We had the opportunity to interview Nicholas Pascuzzi, the head bartender at Vikre Distillery. Vikre is a craft distillery in Duluth, Minnesota that is known for their delicious handmade spirits — and the incredible cocktails Nicholas creates with them. Currently, Nicholas is competing in the World Class Bartender Competition; at the Regional round in April, which took place in Kansas City, Nicholas was one of three finalists selected to move on to the National round, which places him among the 15 best bartenders in the country! In June, he and the 14 other finalists will travel to San Diego to vie for the title of best bartender in the United States, and the opportunity to compete in the Global Finals. Read what this cocktail-crafting sensation had to say about his hometown Duluth and working for a nationally recognized distillery.
You’re a Duluth native, an alumnus of Central High School, a former student at St Scholastica, and the head bartender at what is quickly becoming Duluth’s most famous distillery. What has Duluth come to mean to you? What makes you most proud to be a Duluthian?
I feel like Duluth will always be a great community to have as that first place, the place from which all of my story has sprung. Duluth is unusual; its identity for me is inseparable from the beautiful corner of Lake Superior we occupy. The lake has a particular gravity because it’s a physically huge mass of water, but also in a broader sense, it pulls on something less physical but perhaps more powerful. Duluth is that feeling to me, that intangible attraction the members of this community share. Duluth is the temperamental weather present in every season. Duluth is the breeze off the lake that reminds me to take a deep breath occasionally. Duluth is that sip of water that we all take for granted until we’ve experienced what other folks call “city water”. I feel like what makes me proud about being a Duluthian are the things we all have in common after living here for a while, and that those things connect us rather than divide: being bridged and knowing that there are only a few ship horn patterns that we hear mimicked whenever the bridge is up; needing to shovel out your car, and someone else’s, and having someone else shovel out your car at some point; having the most ridiculously high voter turnout from ages 6-76 consistently (Kids Voting, anyone?); having felt the lake in some form on your face: rain, snow, or swim.
What changes have you seen in Duluth throughout your time growing up and living here? What about Duluth do you think, or hope, will never change?
Oh boy. I grew up in Duluth Heights. I remember when Miller Hill Mall was pretty much the only thing over the hill, and Menard’s was the only place to get lumber. I remember when Shopko and Toys’R’Us opened. Red Lobster wasn’t a thing. I remember when Alakef started roasting, mainly because I’ve been drinking coffee in some form since I was like four. Downtown was nowhere near the local economic center it is today. The beer, even though I couldn’t drink it for most of my life, was not as iconic and consistent. There were, in fact, three main public high schools at one point. In short, just about everything has changed in some capacity. What remains constant is this weird cultural thing that comes from being by the Lake and enduring abrasive winter weather. I think beyond that, I really do hope we never lose that awkward and lovely balancing act between urban and rural, small town and small city, local and tourist.
Many folks around town probably recognize you best from your role as bartender. You elevate the idea of “tending bar” from simply pouring drinks to a creative, artistic endeavor. What inspired that perspective, and what continues to inspire it?
I worked in the kitchen before tending bar, and I have had the absolute honor to work with some of the most creative chefs and talented cooks in Duluth at Lake Ave Cafe and at Zeitgeist. Being able to work with flavors in food, coming up with recipes, and playing with salt-acid-sugar ratios really laid the foundation for my love of cocktails. When I quit the kitchen, I started bartending weekend brunches and was trained by some folks who have done a lot for the drinking culture in this city and continue to do so. After learning basic technique, there’s a huge world of fun flavors and weird wines, beers and spirits to try. However nerdy I want to get, it’s the interactions with customers that inspire me, and will continue to do so. I read a book from this Japanese cat, Kazuo Uyeda, and he puts forth this idea: everything that happens from the moment a customer walks into your space to that first sip of whatever beverage you serve them affects the taste of that drink. I enjoy the challenge of making the drink taste as good as it can, and this means treating customers with respect, finding out what they want to drink, and sometimes, challenging them with something outside of their expectations. Bartending is ultimately about serving customers, it’s not about how fancy we look, how hard we shake, or how much we know about craft beer trends. It’s about how our knowledge and experience lets us curate someone’s evening while they are in our hands. I love making flavors go together, I love mixing surprising cocktails, but really, I love putting the drink into someone’s hands and making them feel welcome.
