An Interview with Master Bartender Matt Sharp, of Bosscat Kitchen & Libations
“Too much of anything is bad, but too much of whiskey is barely enough.” – Mark Twain
Master Bartender and Bar Director Matt Sharp, of Bosscat Kitchen & Libations, is one of the most charming people I have ever met. His fun and upbeat demeanor alone would make a trip to Bosscat Kitchen worth the visit. But aside from the exceedingly friendly staff, Bosscat hosts a collection of whiskies so impressive one could argue that this place would turn even the biggest whiskey skeptic into a believer.
Before the interview began, Matt was gracious enough to give me a tour of Bosscat. Much like a kid in a candy store, or in this case, a fan of whiskey in a whiskey bar, I was blown away by all that Bosscat has to offer. Their huge outdoor patio paints the perfect setting for after work drinks, while the dark woods and warm inside lighting casts an ethereal appeal that lures one in like a moth to a flame. The inviting nature of Bosscat creates an environment that attracts everyone from the young and trendy, to businessmen and women, and everyone else in between.
One of the highlights of Bosscat Kitchen & Libations has to be their whiskey room. Aside from being surrounded by some of the greatest whiskies around, I was impressed with their private whiskey lockers. These are offered to guests and businesses alike who would like Bosscat to house their personal stash. If you are one of the few able to secure one of these highly sought after lockers (which also includes access to exclusive whiskey tastings and events) consider yourself lucky because these lockers sell out quickly!
Once we finished the tour, Matt made me an old fashioned. It sat on the table between us, cold and inviting – and I must say, it was delicious. Matt commented on the fact that at Bosscat Kitchen they consider themselves bartenders, not mixologists. Don’t get me wrong, they have the training to create high-end cocktails, but they specialize in making great drinks and creating a memorable experience for the guests. And what’s better than a good drink and an even better bartender who actually cares about the person they are making a drink for? This is just one of the many things that sets Bosscat apart from the rest. But, don’t just take my word for it, read below to get insider’s knowledge from one of the best bartenders around.
Q: What is the proper way to sip whiskey when doing a tasting?
Matt Sharp: First thing I always like to say is there is no wrong way to drink whiskey, because you’re buying it and if someone wants it neat, wants it on the rocks, wants it with Dr. Pepper and orange bitters, they can have it. Now I think that there is a way where we can do tastings where you get the whole flavor experience, and for me, the first thing you do is nose it. With the nose you can actually taste more than you can through your tongue. Next thing you do is you put a drop on your tongue and that just gets you palletized. It’s basically kind of like a boxer, thinking before you get in the ring, before you get that upper cut of 100 to 130 proof whiskey, you get a little jab and your body goes ‘huh, ok’. Then you take a full sip, coat the full tongue because you have tasting receptors all over your tongue, sour, bitter, sweet – swallow, hopefully you enjoy what you’ve had. And the last part is the exhale, which is basically, when you exhale the hotter exhale usually tends to be the higher the alcohol content. Then just smile and repeat.
Q: What sets Bosscat apart from other whiskey bars?
MS: I think, hands down, the non-pretentious attitude that we take with our customer service. We are 100% customer service driven. If you want to come in and you want a Jack Daniels and a Coors Light, you got it. If you come in and want a Pappy Van Winkle, or you want a craft mixologist inspired cocktail we have [that] too. Whatever you want, we’ve got it. And we just try to have a fun environment, where people can meet up, maybe meet the new love of their life, maybe just have a cocktail and a burger, or a beer and a burger.
Q: What is a good starting whiskey for beginners?
MS: 100% Irish whiskey because when you get into bourbons you’re getting into corn-based, sweeter, when you’re getting into scotches they can be extremely peaty and they can kind of turn you off too. But, to be an Irish whiskey you have to be triple distilled and nine out of ten times they are nice, softer, rounder, easily approachable whiskey. One of my favorites is Redbreast, which is just a great go to. But I always tell people, if you don’t like whiskey, just try it. Maybe you’re making friends with your bartender and he’ll give you three different tasters and you’ll find one that you like. And if you don’t, drink vodka.
Q: Whiskey ordering etiquette.
MS: I’m a firm believer that if you’re paying me to get you a drink you can have it out of a wooden box, you can have it out of a shoe, you can have it out of your hands, it’s your cocktail. But, some of the whiskies that we serve here are just so delicious on their own, and hard to come by – the Japanese whiskies, some of the older single-malt scotches, and even some of the older bourbons, I only get one or two bottles a year, so I might cringe a little bit if someone came in and said, ‘Oh, give me a Pappy Van Winkle and Coke’. I’d give them the Pappy Van Winkle and put the Coke on the side. But, I think you should try whiskies with maybe just a splash of water or ice, just to see what the actual flavor profile is and then if you want to go ginger ale or bitters or anything, go for it. It’s your cocktail. I can only make recommendations.
Q: Sipping stones vs. rocks vs. neat vs. splash of water, what is your opinion?
MS: If you have a whiskey that’s over 100 proof, or barrel strength – which can be up to 150 proof – I think water is a key ingredient. I am for stronger spirits being lightly diluted with water or one chip of ice. Or those big ice cubes [which] take a lot longer to melt, so it’s not watering it all down.
Q: In your opinion, what is the best whiskey cocktail?
MS: Honestly, I think the best whiskey cocktail is – it’s going to sound cliché – but it’s going to be an Old Fashioned. A properly made Old Fashioned. Because it’s just such a staple and it’s been around since 1800 and it’s literally three simple ingredients: spirit bourbon, sugar and bitters. And you just can’t beat it. That thing has been whispering my name all morning.
Q: I read that Irish and Scottish whiskies are the only whiskies made without the addition of hops. Is this true, and which carries the better flavor?
