The next installment in my Campari America Spirited Interview Series leads us to Kittery, Maine and to The Wallingford, a jewel of a cocktail bar in an unlikely place. On a recent trip to Maine to visit my husband's family he brought me to The Wallingford, a spot he knew that I would instantly fall in love with - and he was right. As soon as we opened the door I was convinced. It's a tiny little bar, 20 seats maybe, and it is perfectly styled with old nautical photos, vintage etched glassware, marble bar tops, homemade bitters, and vintage crystal glasses filled with fresh garnishes and fresh flowers.
The Wallingford is so surprising and unexpected because it is the quality and caliber of cocktail bar typically found in a large city, and yet it is in an old fishing town in Maine. The Wallingford was started by Michael Pazdon, who cut his teeth in New York City and on the West Coast in Napa Valley. Years later he teamed up with James Gatchell who is another creative force behind the bar, and it is clear that they are a dynamic duo.
I'm really excited to share their interview with you - they are a true inspiration for anyone looking to create a place of world class caliber in the most unlikely of places..
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Gastronomista: Michael, what inspired you to open The Wallingford, and what was your path to get to this point? Why did you choose Kittery? What do you love about running a cocktail bar in Kittery?
Michael Pazdon: While I grew up about 35 minutes from Kittery, Maine, where I opened The Wallingford about a year and a half ago. I left the area in the late nineties, and spent most of my career in New York City and California. New York was where I learned to bartend. I moved there in 1999 to finish college, was originally on the way to doing other things, but fell fully in love with the food and drink world.
The 2000’s were a great time to be a bartender in New York; it was the start of the cocktail renaissance and there were all of these amazing people trying new and different things. I learned just as much visiting friends and their bars as I did trying things out behind my own, and every day I felt pushed to read more, learn more, to grow.
After 11 years in New York, I moved to Napa Valley and ended up staying there for over 5 years. Napa was an important growth period for me. It is a place that’s very different from New York, but also full of inspiring talent and passion for flavors, ingredients, execution. My first job there was at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Calistoga. The kitchen team was incredibly tight and that drove me to up my game on the cocktail program. Half-way through my time in Napa, I also got the opportunity to team up with Scott Beattie, who basically created his own style of left-coast cocktails early in his career. We collaborated on an awesome bar program at The Goose and Gander, in St. Helena, as well as a number of consulting projects. It was a wonderful run.
At a certain point, however, the northeast called me home, and I basically fell in to the opportunity to open The Wallingford in Kittery, which has a vibrant community and an impressive food scene for such a small town. What’s so wonderful about running this bar in this town is that many of our regulars have either lived in other places where world class cocktail bars exist or at least travel to such places regularly for business. Many of them take a great deal of pride in the fact that their small town now contains a spot where the commitment to craft and quality of execution is in line with the places that they might visit in New York, San Francisco, London, etc. There’s a great deal of gratitude, and that is really the most gratifying part of the whole thing for me. Of course, the bar is a business, but we get to go to work feeling like we are actually contributing the quality of life in our community.
|Knock Life - Coconut Oil Washed Bourbon, Orgeat, Honey, Passionfruit, Lemon, Vanilla|
Chris Gatchell: After working in Portland, Maine, a small city/big town environment, I was interested to both work in a smaller and more locally-focused concept, and as well to work with someone that had more experience on the national scene, which is not a very common combination. I was fortunate to be introduced to the Wallingford by a mutual connection. I had already held Kittery and it’s community in high regard, and when it all came together, I knew that it was the place for me.
Gastronomista: How did you two meet and decide to work together? What is the creative process between the two of you?
Michael: Chris came in one night with a mutual acquaintance and indicated that he might be interested in moving down to the Kittery area from Portland. It was pretty good timing, as I was looking to expand the staff at the Wallingford, which, for the first year, was mostly a staff of one other bartender and myself… that’s fine for the first year of a small bar, but it was time for the family to grow. From the start of the bar, the list and design had been mostly me, but as we add depth to the staff, creative decisions are bandied around in the group. It’s essential as an owner to open up a space where everyone’s input and eyes are encouraged to flourish and operate. We are better together. It’s great having someone like Chris around, as both of us have a history of managing bars, but with our own styles… it helps to hone the long-term vision.
Gastronomista: What bars do you frequent in Maine? Are there any innovative cocktail programs that excite you?
Chris: Rudders Public House, as well as a few establishments in Portland I frequent based on the people and vibe. Hot Suppa for breakfast or lunch, Ruskis for the same or a late night chase of last call, but primarily I’ll go to bars because of the great people behind them. Henry Yost and Josh Miranda come to mind. As the programming side goes, I am excited about what Tom Ardia is doing in Lewiston at Marche. Consistent programming and really working hard to amplify cocktails in a community sated with domestic draughts, macro-brews and jello shots. He’s also a really nice guy.
