The Opium Group’s Eric Milon on the Reopening of SET, Zipline Champagne Delivery, and Top DJ’s

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As the founder of the Opium Group, Eric Milon is not only South Beach’s nightlife kingpin, he’s also its unofficial face. Having grown from a modeling career that splashed his handsome mug on the cover of GQ to running Miami’s hottest nightclubs, Milon (right, with DJ Avicii) is now throwing his energy at the newly remodeled SET, which reopens Friday, April 5. We caught up with him amidst the dust and rubble of construction as he filled us in on zipline champagne delivery, celebrity DJ’s, and what it’s like to work with Anna Wintour.

How does a good boy from an upstanding Parisian family become a club king in South Beach?

I was an average student, but my mom wanted me to become an attorney. I went along with it for a while to please the family, but I knew it wasn’t for me. Then something incredible happened to me. I became a model, and a successful one at that. It’s no secret that clubs like pretty people, so I eventually made the switch.

Did you get some slack from friends for pulling a Zoolander?

Are you kidding? I was the envy of everyone. But there was my mom, who kept my career a secret for two years despite the fact that I was on the covers of a lot of the magazines her friends were reading. I modeled for 15 years and made a good living at it. My first job was a 20-page spread in Mexico for Vogue Hommes. It just took off and I started to enjoy the life of a model.

Any modeling horror stories to share?

I remember shooting something in Tortola for a magazine. I went there with another model, the photographer, and a stylist/art director who was a total pain in the ass. The shoot was mostly unremarkable, but the reason why I remember it is because of that miserable woman. Today she is the editor-in-chief of Vogue, and I understand people still don’t like her.

Why did you retire from modeling?

Eventually I realized that I was powerless over my career. Once I came to that conclusion, I understood that I had to do something else. A friend suggested I fly down to Miami, which was becoming a fashion capital, and I was able to parley my modeling connections into a new career. My brothers and I opened The Strand, which did very well. From there we just kept growing. Today we have four clubs in Miami (Mansion, Cameo, Mokai, and SET), we are opening Snatch at the Shelborne South Beach this summer, and we’re planning a project in Wynwood sometime next year.

Snatch? What a name!

I like it. We are aiming for a Fourth of July opening, but we want to keep the concept a secret. For Opium Group this is another notch on our belt, with the difference that this venue will be inside a hotel. But I can assure you that we wouldn’t take on another project if we felt that we couldn’t deliver the kind of experience we are known for.

Any nightlife pet peeves?

Honestly, I’m kind of over the "Top DJ" thing. Because of how much they are charging today, it would be a financial suicide for any club to entertain them on regular basis. Of course, we do book top guys, but I wish the industry went back to feeling confident in discovering the next thing – taking a chance on artists whose egos have not set in just yet, and who are actually more interested in doing something new and exciting as opposed to what is going to play on the radio.

Have you become bored?

Not at all. Since we have different demographics in all of our places, it’s like a new show a couple of times a night, and you’re the master of ceremonies. And I really like the service I provide. I make people happy. What can be boring about that?

Your patrons drop crazy paper just to be part of your show. Are you surprised?

Yeah, that’s crazy. Some of my top customers will pay upwards of $70,000 a night just to do their thing. But I get it. If you are a regular guy, you can be happy with a bottle of Heineken at the bar. But there are people who like to show off. Is that something I would do personally? I don’t need to. I’m blingy enough already. But I’m happy to service those who are looking for that spotlight.

Speaking of limelight, the new SET is one tricked-out place. What’s your favorite part?

We decided to do a facelift at SET because it was time to give it some TLC, and this was an opportunity to meet the needs of our clients. We took out some of the VIP tables, making the club even more exclusive, because the people who come to SET look for that cachet. Quality over quantity. I can tell you that whoever will spend serious money on a table is going to get the service of a lifetime. We have a zipline by which one of our hostesses is going to slide down from the mezzanine level to deliver a bottle of Dom. Talk about all eyes on you.

Indeed. Are these stunts part of your magic formula to success?

Nightlife hasn’t changed one bit in the past forty years. The girls do what they do and the guys pay the bills and everyone leaves with a smile. There are no secrets to this business. Maybe that’s why so many try to do it. You open the door and get the right people in. But most importantly you’ve got to have the will to reinvent yourself as an operator. Staying relevant in this industry is probably our biggest success as the Opium Group. That requires taking the ego out of the equation. So many in this industry feel on top of the world, because today they are the hottest thing going. That’s the biggest challenge. With age comes wisdom.

[For the intel to party properly in Miami, check out the BlackBook Miami Guide and subscribe to BlackBook’s free Miami Happenings newsletter. Read A Spirited Rundown of Opium Group Nightclubs in Miami; More by Anetta Nowosielska. Follow Anetta on Twitter.] 

