Walking into Swan Dive in Rochester is a joyfully jarring experience. One minute, you’re standing outside an unassuming building on bustling Alexander St. and the next you’re transported to an emerald green, retro Miami, Art Deco wonderland. A glance at the innovative cocktail list, the elevated-yet-cheeky pizza menu, or the expertly curated backbar will confirm one thing: the folks behind Swan Dive definitely know what they’re doing.
This isn’t an accident. An example of Rochester’s bubbling food and beverage scene: Swan Dive is one of six popular sister restaurants. The newest addition (the restaurant family’s new “baby brother”) is an upcoming Italian joint called Vern’s.
“Rochester’s food and beverage scene has exploded in last five years,” Swan Dive’s Bar Manager Nathaniel Hall says.
Hall has been Swan Dive’s bar manager for the establishment’s entire year-and-a-half lifespan. He credits a lot of Rochester’s buzz to the growing popularity of the Rochester Cocktail Revival, New York state’s only week-long cocktail festival. This year’s festival (June 3-9) will be Belle Isle’s first time as a BackBar sponsor. So, what should we expect?
“It’s a week of bedlam and revelry,” says Nathaniel of the festival. Needless to say, the Belle Isle crew is ready.
We recently chatted with Nathaniel about his barback beginnings, the beauty of the Last Word cocktail, and the proper way to ask for a drink at a bar (hint: it’s not by calling the bartender “hey!”) Nathaniel also whipped us up an Exclusive Gift, a stellar Honey Habanero cocktail created by fellow Swan Dive-r Patrick Stetzel.
First thing’s first, who are you?
I’m Nathaniel Hall, and I’m the bar manager here at Swan Dive in Rochester, New York.
How long have you been bartending?
I’ve been bartending for about five years and managing for two years. We’ve been open for just over a year, so Ive been the bar manager here since day one.
What first got you behind the bar?
I was a barback at one of our sister restaurants, The Daily Refresher, which is two doors down from where we’re currently sitting. I moved up through the ranks pretty quickly there and then started bartending during slower shifts. One night they threw me to the wolves on a Saturday, and the rest is history.
Any pro-tips for someone starting out behind the bar?
Look at your shoes, and get new ones. You’re on your feet a lot, and your feet are gonna hurt, so get good shoes. Stay clean, stay positive, and stay cool in times of stress. There are going to be stressful moments, but just take 10% back. If you’re moving at 100% and you feel yourself start to get squirrelly or stressed out, take a deep breath, take 10% off of your current speed and just push through. Two o’clock is gonna happen no matter what.
Favorite drink made by someone else?
I like to go to Cure, which is in the Public Market here, and ask Donny to make me something with gin. Whatever he’s feeling that day is probably what I want.
Favorite drink that you make?
My favorite cocktail is a Last Word, easily.
Favorite thing to drink when no one’s looking?
That’s a tough one. I would have to say a PBR and a shot of well whiskey from Lux in South Wedge. Just shitty whiskey and shittier beer.
If you had to pick one cocktail ingredient to use for the rest of your life, what would you choose?
Escubac, which is an herbal liqueur that’s very similar to Green Chartreuse. It’s not as intense, but it still has that herbal quality. You can use it for mezcal, tequila, gin, vodka. It’s very versatile. I like to use it as my bartender’s ketchup.
What’s your favorite part about working at your bar?
I think the versatility of the program. The amount of reach that we have with our staff, our spirits selection, our beer and wine selection–we have something for everyone here. If you look at our backbar, you know you’re going to get something delicious.
How do you go about creating cocktails for Swan Dive's menu?
We curate our menu based on what we think is cool. We don’t really pander as much as some places might or as we possibly should. For example, the first cocktail on our menu is the Cool Breeze. It’s vodka-based, but it also has sherry, a French peach liqueur, and a housemade ginger syrup. Not a ton of people really know what sherry is, so if we throw that in with recognizable ingredients like vodka, peach, and ginger, we’re introducing you to something new kind of slyly. For us, we just like to incorporate ingredients that we stand behind into flavor profiles that you wouldn’t normally expect.
Where do you like to stop in for a drink?
If I’m in the mood for a small neighborhood haunt, I like to go to Joey’s on Main St. Two of my friends own that little bar. There’s about 12 seats, a dart board, and a pool table. It’s perfect. If I’m going to get a cocktail, I like to go to Cure, Ox and Stone, and Roux.
What make Rochester's food & drink scene unique?
Rochester’s food and beverage scene has exploded in last five years. I would say the forerunner of that is Restaurant Good Luck, which I think everyone in this room would say is an amazing, amazing place. It’s been influential in every aspect: food, beverage, hospitality. Their director, Chuck Cerankosky, is the man who heads the Rochester Cocktail Revival. With his influence, it’s all sort of been a tributary that flooded Rochester. I like to say this town is, “big city flavors, small city feel.”
Give us your golden rule when it comes to bar etiquette.
For bartenders and barbacks: greet customers with a smile, a menu, and water. For patrons: don’t tap your credit card, don’t wave your money at me, and my name isn’t “Hey!” If you’re polite, you’ll receive proper hospitality back.
What’s your favorite way to drink Belle Isle?
When they first brought the Honey Habanero in, I introduced it to everybody who was in front of me, and we were just sipping it with ice. Maybe a little bit of water to open it up. I like spice, but I can’t really tolerate it that well. I’m kind of a baby–but I really enjoy it. I enjoy the chemical reaction that happens in your brain with a little spice. So the Honey Habanero is my favorite.
1 ½ oz. Belle Isle Honey Habanero
¾ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. honey syrup
½ oz. Aperol
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Add all ingredients to a mixing tin with ice and shake. Double-strain over fresh ice and garnish with a lemon plank.
Recipe by Swan Dive’s Patrick Stetzel.
Want more Bartender pro-tips?
We take the name Belle Isle from a small, 540-acre island located smack dab in the middle of the James River where Civil War soldiers used surplus corn rations to make moonshine in copper kettles.
Belle Isle Moonshine is distilled from 100% organic corn, grown by three family farms and responsibly sourced. Once triple-distilled, we charcoal filter Belle Isle four times over. Then, we cut it with purified water right from the James River. Our infusions are made with 100% real ingredients, never artificial flavors or color. We use real grapefruits sourced from Texas and California, local honey from the Shenandoah Valley, organic habaneros grown an hour away, and freshly roasted coffee beans from the most socially conscious roastery in Richmond, Blanchard's Coffee Roasting Co.
From there, each bottle of Belle Isle Moonshine is filled, corked, labeled, and packed by hand by our Production team, who check each bottle and batch for quality assurance. Since Belle Isle is made in small batches, you can find the batch number handwritten in the bottom right corner of each bottle.
Distilled from good times and 100% organic corn.