Table 20’s 2nd Annual LA’s Best Bartender Contest: Interview with Judge Matthew Biancaniello

The Minty recently caught up with Libarary Bar bartender Matthew Biancaniello via phone about the 2nd Annual LA’s Best Bartender contest. Matthew is one of the judges along with LA USBG president Marcos Tello, “King Cocktail” Dale DeGroff, LA Times nightlife and food writer Jessica Gelt, Pastry Chef Johnny Iuzzini and restauranteur Brica Lopez of Guelaguetza Restaurant.

I will always remember the first time I met Matt at one of the nights of Test Kitchen. He was sitting at the bar and when I mentioned I loved bourbon, he wanted me to come to Library Bar to try his mushroom bourbon cocktail. I still haven’t had it yet but the drinks I’ve had from Matt are great. There’s no list per se. He works with a huge array of farmers’ markets goodies and concocts his own infusions, syrups and mixes.

The Minty: Matthew, you were the winner of last year’s Table 20 LA’s Best Bartender contest and this year, you’re judging. It’s been widely reported that bartending at Library Bar at the Roosevelt is your first bartending gig. And now you’re helping to judge along with respected cocktailian Dale DeGroff. And this year the contest will be judged by USBG rules. How do you feel about that?

Matthew Biancaniello: It’s a great honor. The second competition I was in was for 42 Below and it was judged by Dale. If I had to do the LA’s Best Bartender contest last year with USBG rules, I probably wouldn’t have won. For the 42 Below competition which was judged by USGB rules, I forgot to use tongs for something and was knocked a few points. It’s very nerve-wracking.

I also think it’s awesome to judge with Johnny Iuzzini. It’s great to be respected by your peers but it’s another level to be respected by chefs. Johnny came in to see me recently and I didn’t know how he knew about me or Library Bar.

TM: Do you believe bartenders should have an understanding of classic cocktails? What are three drinks every bartender should know?

MB: Absolutely. I’m self-taught and I’m still learning. But when I teach others, I emphasize that you need a point of reference. I teach 6 classic cocktails bartenders should know. For whiskey, you have to know how to make a Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Sazarac. For gin, bartenders should know how to make a Last Word, Negroni and Martinez.

TM: You’re known for bringing unusual flavor combinations together in a glass. Will you be looking for that in the competitors this year?

MB: I don’t think it has to be ingredients I’ve never had. But I will be looking for unusualness. I love surprises and figuring out things I never thought of.

TM: Speaking of farm to glass cocktail programs, do you see this trend growing? Should bartenders chase down fresh ingredients alongside chefs?

I feel a particular kinship with chefs. I see them at Farmers’ markets and love learning techniques from them. Just the other day, a 2-star Michelin chef (Jean-Francois Piege) came in and we did a private appetizers and cocktail tasting. I thought it was a huge compliment when a chef loves your cocktails.

TM: What cocktails are you working on now?

 MB: I’m working on 3 summery cocktails- an aged Brazilian Negroni with Novo Fogo Cachaca, Aperol, Campari, Cynar, vermouth. I’m looking for a barrel now. I’m also doing an Italian Greyhound with spiced Campari, Aperol and fresh passion fruit juice. It’s my favorite fruit juice. Walter Manzke showed me how to make a clear gazpacho with an El Bulli technique- you make gazpacho and then strain it for 3 hours. The liquid comes out clear. I mix it with a little champagne and serve it with as an amuse bouche.

TM:  Do you have a favorite bar outside of your own? What do you like to drink?

MB: It’s more like I have favorite bartenders. I love drinking at Providence and watching Zahra [Bates] work. I’ll drink whatever she’s making. At home, I’d smoke a cigar and drink  coffee-bean infused Cynar. Joshua Lurie (Food GPS) gave me some beans from Intelligentsia. They’re from Nicaragua. I infuse the beans with Cynar for a day and half. I love bitter flavors.

TM: Do you have any advice for the bartenders you’ll be judging in Table 20’s 2nd Annual Best LA Bartender competition?

MB: What a hard question! I don’t know if I can really give any advice other than to not edit yourself. People may not try something because they don’t think it’ll work. Don’t think that it may not work. Try it and go at it head on.

You have another couple of  weeks left to vote and  nominate your favorite LA bartenders. After that, 5 finalists will be selected for the competition with Karlsson’s Gold Vodka on October 9 at Elevate Lounge.

See you at the competition!


** photo courtesy of Matthew Biancaniello and Table 20.