The deep and meaningful converge with the bizarre and senseless for Cure’s lead barkeep, Donny Clutterbuck
Bartenders meet all types. And to get along with every one of them, it takes equal parts love for the deeply meaningful and senselessly bizarre. Those extremes converge in Donny Clutterbuck, the primary bartender for Cure.
Why did cocktails go away, and why are they being revived now?
Well, two reasons, I think. First is prohibition. It is one of the only things that is legal now that was not legal last century… There was a golden age of cocktails, in the late 1800s, the old fashioned is called that because the new fashioned came into style. New cocktails were being made with things like citrus. New trade routes made things not grown in these areas more accessible, so they started mixing with them and making new cocktails. And people drank them a lot [laughs]… post-prohibition, it had been ten or fifteen years, and everybody who was good at making cocktails stopped and moved somewhere else. Or even just, imagine fifteen years go by and you didn’t do your job. How far behind in your field would you be globally, or how much would you have just forgotten? Some bars were brought back, people were drinking sub-par stuff, and anybody who knew what they were doing just wasn’t doing it anymore. Unfortunately this correlated with the nuclear age of preservative-heavy, stow-it-away, nothing-will-ever-go-bad movement. The daily sour mix movement. There’s almost always sour mix, and in a pinch it’s better than nothing, I guess. So we loved cocktails at the turn of the twentieth century, cocktails died in 1920, cocktails were reawoken in the preservative-heavy fifties and sixties… So, through the nineties was the blue drink era. It was all sour mix and blue drinks and goofy colored things. And then right around the early 2000s in New York—is the first I heard of it, anyway—the fancy cocktail bars started pulling juice out of a fruit. Not out of a jug or a can of concentrate, but they squeeze it out of a fruit and make you a drink with it. And the experiential difference between that and a whiskey sour mix is vast and noticeable. So I think it started to become cool to care. Like, the nineties it was cool not to care. Grunge, I guess, the whole point was to not care. But as things progressed maybe the generational tides moved toward a focus on quality and action and actually being invested in something instead of trying specifically not to be. And I can’t really say how all that stuff correlates, I’m not a sociologist or a historian [laughs] but to me that makes sense. But they have to be revived because we killed them, socially and economically. Not only was it not allowed to be served, but by the time it was nobody was good at it anymore.
Why was absinthe banned in the United States for so long?
I think it was banned on a misconception. And again, I’m not a historian, but the understanding I have is that we found in America that our grapes native to the US are male and female. And the grapes in Europe are not, they have all the male and female parts in the same plant. So we were like, “Yo, check this out!” and we sent a bunch over to France, and a lot of the grapes there were destroyed by our gift because there was this bug on it called phylloxera. With Phylloxera, if your root stock is not strong enough—which the american root had evolved to be—the bug will just destroy the roots, and thereby the crop. So for years in France, there was a wine shortage. French drinking culture was very much revolved around sipping throughout the day, a glass of wine with lunch, not getting wasted but having a little here and there. Hundreds of years of French culture had been based upon this 13% alcohol beverage. So now there’s less wine, it becomes more expensive. But absinthe is still around, and it’s a distillate so you can distill it from anything. As long as you can ferment something, you can distill it then make absinthe. So absinthe I think kind of replaced wine culturally over the course of many years, and the same thing that happened with us during prohibition, they said “no more booze” because everyone was hammered all the time. Absinthe ABVs vary, but they’re all over 50%. So absinthe was prohibited there, and thereby with us. They made up some silly, I don’t even know if this is true or not. This is what I’ve read and what I’ve heard, I wasn’t there… but they said that the wormwood in Absinthe was a hallucinogen and if you drank it you’d cut your ear off like Van Gogh. And I think the United States was like, “Drugs bad!” and thought it was an illicit substance. From my understanding of wormwood you would have to drink more than you could physically handle of the alcohol to get an effect from the wormwood. It would be like eating poppyseed muffins to get opium. Like, you’d have to eat so many muffins that you wouldn’t be alive at the end of it before you start tripping. So I think it was improperly demonized. And we held onto that into the early two thousands. It was just a misunderstanding, as far as I’m aware.
Do you read a lot about your industry?
Yeah, tons. More so when I first started getting into the craft world, I was reading tons of books about cocktail history, distillates… trying to understand why things are the way they are now. Because everything has a backstory, nothing was just chosen into existence. Everything’s kind of a product of natural selection somehow.
What book are you reading now?
Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. It’s a psychological evaluation of why the human brain is inclined to make order out of chaos—and I mean actual chaos. Not to find meaning where it’s hidden, but to find meaning where there is none … I like reading this stuff, so I don’t look at people and say, “what the hell’s wrong with you?” I just don’t want to look at people and be mad. I want to look at people and be like, “I get it. I understand why you are this way.” I’m only in the foreword of the first chapter so far, but what I’m gathering is that it’s about when the human brain doesn’t know factually what’s right and wrong. Say I give you a pint of ice cream and say “eat the whole thing.” You know that in the future you’ll feel like shit if you do, but you also want to. But you shouldn’t want to, because it’ll make you feel like shit. So you have this duality of, “They’re both nice options. Not eating this would be great and eating it would also be great.” So you have to make that decision when there’s no objective, factual right answer. And if they put you at a desk that’s cluttered full of objects, and there’s ten scribbles that have images hidden in them, and ten scribbles that don’t. At this messy desk. Odds are if you have this duality of, “both are good, neither is right, I don’t know what’s what,” and they put you at this desk then you’ll probably find all the things that are scribbled in this desk and you will also find things that aren’t there. Because this desk is cluttered, you don’t know what’s what, you are going to struggle to find out what’s what. So you are more likely to assign things that don’t have value if you have this duality, and just transfer that to modern times. But social media and all these twenty four hour news outlets are constantly telling you things that sound like facts that are actually opinions about facts. People have opinions about facts and that makes everything that duality, that “I don’t know if I believe this,” and there’s too much of it, so our brains just get overwhelmed.
When you first started telling me about that book I thought it might focus on the cognitive behaviors that we have, and some people would be more inclined to have, but it sounds much more rooted in how we find footholds in what’s real.
What’s behind your thoughts? What’s behind what we’re doing? Your brain just does this. I really wanted to read this book especially now because I want to have more compassion for people who have fallen into this, because not everybody has had the background or the loving supportive parents I’ve had to lead me into a place where I really can sort it out. I wasn’t started out with the duality of what is right or wrong, I was taught “pick a side, it’s a good side, be nice to people”… that’s how I was raised. So I’m not sitting at this messy desk, like social media, I didn’t even know what was doing that until I read this book. Like, wow, it’s cool that my parents put me into this place. I don’t think most people are raised to be in a place where they don’t need a conspiracy theory. I like reading this stuff so I don’t look at people and say “what the hells wrong with you?” I go “I understand that and I would love to understand you” just, I don’t want to look at people and be mad. I wanna look at people and be like “I get it, that you’re like that way.”
What’s the most esoteric tattoo you have?
Huh. Can I pick two? First one is this little guy. It’s a dancing carrot, with sunglasses on, snapping his fingers, and he says “I don’t carrots a good time.” It’s like getting a tattoo of a california raisin with two machine guns that says raisin hell. My brother marshall came up with that a long time ago so I can’t steal it. My second… I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a dumbass. In high school my senior project was krav maga. I started martial arts in high school, and kind of maintained the boxing thing and I liked the idea of being comfortable and commanding of your own body and your own attitude and just being comfortable enough in some altercation that you don’t need to make it worse than it is, because you can control it. I like the idea of controlling your own life, or at least navigating your own life. And there were a few times during the course my dive bar days when I had to fight people. And I realized there were two versions of me kind of, the one that’s making decisions and consciously thinking, and the other one that’s desperately trying to stop anything that’s happening. There’s like a blackout that happens when I go to that side. And it’s not like the vin diesel in fast and furious thing where I have a wrench and I just keep hitting them, it’s not like “I’m tough,” but I know there are very much two different mes. When one is on and the other’s off, and then when it goes a little bit too far it’s like crazy survival mode. So there’s a flower on my right teet with a little beringer two shot pistol and it says “incendiary” in a little band above it. And it wasn’t because I’m tough, it’s like a bullet. It’s either not doing anything, or it is doing everything. And there’s really no middle transferable ground. So one of them is just something stupid [laugh] that says “I don’t carrots a good time,” and the other one is super thoughtful.
What’s your favorite mural around the city of Rochester?
There’s a mural on the back of the Good Luck building, and I think it’s a kid sitting cross-legged in front of a book with a huge flower growing out of the book. The whole thing’s black and white, with a flower growing out of the book, like the genesis from education. I like it ideologically, I like it visually, I like that it spans the whole— it’s on a section of the building that’s very tall and thin, and it goes up the entire thing. It just looks like it would be a huge pain in the ass to make, and it means something. So I think I like it because of the horribly difficult placement, it’s not even on the main drag you have to be in the parking lot to see it. So it’s a hidden gem that clearly a lot of thought and effort had to go into. And the second is, have you ever seen the one on the back of the building that Cure’s inside of, on Pennsylvania Avenue there’s a tiny one with a cartoon TV and in the middle of it there’s the guy from House of Guitars and it’s in black and white and he’s got bunny ears on and it says “hop hop.” Have you seen the commercial for that? It’s brilliant. It was for house of guitars and it’s from the eighties and he’s like [in rockstar voice] “hey kids whaddaya want for Easter this year? Hop hop. Hop down to house of guitars. Make your mom buy you a guitar.” It’s one of the worst commercials ever. But it’s so much more fun to watch because of that. But I saw the art before I ever saw the commercial, so I was like “what kinda weird political commentary is that? It must be deep.” [laughs] So that’s number two.
