Meet the Bartender: Cameron Holmes of Bar LunÀtico Wants to Talk Spirits With You

As we start to get ready for Good Spirits—happening March 2 at Pier A Harbor House—we’re checking in with some of our favorite bartenders from around the city. Today, we meet Cameron Holmes of Bed-Stuy’s cozy haunt Bar LunÀtico, a place where you can work on your laptop with a cup of coffee, get brunch during the week and check out live music every night.

When a band’s not playing, though, you should be sitting at the bar and chatting it up with the super-personable Holmes, who’s insanely knowledgable about every item he works with (as you can tell in the above Facebook Live we recently shot with him). Here, he tells us about his journey and what inspires him.

Edible Brooklyn: When did you know you wanted to be a bartender?
Cameron Holmes: Candidly, I don’t think it had ever been an aspiration of mine. I don’t think it totally happened until I ended up at LunÀtico. I’d always been interested in food and making things, and in the relationship between lexicon and taste—the almost euphoric understanding that comes with identifying a flavor and putting a word to it that feels right—but tending bar had been a way to pay my way through school, and then pay my to New York. After meeting the incredibly knowledgable, passionate and interesting folks at Maialino, however, and getting the chance to implement my own program at LunÀtico with such wonderfully welcoming and artistic owners/regulars/coworkers, there was a momentum to making and sharing and educating that I couldn’t put down, so to speak.

EB: What’s the biggest inspiration for the drinks you create?
CH: Maybe it’s because I feel like I’m very much still learning, but knowing my own backbar enough to taste something and say “oh, this needs a little of that, and that” has been really exhilarating—especially discovering new tastes in, say, whiskeys and gins that I’ve had a million times before. I think I, like some other barfolk I know, have a tendency to think “well, that’s been done before,” but I keep finding that there’s a damn good reason a particular style or substance has stuck around. I sometimes end up fixated on a particular taste in the way I sometimes end up playing a song over and over again until I work something out with it, so it’s also really great to have a guest or a musician ask if I can make something I haven’t made in a while, and then break my bit of craziness and end up on a new tangent. Sometimes those tangents end up providing solutions for old cocktail problems. So the short answer, I guess, is that I’m inspired by the people who come in the door and get me out of my own head for a bit.

EB: Which bar in New York City—aside from your own—is your go-to?
CH: When I was biking from work in Manhattan to where I lived in Bushwick, I often found myself stopping just after the Williamsburg bridge at Dram on South 4th Street. They always put together great cocktails with a good deal of care, and I was usually hoping I’d get there in time for a Cubano sandwich, which are consistently fantastic. Currently, though, I’m still in need of a haunt. I moved to Fort Greene with my girlfriend a few months back, and we’re still exploring all of the things we’re near. I haven’t had a chance to return to many places just yet. Nearer work, I’m really digging The Wilky on Patchen and Monroe. Always a great draft selection, and I tend to like what my fellow Midwesterners do.

EB: Do you have a favorite New York State spirit, wine or beer? What’s your non-local favorite?
Made in New York, my favorite spirit is probably Greenhook’s Old Tom Gin. Lightly sweetened and barrel-rested for a few months, it’s a gin that’s great for sipping on its own or for mixing beautifully into just about any cocktail that calls for gin or whiskey. Ransom’s Old Tom was the spirit that got me interested in things outside the whiskey spectrum and introduced me to a world of spice and aroma, and I think Greenhook’s is the superior rendition (the price is great, too).

Non-locally, I fell pretty hard for Central Waters Brewing in Amherst, Wisconsin. They make several bourbon-barrel-aged beers that spend upwards of a year in ex-bourbon casks before being re-carbonated. A bit nontraditional in method, but far superior in flavor and texture to beers made with oak chips or that backblend barrel-aged beer with unaged product. They use a good deal of passive solar energy at the brewery to heat their water and their facilities, and you can get their beer in New York through Sarene! Simply amazing folks.

EB: Give us a recipe for a cocktail that’s easy to re-create at home.
CH: The Martinez has long been a favorite of mine, and the ingredients are pretty easy to come by. Possibly named after a town in California, the Martinez is pretty much a gin martini with Old Tom gin and sweet vermouth in place of dry. Some folks like to use a bit of maraschino, which seems to have found its way into a great many cocktails at the end of the 19th century, but I think it’s great with or without it.

2 oz Greenhook Old Tom Gin
1 oz sweet vermouth (our go to at LunÀtico is a blend of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino and Dolin Rouge)
2 dashes orange bitters
(optionally) 1/4 oz Maraschino Liqueur (in addition to the incredible Luxardo, Leopold Bros of Colorado also makes one)
grapefruit twist

Stir and serve up in a chilled glass

Feel free to change up the bitters, the vermouth, or the citrus zest—it’s a tremendously versatile cocktail. Older recipes call for two ounces vermouth and just one ounce of Old Tom gin. Cocchi Americano Rosa, a rosé fortified wine aromatized with gentian, makes for a great spring version. If you’re not storing your open vermouth in the fridge, by the way, you should be—at room temperature, it tends to oxidize or “cook” in as little as 30 days, which will adversely impact the taste of anything you mix with it.