By David Ransom
There was a period when a prospective employer looking at Tad Carducci’s resume may have written “underachiever” in the margin. His father would probably have agreed…
Yet, delve a little deeper into Tad’s life, and one will see that, contrary to what seemed for some people to have been, at times, a relatively un-inspired chosen path, there’s an underlying brilliance and incredible work ethic that has launched him straight to the upper echelon of the cocktail world to join names like DeGroff, Reiner, Abou-Ganim, and Saunders.
But was this always the plan for Tad? Probably not; and he admits it. The oldest son of an attorney and social worker, Tad grew up in the suburban New York City town of Hackensack, New Jersey with dreams of becoming an actor (much to his father’s chagrin). He realized early that he had the gift of charm, and didn’t have to put much effort in to get by socially or in school. “Being the oldest, I got away with a lot of shit,” he says, “my siblings got away with nothing.” He admits, even now in his thirties, to still having a “healthy case of ADD,” and that he was “never the best student.” At one time, his father even threatened to send him to West Point so he’d “shape up.” But he also showed great intelligence early, getting accepted to Cornell Hotel School. Of course, he never went, eventually enrolling at Rutgers University to study his true love of acting.
That love of acting and performing has been a thread almost his entire career, popping up many times over the years. Sometimes, it’s ruled his direction, like the time he moved to Dublin, Ireland to play guitar in a band, and other times it’s just popped up briefly, like when he juggles, does magic tricks, or rides his unicycle. Yet, whether it’s been an undercurrent helping direct his life’s flow, or a full blown tsunami of energy, like when he acted Off-Broadway or did “flair bartending” (think Tom Cruise in Cocktail), that artistic streak has also helped Tad become that One in a Million success story in an industry populated largely by people who will never be recognized for their talent or work ethic.
Tad’s road to the top started like many others’, at the bottom. His first job in the hospitality business was as a busboy in a wedding hall. One day the bartender no-showed and Tad was thrown behind the service bar and taught to make the drinks for the waitstaff. He realized he liked it, and by the age of 20, after stints making pizzas and working at MacDonald’s (still an admitted guilty pleasure), was bartending full time.
When he left the ‘burbs for the big city to follow his dream of acting, like many others he paid the rent working in restaurants, sometimes behind the bar, sometimes not, but always enjoying what he did, and always doing well. As his enjoyment of the hospitality business grew, the acting bug lessened, and he moved full-time into restaurant work, eventually parlaying his growing love of wine into a job at Windows on the World as Assistant Cellar Master under Kevin Zraly and Andrea Immer-Robinson. While he eventually went back to bartending, it was not before he became a certified Sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers, and gained his Advanced Certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (so, he CAN study…).
“My strength in this business is hospitality,” Tad says, “and welcoming, entertaining, and making people feel at home is natural behind the bar, so I found myself in my true comfort zone there.” He also found that he was really good at it, eventually becoming a partner in Mercadito (he still is), and running the bar program for all its restaurants in NY, Chicago, and Miami. Along the way, he has built a reputation for making beautiful cocktails with unique flavor profiles, and in doing so has helped an industry move into the limelight.
He’s the winner of countless competitions, and can be seen at every major mixology event in the country each year, showing-off his personal style of cocktail alchemy. Through all the work and travel, he’s also managed to marry his college sweetheart, have a son, and move back to his hometown.
These days, Tad, along with his business partner Paul Tanguey, whom he met while they were both enrolled in the Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR) certification program, run The Tippling Brothers (www.tipplingbros.com), a consulting company for the industry they started in 2007. Their services range from education to promotions, and they also spend a good deal of time consulting with other companies helping to create their beverage programs.
Their most recent endeavor, this time also as part owners, is The Tippler (www.thetippler.com), a subterranean “everyman’s bar” in the basement of New York’s Chelsea Market. Opened this Fall, it features a full list of Tad’s amazing cocktails, including the aptly named: “The Crippler” (it does just that), and also craft brews, a wonderful list of wines, and delicious nibbles made with ingredients sourced upstairs in the market’s numerous gourmet food shops.