So just like with the tattoos, there’s one that’s just silly and senseless and one that’s incredibly deep and meaningful.
I was just talking to my girlfriend about this, I don’t have favorites. If you tell me, “penguins are my favorite animal,” I’m like, you have a favorite animal? Does it change situationally, are you eating them, are they fun to look at? What are the criteria? It’s so hard to pick a favorite thing.
Do you, personally, say that you bartend or tend bar?
I guess bartend. I don’t know if I have any strong views on how people should say this stuff. I think that being a “barman” is a bad word now, because where’s the barwoman? So bartender is a nice gender neutral term. And mixologist just sounds like… if your friend’s a racecar driver and you call them a “steering wheel enthusiast.” That’s a super small part of it, but there’s so much other shit that goes into bartending, and “mixology” I guess if you’re going to make that be a word, that’s a thing that bartenders do. But we’re more than “mixologists”…. God, I hate that word. And I’m not judging anybody, you can call yourself that, you can put it on your business card. If you’re learning at home, you can be a mixologist all you want. I think it’s like saying you’re handsome. You can call me a mixologist, but I’ll deny it. You can call me handsome too, but I’ll deny that [laughs]. It feels like people who call themselves mixologists got into bartending for some kind of, like, climbing. Instead of making people happy, which is the point of bartending. I was in clubs and dives in Buffalo for ten years before I moved here. And yeah, the money was more than I was making at Subway, but I didn’t go there to make money. I want to make people happy. I continued to do that because money was there, but my motivation wasn’t money. Like, you could just go to wall street or be an accountant or do all kinds of things if you want to make fifty grand a year in your mid twenties. But one of those things is being a four-nights-a-week dive bar bartender who loves making people happy. So I just chose a path that did have money involved, but it wasn’t because I wanted to be a social climber or achieve a status; it was because I wanted to make sure that every time I interacted with someone, their day was better. And they go home and they don’t beat their dog, because they took their workday out on me and we laughed about it. You’ve got to have a place to put your shit. I think that’s part of what’s wrong with the way they’re operating during the pandemic. Not that people are doing it wrong, but part of what’s wrong with their lives is they don’t have a third place to put things. You used to have home and work, two separate spaces, you would even take work home with you if you didn’t have a place to stop first. Now home and work are often the same space, and there is no second or third place, and it’s either making babies or divorcing at this point. Because either you’re falling deeply in love or you realize you can’t. And it’s this weird fast forward on everything for everybody.
If somebody recognizes you, but it’s not because you’re a bartender, what is the most likely other reason they might recognize you?
If someone recognizes me and it’s not because I’m a bartender, it’s because I went to Wegmans every day and got the same salad from the buffet and learned the names of the two cashiers in the deli section. You know, the little cafe cashout side? I don’t really do anything else. I walk to work, so they might know me from walking to work. Like Owen, the Jamaican guy who owns the one garage car repair shop, and there’s always a yellow dodge neon, a red hyundai x and a black jeep cherokee, there’s only three cars there, they are never fixed or broken, they’re always just there. I know Owen because I walked by him every day for six years. But I don’t think anyone knows me from anything other than that. I don’t even know what else I would do. It’s a really good question.
You weren’t krav maga famous in high school?
