuming venue and get a great drink or bite to eat and have it not be some hidden-gem TV spectacle.
If you were not tending bar, what would you be doing?
I’m not really sure. I’ve always thought about teaching American history, but I’d have to lose my bartender's lewd vocabulary first.
Name an ingredient never allowed behind your bar.
In my experience if an ingredient has an unnatural color, it’s probably because it's garbage. A lot of my guests respect the quality of the food they eat; I think we deserve to drink cocktails with the same attention to being wholesome. No blue- or green-colored sugar water, and for the love of light, no neon-colored cherries.
What is your after-work hangout?
The Heavy Anchor is one of my favorite places in the city. They have an absolutely wonderful staff, a great music venue, fun events and a little drink menu that I think would blow most people’s minds if they checked it out. It’s an easy place to feel at home, and that’s golden to me after being on my feet all day.
What’s your edible or quaffable guilty pleasure?
I don’t typically have much of a sweet tooth, but getting between me and a rum-and-vanilla Coke is a sure way to lose an arm.
What would be your last meal on earth?
Growing up, eating was mostly a family thing. My whole family lived on the same seven-mile stretch of road for the longest time, so having grandparents and siblings around all the time was pretty typical. My ideal menu comes straight from those memories. My sister makes seitan and marinates it like a boss. The whole thing is voodoo to me: It's savory and roasted with vegetables from my parents' garden. My grandmother makes this crazy, frozen, ice-cream-esque cranberry dessert that’s tart and smooth at the same time. It’s perfect. My final drinks (yes, plural) of choice would be a glass of ice with gin from a pretty blue bottle, vermouth and a couple olives — the way I learned to drink it from my grandfather. That’s a sure way to go out happy, right?
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