Elmwood David Greteman

David Greteman is bar director at Elmwood.

At some point in the past decade, David Greteman has probably fixed you a drink – or at least, developed the cocktail you’re sipping. Now the bar director at Elmwood, which debuted in Maplewood, Missouri, last month, Greteman has worked at some of the most popular bars and restaurants in town. His résumé includes Sasha’s on Shaw, Handlebar, Taste, Sardella and Parlor, among others, although he credits his time working at Taste as the most formative.

“I was completely blown away by all of the different spirits and liqueurs [at Taste],” he says. “I thought that never in a million years would I ever get a job there, and I decided to submit my résumé one day, and sure enough, I got a job there; I was super, super lucky.”

Eventually Greteman would become bar manager as Taste, which led him to join the opening staff of sister restaurant Sardella. While working at Taste and Sardella, Greteman met Chris Kelling, then the general manager at Sardella; eventually, Kelling, along with Elmwood co-owner and chef Adam Altnether, recruited Greteman to run the bar program at their restaurant.

“I said yes the second [Kelling] asked me,” Greteman recalls with a laugh.

At Elmwood, Greteman has curated a fun and progressive cocktail menu divided into three categories: full-proof, low-proof and zero-proof. Full-proof drinks like the North Shore No. 11 Gin are made with unexpected combinations like gin, strawberry, fino sherry and Fernet-Vallet, while zero-proof – or nonalcoholic cocktails – pack just as much flavor. Currently, zero-proof options include the gooseberry-honeydew with lemon and kiwi and the orange-thyme with sumac and beet. To split the difference, guests can choose from four low-proof cocktails, like the Cynar with grapefruit, pine, apricot and housemade falernum.

“The zero-proof cocktails were actually built first, because the hope was to make creative and interesting cocktails with no alcohol,” Greteman says. “So once we were working with flavor pairings that were nontraditional in that realm, we pushed that forward and approached the low-proof and the full-proof. It’s funny, because I’d become so accustomed to making lower ABV cocktails, that it was, in a way, learning how to approach full-proof cocktails again.”

Dividing the cocktail menu in this way taps into an approach that’s gaining traction in bars across the country. So far, Greteman says the customer response at Elmwood has been overwhelmingly positive.

“When you’re working within certain parameters, there’s always the worry that you can taste [a drink] a million times and think it’s great, and then once it’s in the hands of someone else, you don’t know,” he says. “So it’s really cool to see people excited that there are options without alcohol and low-proof options. It’s important to have these options; you can have all of the aspects of a full-proof cocktail without the booze.”

It isn’t just the design of the menu that sets Greteman’s approach apart, though – it’s also his ability to balance interesting and unexpected flavor combinations with affability. Another selection on the low-proof cocktail menu, for example, combines sour cherry, Jamaican rum and blue hyssop, which has a flavor similar to mint yet with more floral and bitter flavor, with byrrh, a red wine-based apéritif made with mistelle and quinine. At first glance, this string of ingredients could seem intimidating to the unfamiliar, yet Greteman runs a fun, engaging and approachable bar, where customers feel comfortable asking questions and bartenders are quick to demystify any unknown elements.

"I like trying to figure out something that's immediately recognizable to your guest, but is still somewhat foreign," Greteman says. "That's a really great way to introduce people to ingredients that they might have no clue about. When people start asking questions, well, that's why [I'm] there."

We recently caught up with Greteman to learn more about the bar program at Elmwood, why he’s happy to see customers embracing rum and why orange bitters are his secret weapon behind the bar.

What’s your favorite ingredient to work with and why? I would say something that I use overwhelmingly – like an obscene amount, honestly – is Regan’s Orange Bitters [No. 6]. I cannot go without them. We tried to order some last week, and I don’t know if they’re out of stock, but we didn’t get any, and one day last week we had a wild-goose chase going… We went to five different places, and no one had it. I was losing my mind. When I was at Taste, I was worried about a cocktail – I was trying to round it out – and the first thing that I was told was to add a couple dashes of orange bitters. I had only associated it with certain very specific cocktails, and then it opened up this whole world. And then I just played around with it in so many different ways.

Do you have a secret weapon gadget/ingredient/technique? Oh man I feel like Regan’s [Orange Bitters No. 6] is also the answer to this one. [Laughs.] So sometimes if a cocktail becomes too sweet, I’ll add ¼ ounce of gin; I have a dropper bottle full of gin. And it’s fun, because you can figure out which kinds of gins will work better than others. I tend to use Broker’s, because it’s a nice standard London dry. But it really cuts through that sweetness, and especially with a dropper, it’s like you’re slowly turning the volume down and you can smooth those edges out. Whether it’s too sharp because it’s this weird interplay between booze and acid or it’s too sweet, gin can definitely help you out of a pinch.