What excites you most about working at Vikre?
“Can I smoke it?”
When I was approached about helping to open the cocktail room at Vikre, I was immediately excited about making all of the flavors from scratch. When using an ingredient someone else has made, you are limited to that flavor in a sense. When we want something to taste vaguely like pears, but also like a spicy forest, we have to make that happen ourselves. I thoroughly enjoy designing the ingredients or taking something weird that Emily has made and figuring out how it works with other stuff we’ve made. I have received an insane amount of support for experiments, probably more than I ought to. I am fascinated by smoky, bitter flavors, so I like to think about if smoke will improve just about everything we make. Usually the answer is “no”, and Chelsy and Emily are quick to tell me that, but sometimes it’s “yes” and we get to see what happens. I have been given a ton of creative freedom, because we all operate with the same goal in mind: make something that ultimately tastes good. So all the bitters experiments, the weird flavor ideas, those are all given room to play out and see if they work. The product is exciting, the story is exciting, the process is exciting.
Speaking of Vikre, the distillery has quickly gained national attention since it was founded. From your perspective, what do you think about the importance of Vikre to Duluth — and specifically, Canal Park, and the importance of Duluth/Canal Park to Vikre?
I think we are still learning how Vikre fits into Duluth culture, but what i would like to think is that we have positively affected the way people approach spirits and cocktails in this town. It’s different when you have a brand ambassador from a production distillery from who-knows-where telling you about a product. We get to go into our own backyard and talk about our product, the way we drink it, and imagine how our spirits fit into the Duluth drinking culture. And that has been more and more a distinct culture! Duluth is home to some of Minnesota’s best beer, and now we get to add some of Minnesota’s best gin/aquavit/whiskey/vodka. I’d like to think that Vikre provides a palette of spirits for bartenders to play with and learn about, but in a broader sense I think what we’ve done, and what is most exciting about being a producer of superior spirits, is to push the cocktail culture. We couldn’t have a more iconic location, with our sign being backlit by the Lift Bridge. Canal Park has really become a place for local business in the last decade, and it’s fun to be a part of that. Also to be so close to the lake that lends itself to all of our products is lovely. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the confluence of local forces: grain, water, and botanicals.
When out-of-towners come to Vikre and ask for the inside scoop on what to do around Canal, what are your go-to recommendations?
This is a tricky one, because it depends on a myriad of factors. We have a lot of people putting their evenings/weekends into our hands, and everyone is looking for something different. I tend to recommend folks to local spots for food, like Smokehaus or Lake Ave; New Scenic Care or Duluth Grill if people are driving. After that it all depends. If you’re out at one in the morning and still looking for a drink, the industry bars are Carmody or Sir Benedict’s. If you want some local brews, make sure you stop by Bent Paddle or Blacklist. If you’re looking for scenery, the North Shore is a beautiful drive, or somewhere closer like Chester Creek. I do tend to refer people to places they can walk to, and it’s easy to send people to the DeWitt-Seitz building and check out all the awesomeness. I also tend to send people to other bartenders I know in town, folks I trust to provide a similarly excellent experience.
Nicholas is one of 15 bartenders from around the country competing in the National round of the World Class Bartending Competition on June 12-14 in San Diego, California. The winner of the National round will represent the United States at the Global Finals in Mexico City. CanalPark.com wishes Nicholas the best of luck as he represents Duluth on a national stage. Read more about Nick’s journey here: http://usbg.org/blog/world-class-part-1-0