Meet Industry Insider & Fashion Designer Carolina Sarria

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“I sometimes think of myself as a vampire,” says fashion designer Carolina Sarria. “I dress in jeans and a cotton t-shirt during the day, but at night I transform into the style of my brand. Night is more fun for me.” So after dark, Sarria – the president of her own namesake brand – becomes all that her clothing encompasses: edgy, androgynous, and dark. “My brand attracts the wild girl who is fearless and loves to feel sexy,” she says. Which is perhaps why it’s been received with such applause. Ever since the Colombia-born designer launched her first collection at a fashion show in 2011, the demand for her pieces have been overwhelming, and naturally spawned the need for Sarria’s first store.

The boutique, which opened in January in the Garment District at 325 W. 38th St., showcases her latest collections. “Having your own store is a designer’s dream,” she says. “I love the direct interaction of dressing up my clients and seeing them react to each piece. The process has been stressful, but gratifying.”

Despite the stress, Sarria is expanding her brand threefold; she’s designing a shoe line for a major retail chain which launches early next year, debuting her men’s collection in the fall at the same time her women’s collection appears in commercial stores, and hosting her fall-transition runway show on May 10th.

But what would Sarria do if she wasn’t so successful at designing? “I would be a psychologist who analyzes the minds of the criminally insane. The mad are just more interesting .”

Shop Carolina Sarria, and follow Bonnie on Twitter here.

50 Eggs CEO John Kunkel Is Reigniting Miami Food Culture, One Animal at a Time

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John Kunkel, CEO of 50 Eggs restaurant group, is killing it in Miami these days. Buoyed by the $24 million sale of his Lime Fresh Mexican Grill chain, Kunkel’s unfussy, crowd-pleasing food concepts like Yardbird Southern Table & Bar and the new Swine Southern Table & Bar have him joining celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein (Sra. Martinez) and the glitterati-loving restaurateur Myles Chefetz (Prime 112) as part of the Magic City’s premier culinary troika. We caught up with Kunkel to chat about money, chicken, and cooking with water bugs.

Yardbird, 50 Eggs … you must be a fowl fan.

50 Eggs is a line from an old Paul Newman film entitled Cool Hand Luke. There’s a scene where he is dared to eat 50 hard-boiled eggs, even though his stomach might explode. But that’s, of course, exactly what he does. And that’s my personality in a nutshell. As for the yardbird, it’s an homage to my Southern roots.

So when that $24 million check from Ruby Tuesday’s check hit your account …

Actually it was a wire, and it was definitively a life-changing moment. I took two days off and was right back to work. I always dreamed big, so when I started in this business, with my first café, every step was calculated. I kind of ran a Ponzi scheme on myself by maxing out credit cards and remortgaging my house to get my first places up and running. It was hard.

What did financial security mean for your business?

The sale of Lime allowed us to be independent of anyone or anything. From a creative perspective it was an amazing feeling. As for the money, I put it away and never touched it. In terms of everyday operations, that sum hasn’t changed how I go about things. I still operate from that old standpoint of how in the world am I going to make my car payment this month.

Yet here you are, with the new Swine Southern Table & Bar and few other concepts on the horizon.

Swine is like Yardbird’s tougher younger brother. It’s a southern food concept that will operate in a predominantly Cuban area. And I’m booked solid for the next two months, proving that just about any concept executed well does great here.

Dare we say that the local palate is evolving?

Miami has a food-driven audience. Just few days ago we did a chef’s dinner at Khong River House, where the chef prepared water bugs and some other out-there things. The tickets sold out in 20 minutes. People are willing to go for it.

Excuse me, did you just say water bugs?

We did this dinner for the Cobaya foodies, a local underground dinner club whose motto is to try whatever experiments South Florida chefs are cooking up. And our Thai chefs, who are used to working with frogs, eels, and bugs, were more than happy to do it for them.

Any plans to take your 50 Eggs out of state?

Absolutely. But for the moment I am focused on doing it right down here. This year we will open Khong Fuzi, a late night noodle and bun shop, and the Test Kitchen, a community outreach and partnership with the James Beard Foundation, Johnson & Wales University, and Common Threads, a charity organization that teaches low-income kids to cook wholesome and affordable meals. The Test Kitchen is going to be open for free to local chefs to come in and work with other chefs and have a little sense of community.

Speaking of local chefs, any that you are particularly fond of?

I love what the Pubbelly guys are doing. They are really elevating the level here. So is Giorgio Rapicavoli at the Eating House. All these guys down Biscayne Avenue, like Blue Collar and Federal, are hanging out their shingles, risking it all, and turning out amazing food.

To what do you attribute your success?

I’ve had a ton of people supporting me. It’s not a one-man show. We put a lot of emphasis on the staff. Otherwise, having lived in Southeast Asia, I was the odd man out, which prepared me to carve my own way in this business. That and martial arts, where I learned all about discipline and focus.

