With David Chang's former right-hand man in the kitchen (and a recent Bon Appetit nod as one of the 50 best new restaurants in America), the food at Serpico commands plenty of attention on its own. But Peter Serpico's namesake restaurant has also been kicking out some killer drinks from the jump, courtesy of Brian Cupitt and the rest of the Serpico bartending staff. Cupitt has been behind the bar at Serpico since it opened in the summer of 2013, and assumed the role of beverage manager and head bartender this summer. In honor of Cocktail Week, Eater talked to Cupitt about his ten-plus years in the industry, running a restaurant bar program, his own favorite drinks and local bars, and his recommendations for creating a starter home bar.
Eater Philly: How did you get started in the business and what first brought you to working at Serpico?
Brian Cupitt: Well I got started in Pittsburgh originally. I was out there for almost nine years and cut my teeth at Sonoma Grille, a little wine bar, as a 20-year-old bussing tables. I ended up working my way through the restaurant as a server/bartender there for about five years. After that, I moved onto a local bar, Dish Osteria, which has been [in the Southside of Pittsburgh] for 14-15 years. So that was my first experience working at an established place with a built in crowd, regulars, and locals. And then after that I moved back to Philly and was at Southwark for a few years.
I actually met Peter [Serpico] there and he would come in for drinks quite frequently. I ended up leaving [Southwark] to buy an older house in Philly and took some time off to work on that. When I was looking to get back to work, I reached out to Peter and he was cool with with the idea of me joining the team.
Along the way, did you ever have any formal training or was it more on the job learning?
At Sonoma Grille, thats where I learned all of the fundamentals; table maintenance, steps of service, etc. It was actually really good that I learned the entire way a restaurant works, from busboy to management. You know, wine service and making proper drinks — I learned everything there. From that point on, I worked in more established places where it was more about taking care of your regulars, knowing what they drink and developing new drinks.
Have you been able to help shape the cocktail menu at Serpico?
Yeah, Southwark was a well established place, so there wasn't as much freedom. Since Serpico was just opening, we had freedom to do what we want there. The cocktails were a collaboration between [Serpico bartenders] Melissa [Pelligrino], Barry [Enders], and myself. The cocktail list is about half mine, and the other half is from the other bartenders.
What are some of the drinks on the menu now that you have been able to create?
My favorite right now — I got a case black mission figs, broke them down and made a syrup with apple cider vinegar. It's one part sugar, apple cider vinegar, and the figs. To make the syrup, you mash the figs in the sugar and let them sit for about three weeks. You then strain the solids, add the vinegar and let it sit for another month or so. It has the vinegar, sweetness from the figs, and sugar that balances it all out.
What was the inspiration for that?
Well, the general idea has been around for a while, but I really try to keep drinks down to three to four ingredients at a time. The syrup is fairly complex, so just mix that with some Lillet, gin, and a little bit of lemon juice and it is a really nice drink. The fig drink we actually call Gracie Law (as a reference to the movie Big Trouble in Little China).
Is there a most popular drink on the menu at Serpico?
We always do one classic; I am a big fan of executing something classic and then we do four drinks that we come up with in house. So we are making a Martinez which is an Old Tom gin drink and sell quite a bit of those. We have a mezcal drink [Gina's Drink] with Aperol, citrus and a smokey spritz - it has a nice smoke on the nose but finishes refreshing, almost margarita style on the palette.
Outside of Serpico, is there a favorite bar in Philly that you have?
Tattooed Mom's — I lived in that neighborhood for a while. Also, New Wave Cafe. I hate to be biased, but if I am going for nicer drinks, Southwark was always my go-to for a classic drink even though I worked there. Over at Vernick and Good King Tavern, they make a nice drink.
What is your drink of choice if you do go out?
Well, I'm pretty much a wine drinker at this point, but if I'm gonna get a cocktail, it's probably a negroni.
Moving to the home bartender, if someone is trying to stock their bar with the essentials, what would they need? Any drink recommendations?
Well you could get a bottle of Beefeater gin, a nice bottle of rye (like Rittenhouse), a Penn 1681 vodka, and a nice tequila like a Cazadores or an Espalone. If you have those four, you can pretty much make most drinks. If I were to have some people over and wanted to do something with a whiskey, a really simple drink is the Boulevardier: equal parts sweet vermouth and Campari, and a little more rye, finished with an orange twist. You stir it together, strain it out, and it's a nice winter cocktail — bitter, sweet, and a little spicy.
What tips do you have to get good service at a bar?
Well, it's up to the bartenders to be the host. They should be making everyone comfortable and, unless somebody is unruly or trying to be a pain, it's the bartenders job to make them feel comfortable. For me, the most common question from customers is: What should I drink? And I say, well, what do you usually drink? I can make you something nice or give advice for something more adventurous. As long as there's a dialogue, everyone has a good time.
From what you see, what is the most popular drink in Philly (aside from the citywide)?
Honestly, it seems like Old Fashioneds have become a really popular drink. People generally order off cocktail menus, but if someone is just coming in and ordering a drink, they have become pretty popular. It's a classic. We also have seen a lot of Vespers [since the James Bond movie]. We get quite a few of those.
What's in a Vesper?
It's mostly gin, a little bit of vodka, and a touch of Lillet. It's a really great drink, nice and clean, which you can drink in the summer or the fall.
— Dan McKay