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12 Rounds

12 Rounds With… Darcy O’Neil

Photo courtesy of Darcy O'Neil

In this little cocktail sphere, all roads lead to a bar. How we got here and which side of the counter we’re on really doesn’t matter – we’re all in it for the drinks – but the road each of us traveled to get to this bar often makes for a damned fine story. Take the case of Canadian Darcy O’Neil. At some point in his life, O’Neil faced a fork in his road – a degree in chemistry to the left or culinary school to the right. He made the sane choice – he chose chemistry. But the road not taken has a sneaky way of winding around and crossing in front of you again. For O’Neil, that crossroads came in the form of downsizing notice from a large oil and gas research facility. It was a crossroads which also came with a new direction: cocktails. After all, what better mixture of food and chemistry is there than cocktails? Okay, maybe baking, but Canada already had enough bread.

Doing the research to which scientists are drawn, moth-like, and building his own home cocktail laboratory, O’Neil set out to change the Canadian cocktail scene one drink at a time. But the Canadians weren’t having it. Well, some of them were, to be fair – just not the bar and restaurant managers for whom Darcy found himself working. Unwavering, O’Neil set his sights on an even bigger target audience: us webizens. He shoots, he scores! Today, O’Neil’s Art of Drink site is one of the top – if not the top – cocktail blogs on the internet, and at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, the good man is up for both Best Cocktail Writing and Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book for his chronicle of the American soda fountain, Fix the Pumps.

This week, we wish Darcy the best of luck pulling off a hat trick at Tales (two wins plus no hangover), and we hope that you’ll join us in becoming devotees of ArtofDrink.com.

01) What inspired your interest in cocktails?

Like a lot of bartenders, my first job was at an establishment where cocktails were an after-thought. Out of curiosity I tried some of the standard recipes and after a few tastes I couldn’t wrap my head around what would inspire someone to order one of these “cocktails”. I figured that I could make them taste better, so I began my quest for a better drink.

02) What was your first formative cocktail experience?

For many years I toiled away solo mio in the realm of good cocktails, so the only good cocktails I had access to were the ones I made for myself. There really wasn’t anyone else in a 12 hour driving radius that was making decent cocktails, so my first time at Tales of the Cocktail in 2008 was what cemented it.

03) What is your all-time favorite mixed drink?

Picking an all-time favorite drink is like being asked which of your children you love more. There are different drinks for different occasions and even seasons. But, the Manhattan would probably be my favorite.

04) Favorite place to drink?

A small summer cottage town called Grand Bend. It’s most definitely not a cocktail Mecca (yet), but the atmosphere is phenomenal. If I could kidnap Martin Cate, I’d make him open up a tiki bar in Grand Bend and then I’d be able to knock off one more item from my bucket list.

05) If you don’t know the bartender, what do you order?

If the bar has a cocktail menu, and it looks remotely reasonable, I’ll order off it. But my default “Darcy walks into a bar….” drink is the Manhattan, and really only because even when a bartenders screws it up, it’s still drinkable.

06) If you could make any drink with the 12 Bottles, what would you make?

I’d probably whip up a Wet Grave:

Wet Grave Cocktail
1¼ oz Rittenhouse Rye
½ oz Claret Syrup
2 tsp Noilly Prat Vermouth
1 tsp Acid Phosphate
3 dashes Angostura Bitters

Shake and strain.

07) If you could replace any one bottle with another, what switch would you make? And why?

I would probably dispatch with the Redbreast and sneak a bottle of Maraschino into the list. It is such a versatile ingredient that can add depth to many cocktails.

08) Outside of the 12 Bottles, what should people make an effort to try?

Everything possible. Really, 12 bottles is a good start but over a lifetime would be a torturous existence to survive on only 12 bottles. I’ve never been a fan of brand loyalty, the world of drinks is too interesting to limit yourself to just a few things.

09) If you could only have one mixed drink for the rest of your life, which would it be?

A classic Mai Tai would serve me well for life. In the long cold Canadian winters it would remind me of warmer times and in the hot summers it would be a perfect accompaniment to the heat.

10) With whom (living, deceased, or fictional) would you like to most share a drink?

That’s a tough question, but probably the bartenders of the Everett House bar in New York circa 1870 (either Professor Mapes or Mr. E. F. Barry – creators of one of my favorite cocktail, the Moral Suasion. A lot of times history creates the “legend”, so I’d rather talk with actual bartenders from a very formative period in time for the cocktail.

11) On which one item should the home bartender splurge?

Base spirits. Even though ice, bitters and other ingredients are important, the primary ingredients are the key flavour(s) so they should get the most attention.

12) One piece of advice for the home bartender…

Speed is not important. When making drinks at home take your time to get the measurements correct and allow time for the drink to chill.

Aside from finding Darcy O’Neil at ArtofDrink.com, he can found on Facebook and Twitter. His book Fix the Pumps is available via Amazon, and Darcy O’Neil’s Acid Phosphate can be purchased via Mix This!

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