Some bartenders joke that a psychology degree has served them well when dealing with patrons, but Mike Di Tota has found that his studies at the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture have directly benefited his cocktail career. He credits his parents for his green thumb, but his passion for plants blossomed during a stint in between restaurant jobs when he worked as the assistant general manager at the Sloat Garden Center in San Francisco. After moving to New York in 2009, he enrolled in NYBG’s two-year diploma program with the goal of working in horticulture full-time. So how did this botanist turn to cocktails? SevenFifty Daily spoke with the so-called Botanical Bartender about his career path and how he incorporates horticulture into his roles as the general manager and bar director of The Bonnie and the bar director of Sweet Afton, both in Astoria, New York.
SevenFifty Daily: Although you worked in restaurants before attending NYBG, you had never bartended. How and when did cocktails come into the equation?
Mike Di Tota: I would frequent Sweet Afton as a patron, got to know the guys there, and started building a home bar. My wife, Chelsea, and I love to host dinner parties; she would do the menu, and it would be up to me to do the cocktails. I would invite people from Sweet Afton, and the word got out to Ruairi [Curtin], the owner of The Bonnie and Sweet Afton. He was looking for a brunch bartender, which worked out for me because I would go to school Monday through Friday and then I’d work on the weekends.
Sweet Afton was actually my first bartending gig, so the two kind of happened at the same time. I would find myself in botany classes just thinking about cocktails all the time. I was memorizing trees’ Latin names so I could research how to transform their bark into amaros. The more I studied, the more it made sense that the two could come together.
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In the past we’ve spoken about bitters. How else do botanicals play into your bar program?
Syrups are one of my favorite ways to incorporate plant notes into a cocktail, and knowing about plant anatomy and structure helps me determine the best ways to extract flavor. The more you agitate the cells of any of the tender herbs in the Lamiaceae family (mint, basil, lavender, and thyme), the more bitter notes they’ll give off, in an attempt to fend off a predator. Chamomile’s sweetness is better drawn out through a room temperature liquor infusion rather than a heated syrup.
Where do you source the botanicals for your bar programs?
Better deals can often be found at a local grocery store, fruit stand, or farmers’ market than through a restaurant purveyor, but we do go through our supplier for some items. For the dried flowers we use for garnishes, and for dried fruits and nuts, sites like Amazon, Davidson’s Organics, and nuts.com are terrific. Kalustyan’s in Manhattan is renowned for hard-to-find ingredients, and they also sell their amazing products online.
How do the ingredients affect the cost of a cocktail?
We have to play to both sides: a fair cost for our customer, and a fair cost for ourselves. We always start with a target liquor percent cost and then add a dollar or two on top of that, which includes labor as well as the ingredients that are going into the cocktail. Alcoholic drinks on The Bonnie’s menu range from $8 to $14. Zero-proof (nonalcoholic) cocktails range from $8 to $10.
You never know how well a cocktail is going to sell week to week. And if you’re using fresh fruits and herbs, you have to monitor your sales closely to gauge the usage of your product. For example, The Bonnie’s number one–selling cocktail in the summer is The Wayside, a watermelon-based drink. Melon juices go bad in two to three days at most, which would be a challenge if the drink wasn’t such a big seller. You don’t want to just throw product away.
Overall, house-made ingredients don’t necessarily make a cocktail more expensive. A super-boozy drink that uses a lot of liquor can be pricier than one that contains fresh produce. In some ways, doing DIY stuff like growing or preparing your own ingredients can be less expensive than buying them because you can monitor every part of the process. You’re not paying for someone else’s labor, and a label, and a bottle, and marketing and shipping.
What advice would you give to aspiring bartenders with a green thumb?
The more local you buy, the better the product will be, obviously, but you have to think about your costs. Buying organic thyme at the greenmarket will be astronomical, so you have to consider whether that’s really practical.
You also have to think about when you’re going to be using that product. You don’t want to buy the ripest mangoes if you’re not going to be making the syrup that day. We buy a lot of unripe fruit so we can ripen it in-house and control when we use it.
It’s nice to grow your own herbs, but I’m a bigger fan of supporting those who have the means to grow the volume of ingredients we need. It’s a great thing to support your local markets and your local farmers.
Is it challenging having this passion for plants and horticulture while working in the city, where you’re surrounded by so much concrete?
I really enjoy creating small spaces rather than giant estates, so New York is a perfect place for me. Horticulture school taught me that everything is a landscape: a garden, a park, a bar, a cocktail. There’s balance in every well-planned landscape—in a drink, it takes the form of texture, flavor, and color. Presentation is an immense part of that. In a tiki drink, it’ll be overstimulating and fun—your eyes will move all around to take it in. In a simple ungarnished drink served up in a coupe, you’ll focus on a landscape at rest, like an undisturbed pond. How a cocktail is presented—as a landscape of its own—contributes to the experience the drinker will have.
I also curate and maintain the outdoor gardens at both bars. The Bonnie’s garden atmosphere is very lush and tropical. At Sweet Afton, we outfit our Glass House, a Victorian-style outdoor enclosure, with verdant Boston ferns as a nod to the classic New Orleans–style bar. The experience is meant to be seamless—you’re sipping a beautifully garnished, bright, vibrant cocktail, and then you’re looking at the plants around you. It all melds together.
What books would you recommend for someone in the drinks business interested in horticulture?
If you’re growing plants for food and cocktails, you’re not just gardening—you’re actually farming, and you want to know that you’re not eating something filled with pesticides. For anyone in this camp, I’d suggest reading The New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman. If you’re just getting into horticulture, it’s important to learn about what will grow in your area, and native plant guides will put you one step ahead of the game. I recommend Native Plants of the Northeast: A Guide for Gardening & Conservation by Donald J. Leopold. And one of my favorite books is Botany for Gardeners by Brian Capon—it’s a simplified explanation of botany for the regular gardener.
Shana Clarke is a freelance wine writer based in New York City and a PR/Marketing consultant for the wine and restaurant industries. You can often find her drinking BYOB Champagne at dim sum brunch. Follow her on Instagram or visit www.shanaspeakswine.com.