Whiskey Expert Moves From Behind the Bar to Before the Classroom

Photo by Xania Woodman

Photo by Xania Woodman

The handoff was official May 22 when Emeril’s Restaurants beverage manager and mixologist Max Solano handed the reigns of Delmonico’s nearly 800-label whiskey collection to his successor, new lead mixologist Juyoung Kang. Catching up after the heady cocktail fog had worn off, I spoke with Solano about his new position as beverage program specialist and spirits educator with Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada.

What does your new role entail?

I’ll be heavily focused on the mixology program with [Southern mixologist] J.R. Starkus. He and I will be developing menus for restaurants, pools, clubs—and I will be assisting him with that, so he will actually be able to be face to face with prospective buyers and salespeople. I’ll also have a partner role with the Academy of Spirits, assisting Francesco Lafranconi.

What are you looking forward to the most?

Elevating my life-skill set and displaying it, because—obviously—I’m well versed in brown spirits, but also other spirit categories. For me, it was really time to leave the restaurant scene behind, because I’ve spent half my life working in restaurants. I wanted to try something new, and I really wanted education to be the motivating factor. … Especially with the opening of the new Academy of Spirits—that place is amazing; just the fact that we can utilize that as our office and playground is really amazing.

You’re known for your brown-spirit prowess, specifically with world whiskeys. Is your new role whiskey focused?

I believe it will be at some point. I definitely brought it up, because I do believe that there’s a lack of brown spirits education, and certainly [there’s] absolutely no certification of any type, especially in North American whiskey. That’s something of great interest with me, and perhaps we can actually start that up in conjunction with the United States Bartenders’ Guild and with Southern Wine & Spirits, create a certified program. That is certainly one of my goals.

I see many less tenured bartenders trying to make similar moves in their career without the benefit of 13 years behind the bar. Las Vegas is, in effect, bleeding bartenders. Why do you think so many bartenders are trying to get into a suit? Is your new job that glamorous?

It’s not so much the glamor, but there are a lot perks. You’ve got to pay your dues. When you take short cuts, sooner or later, they’re going to catch up with you and do you a disservice. Before you take the next step up, you’ve got to master the fundamentals. A creative person can make some great drinks, but if [guests are] asking for classic cocktails, and you’ve never heard of them, it’s kind of looked down upon. No textbook is ever going to prepare you enough to jump behind a bar and be a rock star. It’s a lot of practical experience over the years, showmanship, good guest service—there are a number of factors that make you a good bar person, not just how creative you are. Those not paying their dues … they end up looking not credible.

How big is your personal whiskey collection?

A little more than 200—nothing too crazy.

What has been your “biggest” get, whiskey-wise?

From my personal stash, I’ve got quite a few gems. The bottle I value the most was a gift from a patron. It was a going-away gift when I was in Orlando and just starting to get into brown spirits. My last weekend, we met up for lunch and he brought over a bottle of Glenlivet. I was like, “Yeah, we carry that.” But at the time, I didn’t realize was really special: He brought me a bottle of 1969 Glenlivet Cellar Collection. There were definitely less than 1,000 ever in the U.S., and less than 4,000 worldwide. Value today would be from $2,500 to $3,000.

Has a whiskey ever made you cry?

Yeah, when I get an opportunity to try some of the older American whiskeys—we’re talking about Prohibition era or anything prior to. Even stuff that’s just made during the “dark times,” the ’70s and ’80s. Whiskey today is just not made the same. It was a different era, different techniques and different processes. When I was in San Francisco for the World Spirits Competition, I went to Hard Water. They brought some Old Fitzgerald—like a 1½ liter bottle in it own cradle, and they gave me the very last of that Old Fitz. I had to hug the bottle.

As you’ve said, you’re really a brown-spirits aficionado, not just whiskey. What other brown spirits will be focusing on in your new position?

As fond as I am of whiskey, and all categories of whiskey, I’m also a huge fan of rum. Rum, of course, can fall into clear as well as brown. Global vodka and rum sales have dwindled a bit over the past few years because of the big whiskey boom. [Rum’s] definitely the best valued spirits category in the world, and there’s just so many gems out there in the world that are untapped. I’m really excited as well that once—hopefully—the trade embargo is lifted with Cuba, I’m going to go crazy, because there are just so many amazing Cuban rums. I’m also a huge fan of brandy, specifically colombard Armagnac—very underestimated, because Cognac obviously tends to hog the spotlight. Those are two spirit categories that will definitely be popular in the near future.

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