MS: So, hops is interesting. Hops in my opinion, is something you would classify in the beer world, but I have about 3 to 4 whiskey examples [inside] that are starting to use hops as a flavor additive. So, if you think of whiskey as an umbrella term, you’ve got Irish, Japanese, American, Scotch, and really it just comes to what grains they have in that region of the world. [In] America we’ve got corn, we have so much corn, well back in the 16, 17, 1800’s they would have this leftover corn that they didn’t use, and didn’t want to go bad, they would ferment it and make spirit out of it. In Scotland they have wheat and barley, same with Japan, [they] have some peat. To me, I think there’s a few small distilleries that are now starting to add hops. It’s not huge, it’s a little trend that’s coming through, and it gives it that floral, citrusy, bitterness to it. It’s interesting.
Q: What is the oldest whiskey you carry?
MS: The oldest whiskey that we have right now is a 32 year Laphroaid; it’s nice, peated.
Q: The five main regional whiskies are Scotch whiskey, Irish whiskey, Kentucky (bourbon), Canadian whiskey and Tennessee whiskey. Can you explain to me a bit about the different flavor profiles each exhibits?
MS: So we talked about the umbrella, and the easiest way to grasp it is what did farmers have plenty of that they could ferment to make beer or whiskey or whatever they want, and then you think about what that tastes like before you distill it. So let’s start with America, corn – sweeter – that’s why these bourbons are a little sweeter, I’d say. If we jump up to Canada, Canada is kind of all over the place, they were originally known for their rye whiskies. They don’t have as tight of laws [as] we have, to be called bourbon you have to fit all these different categories. Canada is a little lighter as far as what the mash fill has to be. Which just means what they use grain wise and also, technically, if they wanted to add caramel coloring or food coloring to give it that beautiful color, they can. In America if you call it bourbon you can have no food coloring, no additives, the only color it can get is from those whiskey barrels. Irish, again, is known for their barley, wheat, they have a few with corn. But they are known for triple distillation which gives it a real soft, easy drinking taste. And then Scotland you’re all over the place, you’ve got the low side and the space side where you’ve got some big peaty smoke bombs, and then you get up to the highlands and it gets a lot lighter and not much peat, and then you’ve got some great blends. So, they’re kind of all over the board. Japanese is primarily malted barley, they have some wheat, but they have a little bit of smoke on theirs too. But, I think we’ve got some of the best whiskies in America right here.
Q: Given the fact that whiskies from New Zealand and Japan come from disputed regions, are they harder to get ahold of?
MS: One of the hardest bottles to get a hold of, one of the rarest whiskies in right now, with some major hype behind it, is from a small island called Tasmania, called Sullivan’s Cove. If you can find one, get one. It’s some fantastic farm-to-glass. The problem is we just can’t get it out here, yet – I’m working on it.
Q: What is the appeal of a blended whiskey?
MS: Price, number one. Because you can have some fantastic blended whiskies that aren’t even half as much as some single malts. And just an all around softer taste, softer palate for someone who doesn’t want a big peat monster, or for someone who is just an everyday drinker, there are some fantastic blends out there. Basically, they are just getting whiskey from multiple distilleries and then someone who has the best job in the world sits there, tastes all of it, and says ‘OK, let’s mix it like this and this is going to taste good’. Johnnie Walker, Chivas, Monkey Shoulder… there is some good stuff out there.
Q: I know that now some distilleries are eliminating caramel coloring and chill-filtering to ensure that the whisky tastes the best it possibly can. Because of this the whisky is said to be very light in color and may even a appear a bit cloudy. Do you carry any of these “natural” whiskies?
MS: Yeah, I would say a lot of companies don’t advertise it but any higher end, great bourbon, they are non-chill-filtering, and you can tell. Anytime you poor whiskey over a rock, or a little water, you see it just kind of look oily viscous and you get all those great flavors. When you filter everything out you’re filtering out also all that great taste and all the tannins that [are] picked up in the wood barrels. The trend now is non-chill-filtered.
Q: Do you know if John and Leslie have ever considered distilling their own whiskey made specifically for Bosscat?
MS: We have talked about it, nothing has come about. But it’s not something we are focusing on because we would rather buy the great whiskies from great distilleries, rather than being the new kid on the block trying to make whiskey that, no matter how you look at it, it takes four, six, eight years to make a great whiskey. So, I don’t think it’s something that’s in our near future right now. We’ll leave it to the pros.
Q: What are some good dishes to pair with a few of your most popular selling whiskies?
MS: Definitely the Porchetta sandwich, which is our take on a pulled-pork sandwich. It’s big, it’s got some spiciness to it, its just a great full-flavored sandwich and that goes with a bigger, maybe even a single cask whiskey or barrel strength whiskey. And you can even do some of our salads, like the Avocado Farm Chop Salad with our bourbon chicken goes great with our signature cocktail The Bosscat, which is our take on a whiskey sour. House infused citrus, simple rosemary, we use Basil Haden bourbon and a little Angostora bitters.
Q: Why do you do what you do? What makes whiskey so special to you?
MS: Well, if I look all the way back at being a youngster I was never destined to sit behind a desk. I was always out meeting people, kind of a social butterfly, and wound up working just about every position in a restaurant from the age of fifteen up. May have b.s.’d my way in to get behind the bar at a certain establishment fifteen years ago, didn’t know what I was doing. After my first day working at a bar I bought the bartender’s bible, and now, fifteen plus years later it’s just never boring. You always get to meet new people. I like when someone from Connecticut and someone from Panama are sitting at the bar and I find a way to get those people to talk and next thing you know they’re Facebook buddies, or dating, who knows what they’re doing. You know, making people happy with food and drink is really why I got into it.