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Photograph: Martha WilliamsTona Palomino runs the bar program at Trenchermen.

Know your bartender: Tona Palomino at Trenchermen

The bartender got his start working in esteemed New York kitchens

When we participated in a Malört bar crawl last spring, we knew we had to make a stop at Trenchermen and try the barrel-aged Malört that head bartender Tona Palomino had been aging since before the restaurant opened in July 2012. What we didn't expect was that we would have some of the most thoughtful and delicious—yes, we said delicious—Malört cocktails of the day there.

After attending culinary school in New York, Palomino started working at Jean Georges. He worked his station with Cicchetti head chef Mike Sheerin (he was the opening chef of Trenchermen with his brother, Pat). After working the line for several years, he went to the "dark side" and started working in the front of the house as a server in the restaurant. After leaving Jean Georges, he went to work at Wylie Dufresne's WD-50. When the bar manager left, he made the jump to working the bar and eventually took it over.

While his focus was on learning the culinary-focused house cocktails, he quickly realized that he needed to learn more of the classics.

"I inherited a lovingly stocked bar that I knew nothing about," he explains. "That encyclopedic back bar was my most rigorous and wonderful mentor for the actual liquid portion of [my] mentoring."

Working at a forward-thinking restaurant like WD-50 provided Palomino with a great learning environment.

"Dufresne has had more to do with influencing my approach and sense of style than anyone else," Palomino says. "Those of us fortunate to have spent any amount of time at his restaurant walk away with an open-ended approach toward the creative endeavor that allows for the conceptual and even risky, but understands the requisite countless trials involved in bringing it about."

We often see bartenders use a straw to taste drinks to make sure they have the right balance and flavor. Palomino, in a habit he picked up from working in a kitchen, uses a spoon to taste his drinks. 

"The spoon gives an overall better idea of how the cocktail tastes. It delivers a larger amount of liquid than the straw in a more organic fashion," he explains. "Most of the drinks we offer are served without a straw. Why taste them with one?"

We recently caught up with Palomino to talk about the cocktail program at Trenchermen.

RECOMMENDED: The best bartenders in Chicago

What's your approach to making cocktails?
I find that, in coming up with drinks, very little is my doing. More often than not, I am just at the right time and place. An idea comes together with a specific ingredient, my staff makes a perfectly timely joke, suggestion, et cetera. Drinks on the menu are rarely the result of a clear concept-to-finished-product process; they are more like serendipitous and happy occurrences.

What is your cocktail-making style in three words?
Balanced, fun, delicious.

What were your goals when you started working at Trenchermen?
I wanted a program that reflected the sensibilities of the restaurant: its creative spirit and its unique and sometimes novel approach.

What was a drink you thought it would be a hit, but didn't catch on?
In an effort to come up with something as close as possible to the idea of candy cane soda, we infused gin with candy canes, clarified pear nectar with agar-agar (a gelatinous product), mixed the two, added lemon juice, and carbonated it. It was delicious and not too sweet, bubbly and fun. I was sure it was going to become the runaway hit of 2013's holiday season. It wasn't.

What do drink on your night off?
I am married to a gal who loves whiskey and whiskey cocktails.  Enough said. 

Tell us about one of your cocktails that you've added.
Flower Power is a take on the pisco sour with a good dose of chamomile and a delicious undercurrent of FEW Malört. It starts out like a banana milkshake, but then it takes a left turn, and the herbal notes keep you going back for more, in an effort to unravel that elusive taste that's just on the tip of your tongue, and you can almost name. But then the drink is gone.

Complete this sentence. Malört is...
just the beginning... 

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