What’s John Kunkel’s place in this culinary landscape?

I hope we are moving the needle. As the largest privately-owned operator here, I feel it’s our responsibility to create an environment that fosters young, local talent. By embracing these young chefs and restaurants we do nothing but better our local culinary scene. If there is one thing I would like my company to stand for, is that we are a resource to those who are aiming to set up successful culinary businesses here.

So a hopeful restaurateur can just call you to shoot the breeze about building permits and knife sets?

Sure, why not? Call me the custodian of the scene.

[Related: BlackBook Miami Guide; Listings for Yardbird, Swine, Khong River House; Subscribe to the weekly BlackBook Happenings newsletter; Read Winter 2012/2013 in Miami: So Hot it Burns and more by Anetta Nowosielska; Follow Anetta on Twitter]

Industry Insiders: Jonathan Cheban, Owner of Sushi Mikasa, Miami

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Jonathan Cheban, the beloved cohort in television’s blingiest of sagas who moonlights as a PR guru, celeb wrangler, publishing pro, entrepreneur, and Kim K’s BFF, is looking for longevity with the newly-opened Miami outpost of Sushi Mikasa at the Shelborne South Beach hotel. Part celebrity hangout (with secret entrance to boot), part culinary hit that’s birthed the Golden Flower Salmon Tomato Roll, the restaurant marks Cheban’s inaugural foray into a possibly lustrous gastronomic career. With plans to launch a burger franchise, we caught up with the fast-talking Kardashian confidant, who is parlaying the art of name-dropping into a budding enterprise.

Isn’t the original Mikasa located in the middle of nowhere? How did you stumble upon it?

Yeah, it’s in Brooklyn. Not even in edgy Williamsburg, mind you. It’s in Sheepshead Bay. I was on my way to the Hamptons to host an event and was looking at the pictures of Mikasa sushi on Instagram. It all came together in my head when I realized that the chef from Sushi Seki was the one at Mikasa, and if you know anything about Seki, it is that it’s so frickin’ expensive, but so top quality. It’s like couture sushi. So we pulled over in Sheepshead Bay, I walked in, the place was jammed, and it turns out I knew the owner, Michael Barkin. I’m such a foodie so I was instantly smitten.

Kismet?

Maybe. I left the place thinking that it’s a shame that not many people know about it. I called Michael that night and told him that we needed to open Mikasa in Miami. Why here? Because I love Miami. In New York and LA I work my ass off, but here in Miami I feel like I’m on a semi-vacation. So I wanted to start a business here, which would give me the incentive to pop in and check on things once in a while. I’m a concept guy, and I thought that this would be a mega hit here. And I was right. Mikasa is all over the media, on Instagram and Twitter.

Is that how you leverage success? By how many media hits you can generate?

Am I the operations guy? No. You are not going to see me slicing tuna behind the bar. I’m the media guy. So I generated the buzz and that’s probably worth more than anything. And judging by the write-ups and the celebs we’ve had in here already, I’m going to say that we are in a very good place.

Speaking of concepts, what’s up with your Burger Bandit idea?

I’ve wanted to open up a burger join for the past 13 years. Recently the burger has gone through a modern makeover, and I miss the old school burger, the meaty, simple In-n-Out version. Nothing fancy, just your good-sized burger, grilled with bun on top. I would like to open it up in the next six months somewhere in Florida and then take it everywhere else.

Would you ever give up your TV cameos for Burger Bandit?

No way. I love being on TV. It’s so much fun. I was the guy behind the scenes for so long, now I go to the mall and I have young girls asking me to take my picture. Who would have thought? The only time I long for anonymity is when I’m not looking my finest, or when my hair is all whacked. Hey haters, this is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of a thing. And I’m enjoying it. If you had the chance, I bet you’d like it, too.

[Related: BlackBook Miami Guide; Listings for Sushi Mikasa Miami, Shelborne South BeachSushi Mikasa New York, Sushi Seki; Download the free BlackBook City Guides app for iPhone and Android; Subscribe to the BlackBook Happenings email newsletter.]

DJ Martial Is Just Getting Warmed Up

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Marshall Weinstein, known to club-goers and music aficionados as DJ Martial, is having trouble getting used to the deep freeze New York currently finds itself mired in. When I reach him by phone at his Brooklyn apartment, he’s just returned from a work trip to the Caribbean, a difference of 1,650 miles and five layers of clothing. "I was DJing in St. Maarten in 85 degree weather and here it’s 10 degrees outside," he says with a laugh. "The airplane wouldn’t even go to the gate because it was frozen, they had to bus us in. It was crazy." He won’t be frozen for long, as he’ll soon be on his way to balmy New Orleans for a handful of gigs centered around the upcoming Super Bowl. We caught up with him during his brief layover to find out how he got started, his favorite clubs to perform in, and his secret for de-stressing fast.

