"I've always been a craft person," O'Neill said. "The professionalism and creativity drew me in. It was an easy translation to move to booze instead of a block of wood." He also gets it that not everybody wants to know the mash bill of a particular bourbon, and that good drinks can be frothy and lighthearted.
"Who wants to know the long story of a cocktail that may or may not taste like crap and you may never have again?" he said. "Good bartenders know it's not about them - it's always about the customer experience."
Good bartenders tended to attend a recent five-day cocktail meet-up in New Orleans called Tales of the Cocktail. Last month, O'Neill joined a cadre of Philly-based drink pros and thousands more bartenders, spirits professionals, brand ambassadors, restaurateurs and bar owners - 22,000 movers and shakers in all - for the 12th annual Tales. There, along with fellow locals Nate Churchill, of XIX (Nineteen), and Myles Carroll and Dan Lan Hamm, of 1 Tippling Place, O'Neill soaked up what's hot (or, at least, what's cool), when it comes to the best drinks in town.
Tales founder Ann Tuennerman said the world of drinks is experiencing a lightness in being. "It was fun to see people enjoying tiki cocktails, and the Harvey Wallbanger being brought back to life," she said. The first wave of Mai Taism, zombies and other boat drinks broke in the 1930s at places like Don the Beachcomber, in L.A., and Trader Vic's, in Oakland. After World War II, the interest in the South Pacific continued, and fruity drinks with tiny umbrellas - and the places that poured them - boomed. Today, what's old is new again.
Philly example: Fishtown's brand-new The Yachtsman tiki bar. Operators Phoebe Esmon and Christian Gaal have come up with a cocktail list that includes names like "Aurora Bora Borealis" and "Caribe Welcome Coconut," a rum concoction served in the hollowed-out tropical fruit.
But wait. There's more trending in bartending.
Tales' tasting rooms hosted local folks from Philadelphia Distilling and Crabbie's Original Alcoholic Ginger Beer, both pouring new products - The Bay flavored vodka and Spiced Orange Ginger Beer, respectively - for the libation intelligentsia. There was also a slew of tone-setting seminars: "How to Go Broke: Opening a Distillery" addressed the wave of mom-and-pop stills; "Behold the Trojan Horse" tsk-tsked the backlash against vodka. A T-shirt that read, "Vodka: It Pays the Bills" became the best seller at the event's gift shop.
Seems everybody and his brother or sister is cooking up spirits these days. Not to be confused with craft distillers - such as Philadelphia Distilling, makers of Bluecoat Gin, and Old City-based Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, who put out organic liqueurs Root and Sage - some newer small-batch distillers seem not to have done all their homework before bottling their stuff.
O'Neill is skeptical about the flurry of micro-makers. "It's a slippery slope," he said. "It's exciting that there are new products, but building a still and calling it small batch doesn't mean it's made well. I think that now, more than ever, it's important for people to pay attention to what they're tasting - and not what they're told they're tasting."
Around the world
Did you know that the No. 1 selling spirit worldwide is baijiu, a white spirit distilled from sorghum, wheat or rice? The Chinese liquor is a $23 billion-a-year business. Or that Latin American pisco, cachaca and mescal are gaining serious global traction? Now you do.
Women behind bars
Sounds like the title for a cheesy prison flick from the '60s, but this Tales seminar underscored how influential women bartenders and tastemakers are to the industry. Whether behind the bar, distilling, marketing or writing about spirits, women are making things happen. In Philly, look to the likes of Maria Polise, of Ela, who won the Cochon 555 "Punch Kings" competition this summer in Denver, and Phoebe Esmon, of Emmanuelle and The Yachtsman, for creative barkeeping and mixology.
You may not be able to create the kind of drinks that O'Neill pours at The Franklin, but you can sure give it a try. Home bartending is about more than pouring a gin and tonic. Keep the flavor profiles simple, follow a recipe and have fun, advised O'Neill. "It's important to stay within your comfort zone," he said. "If you feel adventurous, take a classic drink, say, a Tom Collins, and play with seasonal flavors. Add a muddled blackberry or strawberry, make a syrup out of cooked peaches and then use the regular building blocks. It will take some experimentation, but that's the fun part."
Beth D'Addono has been writing about the Philadelphia and national restaurant scene for more than 17 years in local and national publications. Read more at unchainedtravel.com.