Each month, as part of an ongoing portrait of rising talent in the bartending community, PUNCH hosts a resident bartender who has demonstrated a strong sense of personal style. In this installment, Dante’s Stacey Swenson is taking over our bar, and debuting a custom menu of four original cocktails that we’ll serve throughout her month-long residency.
“Not every drink should be designed to win competitions,” says Stacey Swenson, head bartender at New York’s Dante and Dante at Genuine. It’s a logical stance for someone who helms the cocktail list at a bar with an easy-going approach to aperitivo cocktails—including their signature Negroni, which dials back the Campari and sweet vermouth for a subtle update that has almost become the new gold standard.
Swenson’s interest in simple constructions, however, should not signal an indifference or dislike towards complex techniques; her background includes a stint at Booker and Dax, the now-shuttered experimental cocktail bar helmed by Dave Arnold, one of the drink world’s most progressive thinkers. “Booker and Dax taught me how to look at cocktails with a more scientific approach,” explains Swenson, adding, “it just wasn’t my style creatively.” She landed her current position as Dante’s head bartender two and a half years ago, after only a few short months behind the bar of the revamped Greenwich Village stalwart. “It just clicked with me immediately,” she says of the bar’s Italianate focus and unassuming feel.
Her personal style leans away from the conceptual and more towards the craveable. “Aperitivo style, low-ABV, attention to aesthetic are really attractive to me,” says Swenson, who cites a natural affinity for the unpretentiousness of Italian drinking. “Most people, when they get off of work, they want a cocktail in front of them and they don’t really want to have to think about it very much.”
Indeed, her drinks are full of twists, but never at the expense of congeniality. Her Margarita Verde, for example, builds off the ever popular tequila daisy formula, brightened with a host of seasonal greens, while her Japanese Plum Highball taps into the current taste for all things Japanese by doubling down on the Japanese components with a small measure of plum cordial and umeboshi vinegar for a drink that is at once original and familiar.
Here, get to know Stacey Swenson in four drinks.
“All my favorite drinks that I’ve come up with have been classic variations that I’ve kind of turned on their heads,” says Swenson. Her Bamboo Highball, for example, re-imagines the vermouth-and-sherry-based stirred drink as a tall cooler. “I love the Bamboo, but I wanted it to be even more refreshing than it was.” Her jumping-off point was tasting the ultra-savory Bitter Truth Olive Bitters, which immediately brought to mind the slight salinity of fino sherry and, of course, a dirty Martini (a drink, which, incidentally, Swenson loathes “I think most people who order dirty Martinis are just hungry.”). “I wanted to create something that was savory, low-ABV and satiates that same sort of appetite [as a dirty Martini],” she explains. “Its slightly salty but so easy-going.”
“I love a Japanese highball,” declares Swenson, who puts a seasonal variation of the simple cocktail on every menu at Dante. “Even though the base spirit is whisky, it still feels like an aperitif,” she says. For this late-summer variant, she calls on a number of Japanese ingredients, from umeboshi vinegar to plum cordial, a common ingredient in Japanese cuisine, for a subtle update on the familiar classic.
In her aptly-named Margarita Verde, Swenson turbo-charges the grassy notes of blanco tequila with a house-made “garden cordial.” Consisting of fresh green bell pepper, snap pea, parsley, celery and agave nectar, it brightens the classic sour formula, while a touch of salt draws out extra nuance. “It still feels like a cocktail not a smoothie,” assures Swenson.
“Always gotta have a spritz,” Swenson says of her crowd-pleasing watermelon Negroni Sbagliato rendition. Swapping Campari for Cappelletti and sweet vermouth for dry, the Tan Line Spritz embodies her easy-going approach to cocktails for a drink that’s light, bright and universally appealing.