What’s your perfect day of eating or drinking in St. Louis? I never go to breakfast, but if I did, I would go to Southwest Diner. Everybody is so nice there, and the food is delicious. This sounds cheesy, but it’s valid: It’s really important to make sure that you can serve as many guests as possible, and they’re incredible about, down to the very last minute, they will allow people to come in and serve them. If you’re in line and it’s 2:59pm or 3pm, and they close at 3pm, they’ll still let you in. And it’s hard to find that kind of thing. For lunch, I’d go to [Union] Loafers or Vicia for sure. The little gem salad with bacon at [Union] Loafers as the half-and-half with probably the ham sandwich. And I usually get a cookie and maybe a pretzel to go. And for dinner, if I’m solo dining, Mai Lee. I’ll just bring a notebook and work on ideas, prep lists and get some pho – the No. 9 – and just chill. They’re super nice; again, there, the hospitality is also through the roof. They’re wildly busy all the time, but it’s always so comfortable, and it’s because their food is amazing, Qui [Tran] is amazing, the whole family is amazing. And if I’m getting drinks, I would go to Retreat [Gastropub]. Jack [McGinn] makes incredible drinks, and I love Tim Daly; they appeal to my sensibilities. I really like savory and refreshing drinks, and they so that really, really well. And now that Jack [McGinn] is now the [general manager] and more or less running the bar because Tim [Wiggins] is at Yellowbelly… I mean, Jack made me this Negroni riff that just blew my mind. It had an ounce of fino sherry in it, which is a very specific flavor. For a menu with such wild ingredient pairings, it works so well. And that’s why it’s my go to for cocktails. If I was just going to get beer and shots, I’d go to [The] Famous Bar, because I love playing pool. It’s way quieter than you’d think it would be, and they also have Chartreuse V.E.P. Green, which is f***ing crazy. It’s amazing. I love that place.

How has the local drink scene evolved over the past year? One thing that I see that’s cool and makes me happy is not only bartenders embracing rum more. I mean, I hated rum before I started at Taste, because I had no concept of it. And now, guests… I had a couple at the bar this past week, and they sat down and immediately ordered El Dorado 12 [Year rum] on the rocks. It was 5 o’clock, and I was like, “This is cool.” I don’t usually get an order like that. So that piqued my curiosity and interest, because I do love rum dearly. I always want to help a guest in whatever way I can, and if they’re excited about something, that makes me excited about it. So I was giving them tastes of rum, and they were telling me about rums that I’d never had, and it’s great when the interest of both the bartender side and the guest side combine. That’s the perfect moment. They’re educating you, you’re educating them, and both sides leave with something they’ve gained. It used to be gin, and now it’s rum, because bartenders are treating it with more care and they’re more interested in it. 

Who are St. Louis bartenders you admire at the moment? One I would say without a doubt is Jack McGinn from Retreat [Gastropub]. Aside from being a dear friend of mine, he just keeps blowing me away every time. I’m so indecisive, but I also like to just… It’s not that I don’t want to drink something on the menu when I go somewhere, but if someone has something that they’ve been working on, I’m more inclined to want to taste that, because then we can establish a dialogue about it because they’ll want to talk about it. And he’s just been coming up with these crazy drinks, and they’re just so delicious. Something I learned from Phil Ingram [of Vicia] when I worked at Sardella is how to approach the trajectory of the cocktail; you have to taste the trajectory of the cocktail from being cold to warming up to then being completely diluted and warm; it’s a complete game-changer; it’s insane how much they change. And to adapt to that, and have a cocktail that progresses as you drink it, has always been wildly interesting to me, because it’s really difficult to hit that sweet spot at times. And I think Jack is really attuned to those factors, to building cocktails. Plus, he’s really funny.

What do you like to cook or drink at home or on your day off? You get that question from guests all the time, too, or, “What do you order when you’re out?” And most bartenders will say a beer and a shot. The one person I know who actually makes cocktails all the time and I love him dearly, is Charlie Martin at Olive + Oak. I know that he makes cocktails on his day off. But he’s just like a f***ing beast; he’s constantly working. I mean, I’m constantly working, too, but he’s just always doing something, and even at home; you’ll watch his Instagram stories and he’s making a huge meal and drinking a cocktail.

I don’t cook much on my days off, but if I’m hanging out with my dad, sister and brother-in-law, we’ll grill a lot. We’ll make steak tacos – or usually tacos of some sort – and I’ll be drinking like gin and soda or some mix and match of beers that I’ve picked up from Gezellig [Tap House & Bottleshop], because it’s down the street from my apartment.

What’s your favorite comfort food? This used to be my comfort food for a really long time, and it still is, I just don’t get over there as much, but the Blues City [Deli] muffaletta. It’s just like, if I need a moment, it helps a lot. It just always hits the spot. It sends me into a food coma, but it’s totally worth it.

