Drinker of the Month: Sean Stitt, bartender at Chapel Tavern, talks about what makes Reno ‘delightfully shitty,’ why he’s always thinking about toilet paper and what you should drink right now
Drinker of the Month is an ongoing monthly series where we spotlight someone in the community who brings joy to our taste buds. Brewers, bartenders, distillers, sommeliers, restaurant owners, farmers and many others help us enjoy life just a little bit more every day. This is an ode to them. If you want to nominate someone (or yourself) to be the next Drinker of the Month, visit the Contact page and send in your suggestion.
Sean Stitt sounds like a young Mel Gibson — think Lethal Weapon, less anti-Semitism — as he explains in great detail how the Passed Bright Milk Punch at Chapel Tavern takes three weeks to curdle and clarify into a pre-made cocktail. You may know Sean as the bartender, never a “mixologist,” who can tell you the back story of almost every bottle on that insanely well-stocked wall behind him. The same wall that will add yet another shelf and a library ladder very soon.
We met at St. James Infirmary for the interview, which I realized I visited once then immediately left when spotting an ex-girlfriend four years ago. It’s a nice Saturday afternoon so we sit on the roof and enjoy the weather despite the wind.
Mike Higdon: So how many jobs do you have?
Sean Stitt: I’ve usually always had a couple of jobs. It’s about five to six days a week at Chapel and when I’m not doing that I do some consulting work for a distribution company called Sapphire Family of Wines. I’m helping them get their beer program going. I used to work as the assistant brewer at Silver Peak so I have an intimate knowledge of beer doing mostly draft-tech work: Checking CO2 lines and making sure beer pours right. It might translate into something more full time but as it stands right now, it’s consulting.
MH: Did you grew up in Reno?
SS: I grew up outside of Sacramento in a little rich town called Granite Bay. Came to Reno for college in 2002, graduated in ’06 and started managing Silver Peak in ’07. Then left for San Francisco in 2011 and then came back after two months and started working at Campo when it first opened. Those were some long damn days. I’d wake up in the morning and help brew, which is mostly cleaning shit up. It’s not as glamorous as people think. Then I’d walk across the street to see the new Chapel being built and do any demolition they needed. I was just clearing out wood and removing nails. I’d do that a few hours then go home, change and work all night at Campo.
MH: I guess you gotta stay busy?
SS: Yeah, so I kinda dropped all that shit, so it was just Chapel for a while then I started doing this consulting gig for Sapphire.
MH: So why did you come back to Reno?
SS: I love San Francisco, it’s a great place to visit, it’s romantic, iconic, beautiful and there’s a million things to do. It’s just really taxing. You know it’s going to be tough and expensive. You know parking is going to suck. I’m not ignorant of it. I go there all the time but I didn’t realize how tedious it is.
Sean tells me about waking up every morning and waiting in the car for the street sweeper to come by. When the street sweeper comes, he and everyone else on the block move their car, get behind the sweeper and try to park in the same place again. It takes away from the joy of the city, he said.
SS: What I think drew me back is that San Francisco is established, you walk out your door and it’s amazing and your swept up and that’s the allure. You go out there and there’s five million things to do. But it’s established and you’re not going to change anything.
SS: But Reno to me is malleable. You wanna make a difference in Reno you can, for better or worse. It’s caused problems and it’s made Reno spectacular. Sometimes Reno’s just limping along and other times it’s exploding. I mean look at what’s happened in Midtown. That’s not because of some corporate conglomerate or because the city council said “let’s make something happen in Midtown.” It’s because small business owners said “Hey we’ve got a great idea, we work hard, let’s make our dreams come real.” And that’s why I love Duncan Mitchell (owner of Chapel Tavern) because he kind of embodies that.
SS: He grew up in Lovelock and got his degree here at UNR but worked at fuckin’ Mr. O’s, which was the shittiest dive bar ever, ended up buying that and starting Chapel. He turned around that little hole in the wall, and that was my favorite bar for a long time, and then it grew from there and expanded to the big spot.