Where are you from, and what kind of stuff were you into as a kid that led you to being a DJ?

I went to elementary, middle, and high school outside of Boston. I started DJing in 1993 when my older brother introduced me to underground electronic rave music. I was 13 at the time. When I graduated from high school I moved to New York City. My mom is originally from Long Island and my dad is originally from Coney Island, Brooklyn, and my whole family lived in the New York area, so it was a no-brainer. I went to Hofstra and DJ’d my way through college. I’ve been actively in the New York music scene since 1998 when I came to the city.

So, Yankees or Red Sox?

I’m definitely an all-Boston sports fan. It’s a little upsetting with the Patriots losing recently, however now that I’ve got some gigs at the Super Bowl I can focus on work and not sports.

How did you start DJing in the city?

When I got to New York, I realized that I had access to the best city in the world that had the best music. At Hofstra I was on the radio, and I majored in television video production communications, so music was always a part of my life. Whether it was in the studio working with audio tracks or video, or at the radio station on the air, all I did was music music music. When I got out of college, I was still DJing nights and weekends. With my full-time job – I worked at MTV and in the industry – eventually it steamrolled. I was picking up more and more gigs to the point where I was burning the candle at both ends. I couldn’t be in a television studio at six o’clock in the morning when I got out of a club at four.

So you decided to make a change?

In 2006 I realized that I’ve been DJing for 13 years, but I had a career in television. I said to myself, I’ve always wanted to be a full-time DJ. I had an opportunity to work overseas for three months as a DJ, so I sat down with my boss at the time and explained it to him. He said, you’ve got a lot of passion for this, so go for it. I put in my two weeks, it was December 2006, and since then I’ve been a full-time DJ. I also do a lot of private events, not just in New York but around the nation and internationally, and I book DJs at clubs and events through my company, SET Artist Management.

Is that when the momentum started to build?

Once you do one event it leads to another. Being humble and staying true and smiling and constantly following up with everybody, it leads to an escalation. Since then I’ve never looked back or second-guessed myself on leaving a career that I went to college for.

What kind of clubs were you playing at the time?

When I went overseas I was working in Israel, in various places in Tel Aviv,  Jerusalem, and Haifa. Clubs like Shalvata, Lima Lima, City Hall, Layla Bar.  Then I came back to New York and gigs started to add up, residencies here and there. I’ve worked at clubs like Beauty & Essex, WiP, Double Seven, Top of the Standard, Yotel, Stash, STK Midtown, Gansevoort Park, Bounce Sporting Club on 21st, Haven Rooftop.

How would you describe your musical style, and how do you adjust that for the crowd and event?

I’m a 100% open format DJ. I love all types of music and I’m not afraid to drop anything. It’s not about what you play, it’s about what you follow up with. You can drop a song from the ’70s and people start to get into it. For the next song, whether it’s a huge club banger or a perfect smooth transition, it can make the song before it that much better. My outgoing personality shines through my beats, like a sixth sense. I bleed hip-hop, ’80s, rock, house, and still stay true to the music and dance floor because I keep those classics in the mix. And I have no problem playing the most current, hottest tracks, to do whatever I can to keep the dance floor packed till dawn.

So you believe that the context is important, it’s not about any one individual song, it’s about the whole set and the vibe you’re putting out there?

Yes. It’s not like I’ll play one ’80s song, one ’70s song, one rock song, one hip-hop song. Then it can be a bit ADD. It’s more about the way you blend different genres of music together throughout the night to build that crescendo. You finish the night and people look at their watches and they can’t believe it’s four in morning and the club’s still packed.

What do you have going on with the Super Bowl?

I’m down in New Orleans Thursday through Monday. I’m working at the NFL House, doing parties Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, and I’m doing a number of parties for CBS, including pre-game and post-game on Sunday. The two CBS parties I’m involved in, there’s one Friday night at the Contemporary Arts Center, and Saturday I’m doing the party at Generations Hall with a live performance from Trombone Shorty, who is a really talented local guy who does huge live performances with a big band feel.

What else do you have coming up?

I’ll be DJing in the number one college town, Morgantown, West Virginia, at a place called Rock Top. I’ll be in Boston. I do a lot of private events for BlackBerry, since I’m the official Latin American BlackBerry DJ. In the summer I’ll probably have a lot of Hamptons gigs.

What clubs do you like to play in?

I like being close to the crowd. Mid-sized clubs work really well. I love working at Stash on 14th Street. Beauty and Essex is a great place to feel the energy and the vibe, and Double Seven is another spot where you’re right in the mix.

What’s on your iPod?

I have a series of playlists for all the new stuff I need to hear. There’s never enough time in the day to hear all the new songs. But when I’m relaxing, I love old school music. Old classic rock, ’70s, ’80s, things like that.

What do you do to relax and de-stress?