Michael: Yeah, Rudd’s… it’s the bar that’s open when we get the rare quick close and it’s full of warm faces and they pour and excellent shot of rye whiskey. The Black Birch is a great restaurant right across the alley from us, and their cocktail game is tight. Up in Portland, Hunt and Alpine is solid and well thought-out. The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box is a great spot to check out as well… quirky, intentional and always fun.
Gastronomista: If you were to visit any bar anywhere in the world, at any point in history, what bar would you visit? Who would you have a drink with?
Michael: Probably any bar in Cuba before the revolution… and yeah, I wouldn’t say no to a drink with Hemingway, but we probably wouldn’t get along. I’d settle for a beautiful American divorcee.
Chris: As much as beautiful Amercian Divorcees’ are my strong suit I’d probably just have followed Benjamin Franklin around to any old bar or tavern. Wealth of knowledge, drunk all day, and was pretty well liked in areas he shouldn’t have been.
|Northsea Lineman - Rye, Islay Single Malt, Punt e Mes, Maraschino, Bitters, Salt|
Gastronomista: How have you seen the trend towards brown spirits (ie: whiskies, aged tequilas, aged rum) affect your bar menu and the preference of your customers?
Michael: It’s funny, I remember a time when the choice to stock more spirits of character felt like a bold statement; when cutting down on your vodka (especially flavored vodka) stock felt like a risk. Now, even here in a small market, we feel no need to stock the fluff, but not so much because we are making a statement but actually because it doesn’t sell. We mostly see people pre-meditatively coming to the bar to seek out a new label or niche spirit that might expand their horizons. As far as the cocktail menu is concerned, I always try to make it approachable, leading with a vodka drink as a statement of “hey, this is familiar, you’re welcome here.” Deeper down the menu, things get weirder, the spirits darker. That said, I’ve found that the overall experience of the bar encourages a lot of trust with our guests. I do always stand behind that vodka drink at the top of the menu, but it’s also kind of great to see it not top the list in our sales reports.
Chris: The trend towards brown spirits, I think, is reaching an interesting point of maturity. It used to be all about an interaction prompted by someone raising their eyes above you to check out your shelf, basically to assess and reaffirm what they themselves already knew. The great thing now is that guests want to interact about aged rums or oak aged gins, and that kind of engaged dialogue makes our jobs easier… though, yeah, some just still want to see if you have any Pappy left.
Gastronomista: What other Mixologists inspire you and why?
Chris: This guy! I work for and with Michael for many reasons. Inspiration is a huge piece of that. It would be nice for me to have a larger base of Bartenders/Mixologists to judge from but truly being local to a community or area and being aware of the things seasonal to us is what makes New England so unique. I have learned in a short amount of time working here that the adhering to the rationale of why you do something, and doing that thing with warmth is always the best approach. Michael has taught me long game, I am inspired by that.
Michael: There are, of course, many. Scott Beattie and my time working together was always inspiring. Joaquin Simo has inspired me in many ways. The whole Proprietors Inc team (Death & Co, Honeycut, The Walker Inn) is an inspiration in the ways that they reconsider what the future of the craft cocktail bar in America can be. Dave Arnold, because, Dave Arnold.
|The Nina-Pinta - White Rum, Spanish Vermouth, Fino Sherry, Campari, Lime Oil|
Gastronomista: Your bar is gorgeous! Do you have any tips for styling your bar so that it is beautiful for your customers?
Michael: I think the most important thing is to start with the space and make sure that the concept that you want to execute is appropriate. You can’t force things if the space is mismatched. We started with a super-small retail space that basically demanded a certain intimacy that shaped all of our other decisions. Think about how it all works together, listen to the music that you imagine playing while thinking about glassware and design choices. Mostly though DO YOU… don’t be married to the idea that you have to design things in any particular way.. it’s great to learn from other bars and we all borrow ideas from each other, but you and your staff are going to spend a lot of time in your bar… make sure you really and truly love it there. That kind of honesty and caring will pass on to the guest and they will love to be there as well.
Gastronomista: Campari America is sponsoring this series on up and coming Mixologists. Can you recommend a great recipe with some of their products?
Recipe Courtesy of The Wallingford
1 oz Espolon Blanco Tequila
1/2 oz Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
1/2 oz Combier Pampelmousse Rose
1/4 oz Agave Nectar Syrup
3/4 oz lime juice
1/2 oz eggwhite
5 drops salt tincture
Dry shake, shake with ice, double strain over fresh ice and garnish with a marigold flower and leaves.
Recipe Courtesy of The Wallingford
1-1/2 oz Coconut Oil-washed Russell's Reserve Bourbon
3/4 oz lemon juice
1/4 oz honey syrup
1/4 oz house passionfruit syrup
1/4 oz house orgeat
10 drops house vanilla tincture
1 dash angostura bitters.
Hard shake, double strain into a coupe. Garnish with a Griottine cherry on a pick.
For more follow The Wallingford on Instagram or stop by and visit them IRL:
7 Wallingford Sq, Unit 101
Kittery, ME 03904
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