“I went to Vegas on vacation and saw the guys flipping bottles, getting 100 dollar tips, and I thought, you know what, I’m gonna be a bartender,” Roger says, smiling big. We’re sitting across from him at the bar at Sherkaan in New Haven, Connecticut, and bar manager Roger Gross could fill a book with the adventures of his bartending career alone. Which, he tells us, he plans on doing.
“In Vegas, I met the most incredible people—celebrities, athletes, weirdos, billionaires; I’m sure I met mobsters, gangsters, and everybody behaved, for the most part. I saw a lady pooping on the floor, two hookers getting into a fight, an Arizona cowboy and a Jersey guy with spikey hair getting into a fight over a stuffed platypus, a bunch of NFL linemen getting a little rowdy—who’s going to stop them? You can’t make this up. A guy from Kentucky who tried to throw a hooker from a balcony. He’s doing hard time in the pen now. Just for a business trip.”
We will admit: we didn’t expect, when we walked into this colourful, delicious-smelling Connecticut Indian restaurant and met Roger, that he’d have such a tale to tell. But we are certainly happy to hear it, especially over some gin.
We ask Roger how he first got into bartending, how anyone gave him his first shot.
“When I moved to Las Vegas in 2007, they said I didn’t have Vegas experience, and I said, ‘Hey, you didn’t have Vegas experience once too.’ I worked in wireless for 9 years so I said ‘Look, what I do as a salesperson is I take people that come in, I give them products and services based on features, advantages, and benefits. If you think I can’t do that with food and drink, why are we even here.’”
Through his hustle and smooth-talking, he tells us, he landed himself a bartending gig at Trader Vic’s on the Vegas strip, as well as the graveyard shift at an off-strip local gaming bar. The local gaming bars, he explains, are 14-20-seat 24-hour bars where people come to play tabletop gambling.
“Getting those jobs is a lot harder, because you make money off people’s gamble; they typically tip you 10% of their winnings. It’s your social club, and people come in and gamble with you because they like you. Nothing fancy, just Jo Shmo coming in a dropping 2 grand on gambling every weekend while watching football and pounding Coors Lite.”
We cannot exactly wrap our minds around such a lifestyle, but Roger reminds us that as long as the money was good, he didn’t ask any questions. Eventually, though, it wore on him.
“You’d get those guys who were supposed to be off to work, sitting at my bar at 7am drinking screwdrivers. And I’m like, ‘Bro, I feel like I’m ruining your life right now.’”
From there he moved onto a brand new casino and a job at a brand new cocktail bar, where he learned a lot of the craft cocktail skills he employs today.
“It was the best beverage program to hit the Vegas strip since the Bellagio started using fresh juices in 1998. Bunch of bar nerds.”
While he spins us his yarns, he has one eye on his other customers, the food coming out of the kitchen, and a batch of some sort of milk concoction he has going on a big pot at the end of the bar. He handles all of these simultaneous tasks effortlessly, and seems to have genuine fun doing it all—talking to us, serving, concocting.
Eventually, he continues, he had to get out of Las Vegas. He picked four new cities to test out, and landed in Indianapolis, Indiana.
“In Indiana I was expecting John Deere tractors and hay bales, and what I saw was this beautiful huge metropolitan community, very bicycle-focused, everything was really close to downtown, there are beautiful hotels, amazing food, the people are super friendly. Coming from transient, fast-paced, shady Las Vegas, going to Indianapolis was very welcoming and comforting.”
After a year there a friend called him up and convinced him to move to Connecticut, and a handful of restaurant openings, cocktail menus, and gigs all over New Haven later, Roger now stands before us, running the helm at Sherkaan. As we mentioned before, it smells delicious in here, but perhaps more impressive is Roger’s extensive cocktail list, from the simple to the unconventional, boozy to the non-alcoholic, and much of it Indian-inspired.
For his Brockmans creation, Roger presents to us the “Gully Juice,” a rich purple drink with pear liqueur, berry lime oleo saccharum, and blue jasmine tea. It is certainly flavoursome but also quite delicate and floral, perhaps itself a reflection of Roger’s journey here. Or maybe that’s just the gin, making us overthink it. In any case, we could sit here drinking Gully Juice and hearing Roger’s war stories for hours, but we must leave at some point…
by Roger Gross
- 1.75 oz/50 ml Brockmans Gin
- .75 oz/20 ml pear liqueur
- .75 oz/20 ml berry-lime oleo saccharum
- 2 oz/60 ml blue jasmine tea
- .5 oz/15 ml lime juice
- half dropper spiced cranberry bitters
- Add all ingredients to shaker.
- Shake vigourously until cold, then strain over fresh ice into a rocks glass.
- Garnish with an edible flower and a lemon wheel.