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click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett

René Nguyen

Bartender

As any epicurean boozehound will tell you, craft cocktails have taken off in a big way, elevating drinking scenes not just in Orlando, but across the country. The focus on creative combinations of small-batch spirits, unique liqueurs and picture-perfect presentation has found plenty of devotees in Orlando, already known as something of a foodie city. One of the people most responsible for elevating our drinking – and, let's face it, our bar tabs – is René Nguyen, the general manager and lead bartender at Hanson's Shoe Repair and Herman's Loan Office. But oddly enough, Nguyen never had aspirations to be a bartender until a few years ago.

After graduating from University of Central Florida in 2006 with a business marketing degree, Nguyen found himself working a 9-to-5 office job in corporate sales. The paycheck was large enough to afford Nguyen plenty of travel opportunities, which he took advantage of by visiting friends in New York, San Francisco and Chicago. It was in Chicago that Nguyen was first bit by the cocktail bug.

"All throughout college I just kind of drank Jack and Cokes or cheap beer and whatnot, and then kind of transitioned into craft beer," he says. But in Chicago, Nguyen found himself at the pioneering Wicker Park cocktail bar Violet Hour. "I didn't know you could have a drinking experience like that," Nguyen says. "Everything about it stuck with me, from the ambience, the mood lighting, the modern decor of the venue itself and the presentation technique of the bartender himself. But yeah, I had my first craft cocktail there: a Sazerac. I thought it was going to kill me because I had never had anything that spirit-forward and strong before."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett

Nguyen's trips away caused him to develop an expensive habit: home bartending. Nguyen says he would stock up on rare provisions, then have cocktail nights out of his house, introducing his friends to the classic drinks he found in vintage recipe books. Eventually, that turned into the occasional pop-up or bartending gig at friends' weddings. But when he heard about a new speakeasy opening downtown, Hanson's Shoe Repair, his first visit turned into something of an audition.

"It was still very much in soft opening," Nguyen says. "I don't think they had planned on opening it [that night], but when they got some reservations, they decided to open it last second. But they didn't have a bartender. They had parted ways with their one bartender hire, clearly the night before." After trying to make do with a replacement, the original owners of Hanson's caught wind of Nguyen's reputation as an enthusiast and asked him if he wanted to help them out behind the bar.

Fast-forward a few years later, and Nguyen is fully involved in Orlando's craft cocktail scene. Together with his partners in the V Group, Nguyen manages both Hanson's Shoe Repair and Herman's Loan Office, designing cocktails and menus for both locations, educating the palates of novice drinkers, and always ready to jump behind the stick.

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