[Laughs] No, god no. Nobody cares about anything I’ve done. I used to own a recording studio, partially anyway. I used to pay part of the rent and I donated all my equipment to it in order to get free recording time alone at night. So I’d go from like 9pm to 4am three nights a week, but I’d be able to use all their synthesizers and amps and shit. I had an album on spotify, I still have a song actually. It’s called Day in the Life and we went by Busy Work. Zach plays the bass, I composed, arranged, played the piano, programed the drums, sang, the whole thing. It’s like a different… you know, like every time one decision is made, the other is not. There is a world in which I pursued music instead, but I actively chose to get into the bar industry. I was twenty seven years old and felt like I was dead in the water. I wasn’t moving anywhere or doing anything, it felt like I had each of my feet on two different boats and neither could move because I had half of my body on the other one. So I quit my job as a bartender, and I went to Tokyo two days later. I quit Saturday and booked a flight that night, I was like “get me out of here,” I didn’t even know if I needed a visa. I just felt like I needed to be in a parallel culture that I had no familiarity, couldn’t speak to anybody, it was like being on a different planet. I came back with hopefully a fresh perspective on what I wanted to do, and then I moved to Rochester and dropped all of it, got into the cocktail thing at the Revelry, and there was my focus. So in 2013, that’s when I really was like “Cocktails—I’m just gonna dive in and see if this leads to me managing, or owning, or tech, or speaking at conferences, I don’t know,” and that’s the path I actively chose and it happened to the point that I now get to do my job and I like it. But I could have done music, and I don’t know if that would have been fruitful, but it could have been there… Every piece of life is fun to go down, but making those decisions is super uncomfortable at the time. Deciding which one of you you want to be. But that doesn’t mean it’s the final decision either, I could quit bartending today and go just live in my parents basement for free and write music. I think there will either be a breaking point where I get so sick of what I’m doing and I really miss writing music and playing piano so much that I will quit my job and go do that, or I just won’t do that. Clearly whichever the stronger one is the winner. I guess that’s how we do this, the one that we’re pining for the most is the one that wins.
So you don’t dabble in music at all these days?
I have a keyboard. So… I was a classical pianist for like fifteen years when I was a kid. Like, competitively, orchestras, stuff like that… I don’t remember any of it, because I hit my head on the ground snowboarding and I forgot my whole life. I have a pretty serious brain trauma. I don’t remember anything first person prior to sixteen years of age, which would have been 2000 or 2001. I know that I did stuff, and I knew people and their names, I knew my name. I knew I had been places and I could navigate those buildings, but I have zero first person recollection of doing anything with anyone. So people will say “you remember the time we did this?” No, I have no idea. Or “do you remember Miss Birmingham’s class in third grade,” I have no idea if I was ever there but I can tell you which room it was in. I remember the color of the tiles of the floor, but I don’t remember being ever there. So I don’t have one portion of my memory, and it eliminated my ability to play the piano. So it just kind of stopped. I had a recital a week after the accident. I got halfway through the song and just looped through the middle of it. I couldn’t get out, and I just had to stop. Because it wasn’t there anymore. So there are portions I can still get a round, but there was something… brain trauma ws not well understood in 2000. It’s still not well understood today, but it’s had a lot of weird lasting impacts that have just led to me probably not being good for that. Maybe I’ll do it in twenty years. Maybe not.
Do you like beer?
Beer was what I did on my twenty first birthday. And a lot before my twenty first birthday. But I have celiacs disease, so I kind of can’t like beer. As of 2008 I found out I had some problem similar to celiacs, and over the course of time I figured out it actually was. I had to stop drinking beer because it was making my life worse. So yeah, I respect beer. I think just like everything else, Americans take everything a bit too far before they reel it back in, and I think we’re still in those times. I think post-2000 it was like “how nasty can you make an IPA? How high alcohol?” The Dogfish Head had like 20% alcohol, it was so hopped you just wanted to barf. Just taking one sip of it it tasted like poison. So we take everything a little too far, and now we’re into, like, birthday cake saisons. Lactic acid sours. All this goofy shit, which is cool, and it’s an experience, but we’re shooting as far in every direction as we can before we reel it in and go, “this is it.” I think whoever invented the Pilsner probably did a bunch of dumb shit first. Went in every direction, like “how weird can we make this? Is dark better? No, but this dark is good,” and finally got to the pilsner and said “This is the beer we think is good.” We found that out hundreds of years ago, and we’re still in that phase as a young country where we’re just trying everything too much. We’ll get there, but there really is no american product that’s not just doo doo. Like, really American. What are we famous for? As a nation, as a culture. It seems weird to me that, if we’re to have a stamp on anything, it’s overdoing it.
Is there a fashion trend you think you were a little too late for?