SS: But it’s not just him, it’s all the guys, the bars, the tattoo shops — I think those guys are underrated, those guys work their asses off and they built that from nothing. And all of sudden, boom, you have a town that’s making the front cover of the New York Times travel section. That’s the paper of record, that’s crazy. And it’s just about Midtown. So Reno is malleable, you can make a difference here.
MH: That was one of the reasons my wife and I decided to stay here over going to Portland or Seattle. This is the beginning of something, we wanted to stay and watch this happen, not go somewhere that’s already done it three or four times.
SS: I was just in Austin, Texas and there’s the famed Sixth Street there. I don’t know if Midtown will be Sixth Street or the French Quarter in New Orleans, I don’t have unrealistic goals for it. But it has this…this kind of…it’s delightfully shitty. Because you got a crack head across the street…I mean look at Chapel, you’ve got the best hardware store in town next door, a meat packing store, an Indian restaurant with a Karate studio above it and this random collection of stuff and bums around you and some yuppies making a lot of money drinking $50 whiskeys. And I love it. It just kind of embodies Reno. The weird everything all rolled into one.
MH: When you put it that way it makes the Adult Bookstore sounds charming.
SS: We’d sit on the deck of Silver Peak watching the sunset and you could see everything and the sunset is amazing with Peavine on one side, Mt. Rose on the other and then flash-flash, nude girls.
MH: Have you gone to bartending school?
SS: No. Ha. Not to knock it but you don’t need it. It’s not really required of you at Chapel. The Chapel knowledge is pretty extensive.
MH: What is required of you at Chapel?
SS: You have to know everything. You start barbacking and work your way into it. Every week we have meetings. Duncan is the master of everything, he’s read every book. He’ll teach you everything. One week we had a class on just sweet vermouth. We have a lot of whiskey. We have to know when someone says, “I like whiskey but I hate scotch,” why that technically makes no sense. Then you can figure out what they mean by that and explain it to them. If they’re interested, you turn it into an educational opportunity and turn it into an experience. If someone is going to spend $120 on whiskey, I expect that bartender to be knowledgeable.
MH: I’ve learned a lot about the mindset of service industry folks in doing these stories.
SS: That we’re nuts?
MH: Yeah, kinda.
SS: I’ve heard a lot of people say “Everyone should have to work in the service industry or retail in their life” and it’s supposed to teach you respect but on the other hand if you’re a jackass you’re just a jackass. I don’t think having experience in a certain field is going to make you not an asshole.
MH: It may even make you more of an asshole.
SS: Most of the time bartending is fun because people come to the bar to relax. It’s not like they’re there because they’re in a shitty mood. They’re hanging out with their buddies or girlfriend or boyfriend. Unless you screw up then that’s on you and you fix it. I’ve had to buy drinks out of my own pocket because I messed up.
MH: So one thing I always notice and the reason you’re my favorite bartender. …
SS: Thanks, I’ve never heard that from anyone except my girlfriend, but I don’t think she believes it.
Sean’s self-deprecating humor continued when I visited Chapel to take pictures a few days later. He told customers I was writing a story on the worst bartenders in Reno and he was the absolute worst in town. Despite the fancy vest and serving some of the best cocktails from the largest liquor selection in town, Sean’s favorite drink is beer with a shot. He’s not pretentious and manages to stay pretty humble, but aggressively humble.
SS: I tell the guys not to be pretentious. I hate that. You go up to San Francisco or Portland and there’s some sniveling prick behind the bar “You don’t know what terroir means and how it relates to this specific gin?” – “Dude I just want a drink”
MH: “Feel free to explain it to me?”
SS: That’s what I harp on with the guys. Have fun, impart knowledge if a customer is interested and if they’re really interested, give them a class.
MH: I think we’re starting to raise the bar for service in Reno.
He describes a scenario where everybody wins if the server helps customers to try new experiences.
SS: You have to think about a lot of things when you’re a bartender. Someone asks you to make something and you have to pull some recipe off the top of your head while simultaneously paying attention to the drunk guy at the end of the bar hitting on a young girl and the lighting and the temperature and the volume of the music, weird smells, is there enough toilet paper in the bathroom… While it seems like I’m having a casual conversation with you, I’m focusing on all that stuff. But if something goes wrong with any of that, someone is going to have a less than stellar experience.