I love going to the Russian and Turkish Baths. Sometimes I just need a good shvitz. And I’m not afraid of the cold pool either.

What advice do you have for aspiring DJs?

Be as musically knowledgeable as possible. Everybody knows that electronic music is huge right now, techno, house, dubstep, but the more versatile you are, the more gigs you can play. If you want to specifically become an electronic music DJ, and that’s your passion, go for it, but if you’re trying to get noticed and get gigs and get experienced, the more versatile you are, the more avenues you have. Stay humble and keep in mind there’s a big line between work and play. Keep a clear mind.

Do you enjoy going out and experiencing DJs and live entertainment? Check out the BlackBook City Guides for all the best spots in New York and around the world. Download the free, GPS-enabled iPhone and Android apps, and sign up for our BlackBook Happenings newsletters for New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. Knowledge is power. 

Industry Insiders: Sims Foster, Denihan Group VP of Restaurants and Bars

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The Denihan Group is redefining what a hotel restaurant and bar can be, and Sims Foster, VP of Restaurants and Bars, is leading the charge. Lately he’s been spending his time in Miami Beach, helping launch spots at the new James Royal Palm hotel, including CATCH, Florida Cookery, and SL Miami. We chatted with Foster to find out how he finds the right mix for the hotel’s stylish clientele, and how important it is to appeal to local residents as well.

How do you decide on the particular mix of restaurants and bars you have at a property such as the James Royal Palm?

Whenever I look at a new hotel property and think about what kind of restaurants and bars we want to build, the first question is “What kind of place will the locals support and appreciate, and what can we do that fits with what the area wants and also be unique?” This often brings me to neighborhoods and chefs/operators who might not be on other hotel operator’s lists. In New York I’m constantly looking at what’s happening in Brooklyn or Queens. In Miami I was seeing what was happening in Brickell, the Design District, and ultimately the Miami Modern district, where I found Red Light and Kris Wessel (now chef at Florida Cookery). The other part of Miami that couldn’t be ignored was the “scene” aspect and the idea of having operators and a concept that would fill the need to have a spot that was experiential, energetic and would become “the place.” That’s where CATCH really shines. But unlike other operators in the genre, Mark Birnbaum and Eugene Remm from EMM Group have amazing service and food standards which will breed longevity and not just be white-hot for a moment.

And then there’s South Shore at the James.

South Shore is an intimate bar that focuses on rum. Can’t get more Miami then that.

What’s the thread that ties them all together?

The thread is that, hopefully, all the different restaurants and bars on the property will be places that local Miamians will find valuable and fit with their lifestyles. If that’s the case it’s amazing for our hotel guests as well because our guests want to eat and drink at places that the locals love.  If they don’t have to go somewhere else to get that experience then I know we’ve got it right.

What have you learned about the type of guests the hotel attracts?

Today’s guest is super savvy with food. It’s amazing how much our guests do research and understand food and restaurants. Call it the Food Network influence if you like, but if you think you can just build a generic restaurant with some oversaturated chef brand name on the door—a chef who shows up once a quarter—you’re behind. Your guest is going to demand more and they deserve more. Don’t get me wrong, there are great chefs out there who are massive personalities, but they have to be an active part of the concept and they need to be interesting and right for whatever city and neighborhood they’re in. It’s got to be real and authentic.

You were a professional jazz musician in your twenties. Do you still play music? Is there anything from your musical background that you draw from when you do your job now?

I get asked that a lot. And the answer is I don’t really play much anymore. Which usually then gets an “awwww, that’s a shame” response. But I’m totally fine with it and I know I will again someday. But I find music in everything. Music is an amazing medium that requires precision and discipline as well as creativity and an open mind. And you have to figure out how to make something complicated make sense and connect with your audience. Almost every part of my work taps into each and all of those aspects. Plus nobody can argue with me when I ask to program the music at the hotels and restaurants. I just drop, “You know I have a degree in music, right?” and they let me do my thing.

Industry Insiders: Stephanie Macleod, Dewar’s Master Blender

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As master blender of Dewar’s Scotch Whisky, Stephanie Macleod’s job requires a mix of science and art. Creating such whiskies as the iconic Dewar’s White Label, Dewar’s 12 Year Old, Dewar’s 18 Year Old, and Dewar’s Signature is no easy task, but with a background as a sensory analyst at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow – the gritty home of Dewar’s – and years of whisky experience, she’s up to the challenge. Since we’re more than casual fans of whisky, we asked her about how it’s made, and, more importantly, the best way to drink it.

How exactly do you blend Dewar’s? Do you have a recipe or do you just wing it every time? 

We have a recipes for all of our brands. We’ve got hundreds of different types of whiskeys we work with, and each go into different types of casks. We manage the inventory by splitting it up into different categories. We might have a fruity category, a grassy category, a peaty category, etc. The recipe might call for a certain percentage of Category A spirits in it, a certain percentage of Category B spirits, and so on. We have substitutes if certain components aren’t available.