Gold chains maybe? I don’t know, I don’t think I was ever too late on anything because I don’t really have a style. Like, I have jeans and shirts. You know the cartoon Doug? He opens his closet—this is one of my favorite scenes in cartoon history—and it’s just a bunch of green sweater vests and khaki shorts all hung up in a row, because that’s all he ever wears in the show. That’s how I feel like I am. I have like six pairs of these jeans, I have ten long sleeve things like this that vary but are pretty much the same thing. Mother nature made me bald when I was nineteen, so I can’t take credit for when I fell onto that trend. The mustache I normally have, I’ve had since I was nineteen. And mustaches haven’t been cool since Tom Selleck. Clear glasses, I was among the first. I had them before you could purchase them. In fact, I made them in 2011. But I saw a movie in ‘06 or ‘08 where a guy in a band had them, so I know I didn’t invent them. But yeah, the gold chain. I wish I had a gold chain from the moment I was born. As soon as I put one on I felt like it was all I had been missing from my life. The weight of the metal, and—there’s got to be something evolutionary, just in my lizard brain somewhere—that says “carry value with you wherever you go.” Make sure you have something to trade for yourself, if you need to be let out of a prison or something, you get caught in a cab, you need to get to Buffalo, you’d better have a gold chain. You can say “listen man, I have this chain.” I didn’t know that it felt like I was leaving my house without my wallet because I didn’t have a chain on. When I got divorced, I was like “I love my ring,” so I had it resized it for my pinky but it kept falling off because, little did I know, the pinky doesn’t have another finger on both sides to hold rings in place [laughs]. So it just fell off and I lost it so many times that I said, “I’ll just pawn it and get something I won’t lose.” So I did that and I got one chain, which I wish I got sooner. I probably wasn’t in any position to get a gold chain, and I’m probably not now either, but I think that was the one trend that i missed. I wish it wasn’t 14 karat, I wish it were 18 or 24—a nice soft, dense, chewy metal—but we’ll get there someday. 14 karat is actually the level of purity where there are no potential allergic reactions. Ten karat, you start getting into, like, nickel might be in there, or other alloys that are not good for sensitive skin. So 14 karat is the beginning of the level of purity where it won’t interact with your skin. It’s also as strong as the metal gets. So it’s the pocket, you know? Right where it’s not gonna hurt your wallet or your skin.
What is your sleep schedule like as a bartender, and when you were out of work what happened with it?
I was just going to say, my sleep schedule as a bartender has changed a lot in 2020 and 2021. If I could nail down what the ideal would be, the last six years, was go to bed at three a.m. and get up at eleven a.m. That’s the idea. I want to get at least eight hours a night, and if I don’t then I’m a moron the next day. In the first two weeks of quarantine, back in March 2020, at the end of that second week I was getting up at eight a.m. It was March so it was getting dark by like six, and I’d watch a movie and by the time ten p.m. rolled around I was dozing off. So, the goal was to get up early enough to get shit done and go to bed early enough that I can get eight hours of sleep. Typically these days it’s like one to nine, two to ten, something like that. Even when bars are open they can’t be open past ten or twelve. So when we used to have bar parties at Cure, me and Greg my old coworker wouldn’t get out until five-thirty a.m. regularly, and I wouldn’t get to bed until six-thirty a.m. and try to sleep till noon or one p.m., but if I go to bed too late there’s no recovering that. Because you’re not going to sleep until four p.m. So the goal was to get to bed before two a.m. and get up at ten-ish. It works for the most part. And after years of doing this, I can’t go to bed at eight p.m. It just doesn’t work.
When I started working from home I found that stapling down a sleep schedule was so challenging when I didn’t have anywhere to go in the morning. I was wondering if that’s a big problem in the bar industry, do people not adhere to a sleep schedule, and just kind of float?
I think it is a problem for a lot of people—and I wouldn’t say it’s just the bar industry, and I wouldn’t say it’s just during pandemic times. I think it’s been exacerbated for everybody, but my girlfriend is the general manager of a hotel and has to be to work at seven a.m., but she still wants to be up until two a.m. She might feel inclined to go to bed at nine p.m., but she doesn’t want to. I spent a lot of years not sleeping in college; work till five in the morning, go to bed at six-thirty, and be in class at eight a.m. the next day. A lot of cigarettes, a lot of coffee. I’ve gotten rid of most of that now. Sleep Cycle has been an app that has allowed me to track—there are three benefits. It alerts you to how regular your going to bed time is and how you fall asleep every day. Your regularity is part of it, your length of sleep is a part of it, and the quality therein, and it will wake you up within a thirty minute period of your choosing that is not going to interrupt your REM cycle because it knows where you are. So I haven’t been interrupted during REM cycle unless I’m at my girlfriend’s house who is a nine-alarm person, who is like drooling and she could get up and say something and then just snore. There’s no delay. It’s really admirable [laughs]. But this app… I like data. So I have two apps, another is called Life Cycle. It tells you where you are, how long you’re there for, notifies me how many hours a week I spend at Cure, when I get home I tell it where I was for this period of time, and it will make me categorize that. So I get a year-end report that I like to pair with the sleep data, because I’m a data-driven person. But I get to find out—do you want to see it?—this is last night. It records you when you snore, too.
To spark a good conversation, stop by Cure and ask Donny Clutterbuck about the map behind the bar.