The Bartender’s List- Alejandro De La Parra

It was the end of a long evening- a Saturday during Portland Cocktail Week in 2015. A bunch of us had gathered at Teardrop to enjoy the company of friends and colleagues who had descended on the city for the event. As current Teardrop bartender Alejandro de la Parra and former bartender Tyler Stevens began to wash down the bottles and tidy the well, Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville’s 1989 duet Don’t Know Much began to play. As if they had been practicing every closing shift for eternity, the two barmen began singing along in perfect harmony, serenading one another as much as the lingering patrons hanging onto every last note of their delightful performance (myself included).

This was my first time meeting Alejandro and to say it was memorable would be an understatement. I was taken as much by his bartending skills as I was by his playful nature- a commitment to taking his craft but not himself too seriously. He speaks with passion about the drinks he creates while seamlessly throwing in a fun fact or two about that time he was Dungeon Master in his D&D league. If you find yourself perched at his bar, ask him for a drink and if you’re really lucky, it may come with a serenade on the side.

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?

When I was a little kid? The president! I remember in first grade we had an assignment where we had to write what we thought we were going to be. First it was the president and then I took a step down to FBI agent in fifth grade. Then the dream kept getting smaller. But now I’ve gotten past all of that. As Mark Twain puts it, there is no greater way to gain social standing than being a bartender.

(The actual quote being referenced here comes from Mark Twain’s Roughing It. “The cheapest and easiest way to become an influential man and be looked up to by the community at large, was to stand behind a bar, wear a cluster-diamond pin, and sell whisky. I am not sure but that the saloon-keeper held a shade higher rank than any other member of society.”)

What was your first sip of alcohol?

Probably tequila. I was at a friend’s house and his dad had a bottle of Cazadores tequila. I was seventeen and I finished basically the whole bottle. Actually I must have been 18 because I was planning on being a pastor when I was in highschool. And now I’m a minister of booze! I think it was almost an entire bottle of tequila and then I panicked because I realized after I sobered up that I had no way of buying a replacement bottle. You don’t really think that far ahead when you’re a kid…..

What was your first bartending gig?

Here! My first bar gig was as a bouncer. Right out of highschool I was a bouncer for three years but my first actual bartending gig was here.

How did you move from bouncer to bartender?

So I was in the bar world for a few years. I was living in Southern California. Then I moved up to Oregon. I dropped out of school, joined a rock band, moved up to Portland and the bar world kinda left my brain for a few years. It wasn’t until I started coming here [Teardrop] and Daniel and Rickie Gomez were my first two bartenders. They were super cool and I don’t know….they carried swagger but they were also teaching. They were informative- especially Daniel. At that point which was about 7 years ago I decided I was going to work at Teardrop someday….and now I run it.

How long did it take you from being a patron to getting hired?

I didn’t have any service industry experience other than being a bouncer so I worked as a barista (at Barista) for a year and a half.

Daniel really just took all the baristas from Barista and made you all bartenders didn’t he?

Here’s the thing though. I got hired at Barista because Billy- the owner who is also a friend- he knew I was only working at Barista to get a job at Teardrop. So I worked at Barista for a year and a half. A lot of people put in their time barbacking for two years. I had to be a barista for almost two years just to get enough service industry experience so that Daniel would hire me. And he did hire me….as the door guy. So I worked as the door guy and eventually he decided he’d try me as a bartender. It was a long time coming.

Was there a specific moment, conversation or experience that made you decide to make a career out of bartending?

It’s probably when I sat down and Daniel knew what I wanted to drink more than I knew what I wanted to drink. At that point it was like magic. It was like wizardry.

If you could only have a five bottle bar, what would your five bottles be?

I mean I don’t drink a lot of cocktails at home but I feel like I want stuff that I can mix with or sip on. I’m gonna say El Tesoro Tequila, probably the blanco. I’m gonna say Buffalo Trace Bourbon. I’m gonna say Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy ‘cause it’s fuckin dope! I need something like a Sauvignon Blanc- something bright and springy. And Benedictine cause it’s delicious. I don’t know what I’ll do with Benedictine but I’ll figure it out.

What would be your death row drink?

You know if I knew I was going to die I’d probably try to get  really pumped up so just a giant shot of tequila. I’m going straight to hell so I might as well go fuelled up on tequila. Like a pint glass full and I’m ready.

One cocktail book that should be behind every bar?

Because Savoy is so ubiquitous I’m gonna say…..I don’t even know if I should say it, it’s kind of a secret. A lot of people don’t know about this book but it’s amazing. It’s called Just Cocktails by W.C. Whitfield and it’s incredible. The drinks are already fully specked out and ready to drink. It’s an older book. It’s beautiful. It uses a lot of obscure ingredients like swedish punsch and calvados cocktails. It’s dope.

One non-cocktail book that should be behind every bar?

I don’t know if it should be behind every bar but I get a kick out of quoting the bible at people. So the bible. Not because I necessarily believe it anymore but more because it’s just fun to preach the ministry of booze and use some sort of holy book. Bars are the den of scum and villainy and then you always have a holy book. It’s like the bad guy that always has a cross on his chest.

If you could make a cocktail for anybody dead or alive who would it be and what would you make them?

Probably Ernest Hemingway because he loves to drink and so if I just fill up a pint glass with ice, lime and rum he’ll be happy. Then I know that I’ll nail it- ten ounces of rum, four ounces of lime juice and he’s a happy many. I’ll get him drunk and we’ll rap.

If your best shift behind the bar had a theme song, what would be playing the background?

I don’t know if it’s a theme song but anything by Earth, Wind and Fire. That or gangster rap.

What’s your favourite fictional bar from TV, movie or book?

This is kinda nerdy. This this isn’t a book but this is from a Dungeons and Dragons campaign that I ran. Our DM was this older guy, a physicist, he was super nerdy but had this big, booming voice. He was trying to do a lady’s voice. Her name was Glinda and she was the barkeeper and she sent us on quests. She paid us in alcohol. So it would have to be that bar because we had a lot of adventures and we always got drunk after.

If you could only be known for one drink, what would it be?

It’s on the menu right now. It’s called Empire of the Sun. It’s like if a Japanese drink was a foreign exchange student and stayed at the Bloody Mary’s house and picked up some of the customs but never quite figured out how to be a Bloody Mary. It’s Ransom Old Tom Gin, Umeboshi Harissa which I had been wanting to make for s few years. Umeboshi is a salted, preserved plum from Japan and Harissa is a North African chilli paste that normally has preserved lemons as one of the base ingredients so it was a really harmonious pairing. And then muddled cucumber, a little bit of lime and soda water. It’s savoury, a little bit spicy, really interesting fusion of flavours that works seamlessly together.

Do you have anything you want to say about bartending, anything about working at Teardrop or any questions you wish I would have asked that I didn’t?

The thing that I’ve learned about bartending-  what I thought bartending was before I started doing it was about being cool and making drinks. I thought it was about me being really cool. When I started bartending I realized it wasn’t about me being really cool. It’s about guests being really cool and making you the focal point, not me. I think it’s easy to lose sight of that. To bring it back around to Dungeons and Dragons- it’s like being the Dungeon Master. The point isn’t to create really cool things so that the players are like “Oh you’ve created these awesome stories. You’re so cool.” It’s about making the players heroes. They’re the heroes of the story. Same thing with guests at my bar. They’re the heroes of the story. If at any point I try to be the hero of the story then I’m taking away from the experience. I didn’t realize that before I started bartending. I learned that from Daniel and from working at Teardrop.