What’s it like creating a new blend compared with something you’ve been doing for a long time?

For Dewar’s White Label, it’s tried and tested. When we’re creating a new blend, there’s lots of trial and error. I’ll do some pilot blends of what I think they’re looking for so I’ve got a sensory picture of what they require. That makes it more tangible. Then we have more pilot blends and more testing in the lab, and we’re taking them home as well.

Oh man. Homework. 

It’s important to taste it in a more relaxed atmosphere to make sure there’s nothing else coming through other than what we want. I’ll try it with different mixers.

So there’s a proper Dewar’s lab in Glasgow, with the white coats and everything?

We have a lab complex, and we have a sensory room that has been set up to specifically assess samples of whiskey. We even have red light to minimize color differences. All our perceptions are recorded on computer. But we also have the blending room where we’re basically sloshing about lots of different malts and grains, putting them together in little sample bottles, leaving them for a while to settle, and then testing them.

Sloshing about sounds perfect. What’s the procedure for tasting the samples?

The first phase of testing is done in the blending room. Seeing what works and what doesn’t. Then the actual sitting in front of a panel is done in the sensory laboratory. Along with sensory work, we’re also running it through chemical analysis to make sure there’s nothing untoward with the whiskey that we’re either blending that day, or introducing as a new product. The components of the blend have been tested from the beginning. Everything is rigorously tested through the whole process.

So exactly how many whiskies are blended to make Dewar’s?

Marketing says up to 40 different whiskies.

Well, if that’s what marketing says …

Ha, yeah. We have to work within the confines of the Dewar’s house style, but we can tweak it and show different facets. We draw samples from different casks and we set them out in the blending room. Let’s try a bit of this and a bit of that, put it in a sample bottle, leave it to settle, and taste it. All the while we’re writing down, recording what we’re putting in. Once I’m satisfied with three pilot blends we’ll go to the market and see what they prefer. We’ll go through all the iterations of the different blends.

Sounds like fun.

That is the part of my job that I like the best because it’s creating something new. It’s really interesting to discover and create exactly what your customer wants. That is obviously what we all want to do as blenders, create something in your name.

Dewar’s is doing a number of different things, right? 

We also do quite a lot of single-cask expressions, like Aberfeldy. One single cask from that distillery, a particular year, a particular cask.

Take me through the tasting process. How should I be experiencing whisky?

Okay, let’s use the Aberfeldy 21 as an example. First, I would advise a tulip-shaped nosing glass, but if you don’t have that, a wine glass that’s tapered at the top. Make sure it’s clean, of course. Sparkling, everything about it. Crystal is a good start. You want something with a thin rim. Put a quantity of whisky in the glass. First you’re going to admire its color, so you gently swirl it. Hold the glass by the stem so none of the odors from your hand – hand cream, aftershave – get in the way of the flavor. If possible, it’s a good idea to have a watch glass at the top to keep the odors inside the glass. Now swirl the glass, admiring the legs as it runs down the inside of the glass. You’re looking for a deep golden amber color. Take off the watch glass and dip your nose into the glass, taking short breaths. The first thing that hits you with Aberfeldy 21, for example, is a sweet honey nose. An intense sweetness, and a wonderful creaminess. Then you’ll find floral notes, also a kind of Christmassy note. Dried fruit, sumptuous plum notes, and a hint of coconut. The coconut comes directly from the oak. It’s oak lactone that causes that. Although you notice that the wood is there it doesn’t overexert its influence. You still know it’s Aberfeldy.

Come on, I want to drink.

Take a small sip to start with, just to coat your palate. Let it go all over your tongue. There’s a wonderful sweetness coming through. Some whiskies are quite dry. There’s a wonderful malty, cereal note resting on the palate. A note of expensive chocolate. So the finish is long, and you’ll find that its full-bodied. It feels fuller in the mouth, doesn’t feel thin. Slightly spicy.

Sounds good. 

That isn’t the end of the story. We then add some still water at room temperature. In order to explore all the aspects of a whiskey you really should add some water to it. You’ll notice that strands seem to form, and it seems to squirm in the glass. That’s the whiskey accommodating the water. When we add the water you get fresh fruit and more creamy notes coming out, and a slight smokiness at the very end. Adds another layer of interest. Some people taste orange marmalade. But it’s always good to have the right glassware and the water is the right temperature, not fizzy. 

Anything else I need? 

The company of friends is always good as well.

Dewar’s Scotch Whisky is available pretty much everywhere. We like drinking it in bars like the Brandy Library in New York. Check out the BlackBook City Guides for more great places to enjoy a dram. Download the apps, subscribe to the newsletters. Knowledge is power. 

