In a special entry for Cocktail Week, Eater speaks with Ben Bragdon, longtime bartender at The Armory Lounge, located in the bottom level of the Portland Regency Hotel and Spa.
Ben Bragdon is originally from Windham, and has spent that last 16 years behind the bar at The Armory. The lounge is dark and elegant; a sign suggests it's polite to remove one's hat and keep cell phone usage to a minimum when entering. This is one of Portland's cocktail institutions, but it doesn't come across as stuffy. Bragdon is welcoming, easy-going, and clearly comfortable in the space. He keeps up running conversations with a variety of guests, many of whom he high-fives as they depart for the evening.
Late on a Monday night, Bragdon split his time between mixing drinks for customers and sharing why he loves his job.
Was this where you got started?
I was in fine dining, waiting tables before this. As soon as I found this, it was great. Great people here. The hotel's family owned. Everyone else is all chains, but here there's a lot of freedom of artistic expression, we kind of make our own rules, since it's a family-run business. Most of the full-timers have been here double-digit number of years.
What's your favorite part of working here?
The people. Interactions with regulars, great locals.
Do you have a lot of regulars?
Yeah, that's the vast majority of our business. Even just regulars at the hotel, people coming back regularly on anniversary weekends, birthdays, you know.
Do you have a drink that's most popular?
Here, it's the Espresso Martini. People come in on the weekends in droves, like six to ten at a time, and order ten. We'll line them right up. We're mostly cocktail-driven here, it's a great vibe.
Why do you think the Espresso Martini is so popular?
I don't know, it just caught on. It got trendy, hooked a lot of people...it's also just a very common flavor for people to attach to. Some of this stuff can be a little too technical for people, whereas this is kind of like a spiked rum: Easy to accept.
Does the Espresso Martini use vodka or gin?
We use vanilla vodka with a little bit of Kahlua, and we use fresh espresso. I chill it so ice won't water the drink down, little splash of Bailey's. More espresso and vodka than anything else.
But yeah, our drink menu's like a living thing. There've been 30 drinks that have come off over the years. We're always rotating seasonally. We have a lot of people that might come back, so even though the Almond Joy's not on there, the Ruby Sipper, drinks that are so six years ago, yeah, sure, I can still make that.
More and more lately, we've been getting into infusions (pulls out some bottles). Bacon and Bulleit Rye. We use bacon fat for that one, and after four days we freeze it and strain out the frozen fat. Jalapeño-infused silver tequila, super easy to do, everyone does that. Black tea-infused Tito's - corn vodka's all the rage because everyone's gluten-free. Mulled honey Jack, we do a hot toddy with that all winter.
We just switched back to fall and winter here. Summer, we do a lot of Blueberry Mojitos, stuff with muddled watermelon, a lot of summery drinks. It's nice to switch gears.
It's busy in here for a Monday night. Is that normal?
We're dead all summer. Tourist season is dead. Our slowest months are June, July, and August. We're subterranean, everyone wants to be on the decks and patios. Now The Armory is waking up, and we're going to be rolling right until April.
How do you get through those summer months?
It's a slow period for the bartenders. A lot of them take a week off here and there. We have early outs, late ins. Fridays and Saturdays in the winter, we'll have two on the bar, two on the floor, plus a runner, just assisting everyone. Summer months, we'll cut the runner, pare down. We're the opposite bar! We have a garden cafe here at the hotel, so it's either here or there.
Do you have a favorite drink to make?
I suppose just a Captain and Coke would be my favorite to make, just bam bam (laughs).
What's your after work drink?
Probably vodka soda or bourbon and ginger. That's my favorite drink, bourbon and ginger with Maker's Mark.
Do you get the request "Dealer's Choice" a lot? How do you handle it?
It's usually a frat thing, college kids usually say that, but I get that a lot. I think all the bartenders here do. They feel comfortable with whatever we'd like to make. But I like to ask a couple of questions before I do that: Sweet? Dry? Strong? Smooth?
You obviously enjoy this. What's the most challenging aspect of the job?
I don't know.... (Agonizes for a full 30 seconds.) We don't really have a rough crowd. House-keeping takes care of the floors, maintenance takes care of the problems, you work at hotel so you get insurance and 401K, my family's taken care of.... Like I said, we're family-run, so if this were a Hyatt or a Hilton or anything like that, they have such standards set for pouring costs and policies, they have to be the same everywhere. Truly, I like being here, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
(Another long-time employee, Margaret, chimes in: We even have nice chefs.)
Ben: The food's underrated. It's farm-to-table, it's really good.
What advice do you give to a new bartender?
I would say wait tables. That's my first advice to anyone that's coming out of college, or starting college, and they're like, "Oh, I want to bartend because it seems so cool." There's a lot of fundamentals you can learn waiting tables, then you can transition from there. I think that's the easiest way to get involved. You learn a lot about pairing food, which is important. If you just go into a bar, you're not going to learn a lot about how things work together, correlate.
The Armory Lounge, 20 Milk Street, Portland, (207) 774-4200, website. Open Sunday 3 - 11 p.m., Monday - Friday 11:30 a.m. - 11 p.m., Saturday 12 - 11 p.m. Half-price appetizers all day Sunday, specialty cocktails for $7 on Monday 4 - 6 p.m.