Ten years ago, Derek Stilmann happened across the book The Art of Fermentation, by Sandor Katz, and everything clicked. He had long been interested in fermentation as a hobby, but he had never before connected the idea of biological cultures to the human cultures of art, cuisine, music, community—an analogy the book explicitly drew out.
“Both biologically and on a social level, culture is the tapestry of our existence,” says Stilmann, a Miami-based bar owner and bartender who uses fermented ingredients like yogurt and fermented soda in cocktails. “Everything is interconnected.”
Stilmann’s exposure to a diversity of cultures came early in life—his mother’s work involved long trips abroad, with Stilmann often accompanying. When he was 13, he joined her on a trip to Italy; there, he hand-picked mussels from the ocean and learned how to make pasta from a 90-year-old woman in Umbria. That experience ignited in Stilmann a love of food and cooking, which he would eventually turn into a career.
At his first job as a line cook, he was one day pushed out to the front-of-the-house to work behind the bar as a sub. “It was a defining moment, and also so much fun. I was like, ‘Oh man, I could be out here talking to people.’ Because that was what I was missing.”
His first official stint as a bartender came at one of Miami’s critically acclaimed bars, where he would land his first drink on a menu: a banana Manhattan, made with rye infused with a passa banana—a dehydrated version of the tropical fruit that is an Italian specialty. It was one of just many personal infatuations that he would translate into the glass over the years. “I get obsessed with certain things,” he says.
Next, he started and ran a cocktail program at a popular rooftop lounge, and not long after that he opened his own bar. As his palate and style evolved, he found himself inspired by stories and abstract ideas that he would strive to translate into drinks.
Visiting a Japanese speakeasy in New York, he had a drink called Summertime, a blue cocktail featuring lychee purée. “When I took a sip of it, it really reminded me of summertime… I was like, ‘How’d you make liquid taste like an idea?’” It became Stilmann’s goal to create similarly evocative drinks that managed to be complex without overwhelming his guests.
One way to achieve that end is the process of fermentation, which helps him distill the concept that everything is the sum of its influences. A top Bordeaux poured blind is delicious, he points out, but the real pleasure of drinking an iconic wine comes from the knowledge of the history, tradition and people that produced it. “It’s the … understanding of, ‘Where’d that wine come from? What’s the importance and significance of it?’ I love to translate those ideas.”
What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
Learning about cultural anthropology and its ties to culture of fermentation, both biologically and through fermented traditions.
How does it inspire you?
I’m fascinated by the symbiosis of human culture and fermentation, and how fermentable products are such a big part of who we are as a species.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Remember that people who come to your bar work hard for the money they spend on the cocktails you serve them, so treat each one with utmost respect.”
Describe your creative process in one sentence.
I look for things in life that inspire me and excite me about the world, things that take time to understand and have deep meaning for me; I take that inspiration and excitement and channel it into the drinks I make, trying to create my interpretation of what I experienced from that.
What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far?
Having to look inward into what truly inspires me on a day-to-day basis … was challenging. It’s easier to just do something without understanding the “why you do it” part, though that’s the most important question you can ask yourself.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
The best version of myself I can possibly be.
Best thing you ever drank:
My first proper cocktail [at a cocktail bar in New York]. … It was too long ago to remember the drink exactly, but I’ll never forget the feeling it gave me—that cocktail opened up my eyes and showed me how profound an effect something as simple as a drink could have upon someone.
Worst thing you ever drank:
A warm Bloody Mary. … It tasted like drinking pasta, which is grosser than it sounds.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
Kimchi sour … not good, not good at all.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Experiencing new places, cultures and learning about them.
If you had to listen to one album on loop for the rest of your life, what would it be?
To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
I don’t think any of the hobbies I’ve had are weird—granted, they are my hobbies, so I may be biased. Pickling all types of things, I guess, is the weirdest-looking thing.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Someone called in to the bar asking to start making a cocktail for them before they even arrived to the bar, which is silly because it only takes a minute or two to make that particular drink. What came first, the cocktail or the guest? In this case, the cocktail…
Best meal you’ve ever had:
I had a variety of mussel dishes in Napoli, Italy, [made with mussels] I had pulled out of the sea an hour before. The table was full of house-made pasta, fresh vegetables from the garden, wine from a local winemaker whose vineyard was in eyesight. I felt so connected to the ingredients because of how close I was to them. It was a sunny day [with] nothing to do but eat and relax; that’s how all meals should be.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
My go-to is to try other bartenders’ cocktails.
Guinness and rye, neat.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
Spicy passion fruit Margaritas. I’ve just made too many of them.
The last text message you sent:
“You live in Brazil?”