MH: Okay, so hopefully you can answer this one question. What should I be drinking right now? I mean, what’s cool? Or maybe not cool and trendy but good? Or really what should I be looking for? Okay that’s probably four questions.
SS: Nah, it’s cool, fuck it, let’s answer all four. So what should you be drinking right now: whatever you want. Seriously, when people ask me what my favorite drink to make is, it’s whatever you like. It’s what’s going to make you tip me $20. Or they ask, “Well what do you want?” Well I’m in the mood for scotch and porter right now and when it’s a 21-year-old girl asking me that, not to generalize, but nine times out of 10 she’s probably not going to order that.
Despite this declaration, I regularly go into Chapel and ask Sean, “What am I in the mood for today, Sean?” and he usually knows better than I do what I want to drink.
SS: What should people get into? Something you’re not already drinking. Duncan and I were talking about how bourbon is peaking right now and microbreweries have been peaking for a little while. Wine before that. What’s next? His prediction is agave spirits, tequila and mescal and small farm stuff.
MH: That’s what I’ve been drinking lately because I enjoy the flavor of cactus.
SS: So I said what about rum? You’ve got molasses and sugar cane and agricole and all that. You’ve got people who say it’s too sweet because they’re used to Bacardi or Sailor Jerry and they’re starting to explore new rums. Rum from all over the world. My favorite rum comes from Guyana. The other thing is rum is cheap. It’s not like whiskey with corn and barley and rye and sometimes wheat and you have to age it 15 years and get rid of the barrel after the first use. Sorry that was a long answer.
MH: No it’s perfect, I didn’t think it’d be simple like “Drink a Manhattan.”
Sean says to pick something simple and universal, then try it at every bar to see what you like or dislike about the drink. Then learn to make it at home.
SS: I have a group of guys who come in every Thursday hiding from their wives and I make the same drink for them all the time. Well they finally asked how to make it so I handed them the book and showed them how to make the syrup and mix the ingredients. That’s not going to take business away from us, I’d like to see you get $50,000 of booze on the shelf. You won’t be able to replicate everything but if you like this one drink, I’ll teach you how to make it. They called me once in the middle of a shift because they forgot one part and they were all getting wasted at a barbecue. But it’s not like you’re going to stop coming because you can make one drink. You’re going to come back and pick out the next drink. That’s what a bar should be about: come discover something new and replicate it yourself, meet some people, have a good time, enjoy the weather.
MH: What do you want to do next?
SS: I’m still 30 years old trying to figure what I want to do when I grow up. Whether it’s in the industry or not I want to get to more normal hours. I’d like to work 9 to 5 hours so I can find my social life. There’s certain times when I want to be on the other side of the bar and I get a little envious, but I’m focused on everything else.
MH: Like toilet paper?
We talk about working night shifts and waking up at 1 p.m. to go into work when everyone is getting off. Eating dinner at 6 a.m., sleeping during the day like a vampire and using black-out curtains…ugh, black-out curtains.
MH: Do you know how many bottles are on the wall?
SS: It changes all the time. I get that question a lot. We do inventory once a month but that’s more about ounces. We get deliveries from one to four times a week. We lose bottles because we get it once and never again. So it’s in constant flux. There’s a lot.
MH: Hundreds or thousands?
SS: No, definitely hundreds. One of the more impressive bars I’ve been to. In little ol’ Reno!
MH: Especially with the new shelf coming.
SS: It’s almost intimidating for people. I have more people ask how I get to the top than what’s on it. People ask how I get up there and I tell them I jump up there — I’ve got mad hops, all skinny white, 90 pounds of me. If people don’t ask me questions it gets kind of boring though, I can only clean up so much.
I suddenly realize the tow truck that’s been backing into the parking lot is going after the single car parked in the “Parking for Bellissima Beauty & Wig Salon Only. No customers of St. James Infirmary or Rubicon Deli so don’t try it dumbass” spot. That single car is mine. I’m that dumbass. Time to run, interview over.
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