Industry Insiders: John Meadow & Curt Huegel; Partners, LDV Hospitality

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John Meadow (left) and Curt Huegel (right), the partners behind LDV Hospitality, have never been busier. As the duo responsible for such hot spots as Veritas in New York, American Cut at Revel Resorts in Atlantic City, and Scarpetta, which has locations all over the country, they’re on a tear, but they always maintain the quality of their various venues. Their latest must-visit spot is No. 8, an upscale Chelsea nightclub they opened with Amy Sacco that carries on the tradition of the legendary Bungalow 8. We chatted with the hospitality duo to find out how they keep sky-high standards across their growing portfolio of properties.

Where are you from?

John Meadow: I grew up in Connecticut and went to Choate Rosemary Hall and Cornell hotel school.

Curt Huegel: I was born in New Jersey and lived in 16 different places by the time I graduated from high school, including Chestertown, Maryland (twice) and Arlington, Virginia. My mother was a decorator – she would buy fixer-up houses and I knew when she finished the bedroom we were moving.

How did you get into the restaurant business?

Meadow: My first job was at the Plaza Hotel in the food and beverage program. It was tough grind, but also very exciting to work in such an iconic company in the center of it all. My family was right around the corner growing up, and we’d always go to the Plaza for Easter.

Huegel: I have always been in the hospitality business – I worked my way through college waiting tables and after graduating I owned my first bar in New York City on the Upper East Side and never went on a job interview.

Meadow: It was important for me to own my own business. I was 24 and I met Curt and we opened a bar together called Local on 33rd and Eighth with some other partners. It was a grand slam. Then I left and opened a place called Gin Lane in the Meatpacking District. Gin Lane was a tragedy – I lost everything. There was lots of hype and lots of celebrity, and then it was tragically out of business. I learned a lot from the experience.

What made you decide to launch LDV Hospitality and what was that process like?

Huegel: I had always been in the bar and restaurant business, and the reason for forming LDV Hospitality was the natural progression from doing one-off restaurants. We wanted to create a hospitality company that would fill a void. LDV Hospitality’s first project was partnering with Scott Conant to form Scott Conant Management and open Scarpetta in the Meatpacking District in 2008. We learned that choosing your partnership wisely is paramount to your success in this business.

Meadow: We went on to do Veritas, where we brought in (executive chef) Sam Hazen. Veritas was awarded a Michelin star and got a three-star review in The New York Times. Then we developed the new Revel projects in Atlantic City, Azure, American Cut, and Lugo Caffe—the original location of Lugo is at One Penn Plaza. We wanted to do something on a more accessible, commercial level. It’s a heartfelt, passionate project at a level that’s attainable to the masses, yet with the same level of true hospitality of our other places. That’s largely the future of our business. American Cut and Lugo are the brands we want to run with now.

How’s are the Revel properties going so far?

Huegel: Things are going very well and we believe that the three restaurants that we opened at Revel – American Cut, Azure, and Lugo Caffé – are on par with any other restaurant in any casino or hotel project in the world.

Tell me about No. 8.

Meadow: For our last, most exciting deal, we partnered with Amy Sacco for No. 8. Amy represents an organic, real aspect of social life in the city. It’s very organic, it’s very natural, and it feels like New York City. There’s no shakedown to get you to spend $10,000 on a table. You’re either on that guest list or you’re not, there’s no negotiation at the door. As with all of our businesses, we take care of our guests. It’s working. It’s going great.

With so many different bars and restaurants to oversee, what’s an average day like for you? Do you go to an office or do you divide your time between the venues?

Huegel: My average day is long. With so many venues to oversee you have to believe in your staff – we have a director of operations that we trust implicitly. Our time is split between the office and venues and we visit them at night to see them in action as often as possible.

Many people have tried and failed to do what you do. What advice would you give to a young person interested in owning and operating upscale restaurants and lounges like yours?

Huegel: The hospitality business has to be something that you love and are passionate about. It picks you, you don’t pick it. One simple secret to success is to always be striving to exceed your guests’ expectations.

Meadow: It’s either all buzzwords, or you make it something real. We’ve created a team of empowered individuals and we’ve been aggressive about developing a brand.

Industry Insiders: Matt Shendell, President of Paige Hospitality Group

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Two decades of experience in New York nightlife prepared Matt Shendell, president of Paige Hospitality Group, for the challenges of opening the Ainsworth, an upscale gastropub that has TVs for big games, but keeps them turned off at other times. The concept was a hit, and he’s keeping it going with other Ainsworth locations, as well as 121 Fulton in Tribeca. We chatted with Shendell to get the lowdown on his first job at a legendary nightclub and the delicate balance required to elevate the sports bar concept into something classier.

How did you get started in nightlife?