If you could tell home bartenders one thing, what would it be? Don’t be so intimidated about everything that happens behind the bar. A lot of the stuff is easier than you think. I feel like there’s a lot of worry and trepidation [about making certain cocktails] at home, and it’s really not that much work or that hard. Like this past week, guests were talking about bitters and making them at home, and anytime I hear someone talking about making [cocktail] syrups at home or infusions or anything like that, I make it a point to politely interject myself into their conversation and confirm that what they’re doing is great; people should embrace that. Making a tincture or bitter is just set it and forget it; shake it, let it sit for a few weeks, if it needs longer, do it again. And it’s really easy to build your home bar. I don’t even have an extensive bar at home, but you should embrace what you like and then build off of that, and you can’t go wrong.

What’s your first or most significant food or drink memory? I was at The Office [inside The Aviary] in Chicago last August, I think, and it was beyond any expectations. The place is really small, and therefore very intimate, and it’s that perfect storm, where everything was done right. And it also had the biggest selection of vintage Chartreuse. It can go two ways: It’s intimidating because that’s crazy, but it could also be a gimmick, but it wasn’t. And you know, it just so happened that my dad was there, and my dad doesn’t like that much stuff, and watching him step out of his comfort zone because of the hospitality of the place, was… it shook me. It was intense. I was tearing up. And it’s funny, because I’m the kind of person who will go out, and it’s hard for me to let go, because I’m constantly focused on everything that’s going on around me. And my brother, who is the [general manager] at Three Dots and a Dash [in Chicago], he’s my best friend in the whole world, and he was excited – I feel like I’m going to tear up talking about it, because when I’m [in Chicago], he wants to go out with me and share experiences with me, and he was like, “How is it?” and I was like, thumbing through the number, trying to pull it together, and I was like, “Can you please not talk to me right now? Or I’m going to lose it and start crying.” And he was like, “Are you OK?” And it was just that everything was exactly what I tried to do every day in my job: to have servers and bartenders who are incredibly attentive without being invasive. They know how to do it so well and it’s what I strive for every day.  

What’s the most intriguing drink you’ve made recently, and why? There’s a drink that I have that’s called North Shore No. 11 Gin, it’s gin, strawberry, fino sherry and Fernet-Vallet. Most people like strawberry, but gin is a polarizing thing, Fernet is a polarizing thing. And this isn’t Fernet-Branca, so it’s got cinnamon and stuff and it’s very, very dry. And then fino sherry… A lot of people just don’t know what sherry is, or they think of it as a cooking item. And these [ingredients] are all together in a drink, and the result is incredibly third-quenching. The fino [sherry] at the end… It’s just thirst-quenching in a way. There’s always a worry that guests won’t like a drink – that’s just something you’re always going to think about – and I’ve seen so many people enjoy this drink. From someone who just wants to drink vodka to the most adventurous person and everyone in between. So it’s really rewarding to see that, because you’re never going to make everybody happy, right, but if you can come close, it shows that you’re doing your job well.

What inspires your cocktail menu? How do you approach R&D at your restaurant, and what inspires that process? So sometimes I’ll make like flavor trees or just list out ingredients or flavors that I’m thinking about and then I’ll riff off of all of those and create a second list of combinations with that collection of flavors. And then I’ll either make a syrup, see how that goes, and then I’ll apply those flavors to what could potentially work spirits-wise. For example, that drink, [the North Shore No. 11 Gin], originally had a tiny, tiny bit of overproof rum in it, and it was almost there, but it was too abrasive. I had been thinking about sherry a lot and had tasted some of the fino, and my brain immediately said, “Take out the rum and put the sherry in the drink.” It’s weird: You prep and prep and think about it in your spare time, and then it just clicks. But until it pops into your head, sometimes you’re stumped. That one thing makes all the difference.

What are your future plans? I can’t wait to see what the structure of this bar program [at Elmwood takes], with all those options for different drinkers in the different seasons. You can make drinks that appeal to people no matter the season, but it’s also kind of cool approaching the season knowing the typical flavors or what you might have to work with, and then kind of pushing those boundaries. So whether it’s a zero-, low- or full-proof cocktail, it’ll be really interesting to see what we can work with when the seasons change.

And then as for [the future], my brother and I have always wanted to open a bar, and that’s definitely a handful of years down the road. Part of me wants to say [what the concept is], and then part of me is this Smeagol-type person who doesn’t want to talk about it, because I don’t want anybody to know about it. I will say this: Our city is amazing because there are so many opportunities that haven’t been used. Whether it’s food or drinks or the amount of time that a place is open, hours wise. We have a city that loves to eat, we have a city that loves to drink, and we have seen in the past five or six years or more, people really buckling up and getting ready for all of the creative minds we have in this city. With that said, there’s always going to be “I wish we had this type of food,” or, “I wish this was open later.” We both love rhum agricole, beer and cocktails in general, and I’ve always admired my brother’s understanding of hospitality, his efficiency and his ability to run a business, and he’s always admired how I make cocktails. So the cocktail program would be no-holds-barred. The beer, spirits and cocktails will all be sharing a symbiotic relationship, but outside of that, I don’t know. We’ll see; it’s still years down the line.

Elmwood, 2704 Sutton Blvd., Maplewood, Missouri, elmwoodstl.com

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