When Little Rock’s Lee Edwards, former beverage director at Yellow Rocket Concepts and an icon in the Little Rock beverage industry, recently moved to Kansas City, he left a void in the local drink scene. Today we meet Brett Bassett, Yellow Rocket’s new beverage director.
We chatted with Edwards, who was good friends with Bassett and he had this to say, “Brett is a bright young star in the Little Rock restaurant industry. He has all the tools: personality, creativity, strong work ethic, excels at social media, and his co-workers love working with him.”
Get to know Bassett below in today’s Drink Insider.
Where are you from?
I’m from Little Rock, born and raised. I graduated from Central High School and then went up to Fayetteville and pursued an Architecture and Design degree. I soon figured out that that’s not exactly what I wanted to do. It was right during the market crash, and I was in year three, so I came back home and started floating around.
How did you get into bartending?
I’ve actually grown up in restaurants. Mark Abernathy of Loca Luna and Red Door is my stepdad, and so I camped out at Loca Luna when I was seven or eight. My first job was washing dishes when I was 15 … I worked up to busing tables and serving. When I turned 21 and had moved back from Fayetteville, I thought, ok, let’s get behind the bar and see how that works. That was my first bartending gig back and forth between Loca Luna and Red Door. I somehow transferred to downtown to the jungle that is Ernie Biggs for two or three years and that’s how I learned the speed bar tending aspect. It’s a completely different ballgame.
What was the turning point for you?
Lee Edwards, actually. He had the beverage director position at Yellow Rocket prior to me and he kind of ushered me into it. When I met Lee was starting a late night bar program at a place near my house. I would get off work at 2 or 3 in the morning, and I was hungry. I remember they had great bar food and I would want a beer or something like that to wind down. I started going there one or two nights a week if not more, and we eventually figured out that we lived five houses down from each other on the same street, so we started hanging out and became really good friends. I got to know him in that position, I started working a couple of nights there for about a month. That was right before he transferred to the Capital Hotel, and then when Big Orange Midtown opened I became a bartender there – just over two years ago.
What’s been your favorite part of the job so far?
I haven’t really been able to dive in yet, I’m still getting acclimated with the staff because there are three or four locations that I haven’t spent a long time in, yet. More than likely, I’ll be behind the bar at Big Orange Midtown on occasion. It’s a good way to maintain customer interaction, it’s good to have the face of the bar program behind the bar sometimes. … I’m looking forward to releasing the majority of our cocktail menus around October. That’s the best part, they have complete trust in me and the rest of the bar staff, our bar managers, and everybody involved. This company, from the owners, the entire marketing team, all of the General Managers, to the staff … Everybody who is a part of this company is enthusiastic and creative and it’s just so refreshing to walk into every restaurant and find these smiles. It’s so cool.
What’s been a challenge you’ve faced so far?
Currently it’s time management – that’s the biggest thing. Being able to dictate where I need to be and when, although I’m sure it will all come with time.
Speaking of time, what do you think of Little Rock’s drink scene?
Little Rock is getting there. Even the evolution in the last five years is exponential. You can say the word ‘Negroni’ to somebody and in the past, you might have two or three places that would make one, but now you have twenty or so, even more, that can take care of you.
What drinks do you like to make?
I’m all about new stuff that I’ve never tried before. That’s what has really intrigued me. If a distributor brings a new product in, or something like that, I always want to be on top of that and that’s something that Lee was really adamant about, too. If there’s something new in the state we like to get it in the door and get it to people prior to them even knowing about it.
Do you have a method for crafting cocktails? What’s your favorite cocktail?
Vieux Carre is probably my number one, I love that drink. Spirit-wise I’m really into Mezcals. Same with Scotch – the smokier the better. I want the both of those to be smoky and I want to taste them a few days afterwards. … As far as being able to compose a drink on the fly, experiment. Lee was a big believer of just experimenting. If you have an idea come in on your day off and make it. You have to do that in order to understand everything that you’re working with – you want to use it in three or four different cocktails and see how it works same with different juices. … Also, I have a moleskin notebook, and my notes app in my phone is probably just cocktail recipe ideas. I have so many of them, not even named, lists upon lists.
Are there going to be any big changes with the drink programs at the Yellow Rocket Restaurants?
Lee has a system already in all of the restaurants – it’s fantastic, and of course his following already knows what to expect. All of the programs work very well for each locations. … There are some changes we’re going to make, for instance, we were doing a biannual cocktail menu but we’re going to switch that up and do a seasonal. It won’t be quite as grand. For example, at Big Orange Midtown right now what we’re looking at is doing an all star lineup of ten to fifteen fan favorites and then we’ll probably do anywhere from three to six cocktails that we can actually push boundaries on with our own interpretations.
Where do you like to grab a drink, locally?
Recently the Pantry Crest has been my jam. I definitely like to go out by myself a lot, it’s kind of my way to unwind but still not be a hermit. I hop around – I’ll go to South on Main on occasion, and being in this industry for so long, I can honestly go to most places and know someone, especially the bartender, because we have guilds. The drink industry, just like the craft beer industry, is going to keep getting bigger. You have restaurants that are opening and they’re like, hey maybe we should pay attention to the bar.
Speaking of craft beer, what do you think about the local craft beer scene?
I’m obsessed with it. Little Rock is one of those markets that unfortunately is five years to ten years behind everybody. It’s great to see it finally coming here, plus, with Lost Forty being a part of our company, they have already expanded three times and they’ve only been open for seven months ago, and I’m excited to see more growth.
What do you like to do in your off time?
I’ve got a chocolate lab, he keeps me very occupied. He’s two-and-a-half years going on four months, 85 pounds, and hysterical. So we’re usually getting into some kind of outdoor adventure. I really just enjoy finding a place around town for a good drink. Also, I go up to Fayetteville as much as I can. I love that city.
What do you think Little Rock needs more of?
We are so spread out for such a small city, that’s one of the hardest things … you go to these other cities and they all have these neighborhoods and within a five block radius you’re got ten to twelve different restaurants and bars that are all top quality. Here we have great things, but they are at opposite ends of the city.