Ask the Expert: Juan of Blackwood Hospitality on the art of bartending

We recently sat down with Juan Arboleda, the Beverage Director at Blackwood Hospitality, which consults with Alva Tavern in Newark’s Hotel Indigo. Opened in December 2015, Indigo is a contemporary boutique hotel in the heart of Newark’s downtown, and steps away from the Prudential Arena.


20150730_154012 (2)OBC: Tell us a little about Blackwood Hospitality.

Juan: Blackwood Hospitality is a full-service consulting firm specializing in all facets of the hospitality industry. We offer assistance in concept, design, and menu creation for both food and custom cocktails, staff training and marketing. Whether opening a new venture or attempting to turn around a struggling establishment, we offer proven solutions to any challenges a venture may be facing.


OBC: What does your position entail?

Juan: As Beverage Director, my responsibility is to design the bar for functionality, create individualized cocktail recipes and menus for each client, hire and train the bar staff, and chose the spirits and beer selection to be offered. It’s important that each new venture has unique offerings that connect with its target market. Additionally, the staff needs to be thoroughly trained to offer a quality experience in both service and product.

OBC: How do you go about ensuring that?

Juan: We first start with the food: what type of food will the establishment offer? Italian? French? American? The next factor we consider is what the target market is. This assists us in establishing base spirits to create unique cocktails that the customer can relate to, while also expanding their palettes and experiences.

OBC: How did you become involved in the industry?


French Spring

Juan: My first experience in the bar business was working at the door for a well-known place called Employees Only in New York City. Employees Only has a renowned program for training world class bartenders. After working the door for some time, Dushan [Zaric], one of the owners, told me that one day he may call on me and that when that call came I had to be ready.

Well sometime later, after I’d had more than a few cocktails, I got the call at 3 a.m. to be at Cafe Tallulah, a bar he was consulting for at 6 a.m. That call changed everything. I started in the bartending program and worked for six months with no day off for $30 per day. I even had to move back home in order to make ends meet, although with the schedule I was working, I often preferred to sleep in the basement of the bar so I could get four hours of sleep, instead of going back home and only getting two hours of sleep before I had to be back to work.

OBC: What advice would you give to new bartenders?

Juan: The most important advice I can give is to work hard. I would rather take a hard worker and teach them over someone who has went to bartending school and has some experience, but has chosen to stop learning.

Also, they should find a mentor. If we don’t continue to teach this craft to people and are selfish with our knowledge, it only hurts the industry as a whole. There was a time when many facets of the industry died and had to be resurrected.

The other thing I would highly recommend is that anyone new to the industry join the USBG (United States Bartender’s Guild). They offer a huge opportunities for networking and education. Also, over time they should get into the habit off tasting as many different foods and drinks as possible to expand and develop their palette.

OBC: Who would you say was your mentor, and how did they expand your knowledge of the industry?

Juan: My mentor in the industry is Nesha Korak of Café Tallulah. While working there, he taught me so many things, not the least of which was the importance of costing out a drink, all the way down to how much an ounce of lime juice costs. These details may seem small to others, but they are essential in establishing and maintaining a successful bar or restaurant. This is the focus of Blackwood Hospitality.

OBC: What are your thoughts on the various reality shows about the industry?

Juan: Well, they’re pretty cheesy, but they do offer some good information. I think the biggest thing they have done is elevate the profile of the industry and increased the appreciation of the craft.

OBC: What’s the craziest thing you have seen during your time in the business?

Juan: While I was working the door at Employee’s Only, there was a group of about ten firefighters visiting from Boston for a 9/11 commemoration. On this particular day, Bam Margera (Jackass, Viva La Bam) was at the bar with a group of his friends, including members of the rock band Kings of Leon and producer Joe DeVito.

Bam was outside smoking a cigarette with two of the firefighters, and everything seemed very casual and friendly. After smoking, Bam leaves the guys from Boston and returns into the bar. Several minutes later Bam returns outside, and the two guys he was just talking to proceed to start beating the crap out of him. This results in both groups coming out from the bar, and a full-on brawl between the firefighters and Bam’s friends.

All the while, Joe is videotaping. I’m in the middle trying to break everything up and throwing people off of each other when the NYPD shows up. After things are broken up, it’s revealed that Bam, Joe and the original two firefighters set the whole thing up as a joke, and the rest of the two groups had no idea. It was definitely one of the most interesting nights I’ve experienced.