I sat down with Tad recently before the doors opened and asked him a few questions over an afternoon glass of sherry (or two)…
Q: Do you wear an armband?
A: Well, no… but I wear a sweatband on my wrist to wipe the perspiration from my brow as I run around like chicken with his head cut off on a busy night, does that count?
Q: White Spirits or Brown?
A: White…sometimes… or can I just say “yes”…
Q. Do you have a favorite ingredient?
A. Chilies of all sorts. I love heat in a cocktail. It can bring depth of flavor and tons of sensory stimulation to the palate. I also have a fondness for bitters. When we were in high school, we’d buy Angostura bitters in the supermarket and drink that on Saturday nights. Nobody realized it had 45% ABV… we’d get a good buzz… and I’d have a VERY settled stomach.
Q: Cubed ice, or crushed?
A. Crushed. I love to drink islandy (is that a word?), tropical, festive drinks that
transport me to another place. It requires extra work, and therefore I think extra care, but I think it’s worth it. However, I am not a glutton for punishment. If I‘m making a cocktail for 2500 people at an event, it won’t involve crushed ice…
Q. What do you see as the next big trend in cocktails?
A. Simplicity. I’ve seen it start this year, and think it will only continue to grow as a standard. Dialing back on the number of ingredients to come up with three to four-ingredient cocktails done really well is the big trend right now. Also, less exotic ingredients.
Q. On the same theme, what’s your latest personal trend in cocktails?
A. Streamlining ingredients, using great spirits, and balancing fresh and fun pre-made ingredients. Case in point: I have a cocktail with Fanta on my latest list.
Q. What was your last big learning experience?
A. I just opened The Tippler this Fall. Does that count? Really, I learn everyday.
Q. Who are your mentors?
A. I owe a lot to Steve Olson. I’ve really been learning from him since I moved to NYC in 1994. He consulted at Typhoon, my first bartending gig here, and took me under his wing. His passion for knowledge and love for this industry is unmatched.
Q. What is your favorite spirit to drink straight?
A. Mezcal, preferably Blanco, sufficiently smoky. To that end, I also like a good Scotch.
Q. What cocktail did you have recently that blew you away, whose was it, and why was it special?
A. The Beton Verde by Danielle Marshall at The Gallows in Boston. Made with Becherovka, Barenjager, Aquavit, lemon and muddled arugula. Peppery, buttery flavors, contrasting herbaceous flavors from the spirits. Really nice. Served on the rocks.
Q. Should Celebrities have spirits?
A. Sure. This is America, and capitalism is a wonderful thing. Do they need to find their way behind my bar? No…
Q. Favorite beer?
A. There’s always a six-pack of Tecate (in cans) in my fridge.
Q. Hardest Gig?
A. When Mercadito opened their third place, they had no liquor license for awhile and I was brought onboard to come up with an alcohol-free cocktail list. That was very hard. Alcohol is such a huge component in a cocktail, not just for the flavor of the spirit, but for the actual distillate itself. Very hard to create balance without it, but I did.
Q. What keeps you up at night?
A. Other than my commute and my two year old? Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about flavor combinations. More often than not, they turn into new cocktails.
Q. Interesting. So other than sleep, what do you think makes a perfect cocktail?
A. Balance. Like in life and love, balance is crucial to a good cocktail. I think you also need to be able to taste the hospitality in a drink. When I was little, my grandfather told me, “Kid, you need to put love into everything you make.” I’ve never forgotten that…
Q. Where do you see yourself retiring?
A. A corrugated shack on a beach somewhere. I know, I know, but…
Underachiever? I think not…
2 oz. Finlandia vodka
.5 oz. absinthe
.5 oz. fresh lemon juice
1.5 oz. simple syrup
8 basil leaves
8 oz. ice
Blend all ingredients together for 20 seconds. Pour into Collins or footed tall glass. Garnish with a lemon wheel and fresh basil.