I got my first job working at Limelight, clicking at the door, in 1990. I started working there to make extra money, but I became enamored of the industry. I started doing some promoting, working doors here and there, then moved on to Danceteria. When I went away to college–I went to University of Delaware–I was supposed to go to law school, but I wanted to open a bar before I did that. So I opened a place called China White on 31st and Madison. It went really well. We blew up from there. We did a place called Shampu and kept going until we are where we are now. I always had an affinity for the business, and it went into the right direction. We winged it at the beginning but we had a nice following. On the opening night of China White in 1997 we had Derek Jeter, Marky Mark, and Cameron Diaz in attendance.

How did you learn how it all worked?

As far as operations go, we learned as we went. I don’t think we had ice when we first opened. Always plug your ice machine in two days before you open. Make sure there’s change in the registers. I learned everything on the fly. From there we opened a club called Nativa on 19th Street, and our first real food endeavor was called Dip, which was on 29th and Third. It was a fondue bar. Fondue had its moment for like a minute back then. The Food Network was there all the time. We turned that into the Hill.

And then you ventured out east?

We purchased Jet East in the Hamptons and made that Dune. For Dune, we partnered up with Noah (Tepperberg) and Jason (Strauss), the guys from Strategic Group who own Tao and Marquee. We made Dune the hottest nightclub in the Hamptons. Dune brought us to another level, and it was great to partner with those guys.

What’s the story behind the Ainsworth?

We decided in 2009 that we wanted to get in the big sports gastropub business. We got a space on 26th Street in Manhattan, which became the Ainsworth. That was when the whole brunch thing really took off. It turned Sunday football into a Sunday football brunch party, and now it’s the hottest party in the city. We made it a real food venue in the vein of the Breslinthe Spotted Pig, and the Dutch. You name it, we do it at the Ainsworth on 26th.

Is it all sports, all the time?

It’s more of an upscale gastropub with sports. The TV’s are only on during games. We turn them off at night. We’re not a regular sports bar. We want to have that dinner vibe that works for dates. Because of that, the Ainsworth has become one of the most successful bar/pubs in the city.

And you expanded from there?

We found a great spot next to the World Trade Center which became The Fulton. The legal name is 121 Fulton. We built a beautiful 6,000 square foot old world gastropub with lanterns and great design. We thought, let’s take the TV dining concept to the next level, let’s make the place beautiful but give it a sports duality. So we covered all our TV’s with antique mirrors and moldings. When you go to the Fulton and there’s not a big game on you don’t realize there are 40 TVs in there.

How did you find yourself in the men’s apparel business?

We decided to do something different. My right hand man and VP of the company, Brian Mazza, is very into fashion and style, and we are both into custom clothes. We realized that we had a very stylish crowd, so we thought, What kind of amenity can we offer them that would be a cool hook to our business? A bespoke, speakeasy-style, appointment-only custom men’s clothing shop. So beneath the Ainsworth we opened up Windsor Custom. Not only can you come to the Ainsworth, have a great dinner, and watch sports, you can also get measured and get bespoke clothes downstairs. It’s become a busy business, with custom suits and shirts. It’s a good amenity for our crowd, and right on brand for our clientele. We hired Ryan Grayson, who was a top guy at Ralph Lauren Made to Measure. Instead of a gimmick, it’s become a real business.

And you’re still active in the Hamptons, right?

After six years we got rid of Dune and opened up Southampton Social Club, a restaurant in Southampton. We partnered with the current owners, Ian Duke and David Hilty. What people really want to do in the Hamptons is sit outside for some alfresco dining and alfresco drinking, so that’s what we offer. Our first summer (summer 2012) was phenomenal. The food was great, there was great weather, and everything clicked.

And the Ainsworth brand keeps growing.

Yes, we wanted to expand the Ainsworth brand, and opened up Ainsworth Park. It’s 7,500 feet, with 65 televisions, all covered with mirrors. We do it classy, with oak molding and high-end details. Then we landed 3,500 feet in the lobby of the Hard Rock in Vegas for Ainsworth Vegas. We opened up Ainsworth Park and Ainsworth Vegas on the same day, September 5, 2012. That was a long day for me.

And you’re not taking a break any time soon.

We’re trying to open up The Chester, which is our newest brand. It’ll be a good brunch spot. But the goal now, in the next year, is to make sure these new places are great. I want to hone what we have.

You’re succeeding in a business where so many have tried and failed. What advice would you offer a young person looking to follow in your footsteps?

Stay calm and only make a move when your heart’s in it. Having a good team around you is important. You’ve got to learn to delegate. Hire great people and trust them.

Do you enjoy going out in New York? Then check out BlackBook’s New York Guide for all the best spots. Raise your nightlife game by downloading the BlackBook City Guides app for iPhone and Android. And to keep up on the hottest openings and events in New York, Miami, Chicago, and LA, sign up for BlackBook Happenings, a fun, informative, non-spammy email newsletter with the latest and greatest goings-on, delivered to your inbox every Monday.