Firefly mixologist Billy Jack Paul loves to stir things up

LENOX — What is the difference between bartending and mixology? For the Firefly's very own Billy Jack Paul, who describes himself as a professional bartender who practices mixology and specializes in pre-Prohibition and Prohibition-era cocktails, the term "mixologist" is reserved only for the highest echelon of drink-makers.

"The term `mixologist,' has been thrown around loosely," Paul said. "It's a bit like the term `chemist.'"

Paul has been making drinks for over two decades, and although he started in Great Barrington, much of his early career was spent in Raleigh, N.C., where he spent five years learning more about the business, for the late-night college-aged crowd. In 2006, he moved back to the Berkshires, where he bartended for the Stagecoach Tavern in Sheffield, which is when Paul was absorbed into the then re-emergence of the craft cocktail culture. Today, he helms Firefly Gastropub in Lenox as its bar manager and mixologist, teaching the bartending staff much of what he knows.

"You saw the re-emergence of these magnificent ingredients that hadn't been around since prohibition," Paul said of the bartending scene in 2006 and 2007. "The classics all have great stories. The working class had these classic beers, hard ciders and mixed drinks to keep them going."

The ingredients of these drinks, according to Paul, was largely determined by geography, which also dictated the history and story of these drinks, which Paul is always keen to tell his customers at Firefly. And to Paul, the art of making these drinks is more than just ingredients and following the instructions.

"You can give anyone the book with instructions on how to make [a drink], but it's more than that," he said. "It's technique."

For Paul, making a drink is a fine art. How long you strain and stir a drink can determine how much of the flavor you taste. However, for most of Paul's drinks, the most important ingredient is always water.

"A lot of people ask me `How do you make it?' " he said. "I always tell them that the ice that they use is the key."

Paul's drinks are composed of three parts: the spirits, the base and the bitters. Water serves as a diluting agent, and, as such, has a huge impact on the flavor of the drink.

In his line of work, Paul often notices that a lot of people have been turned off to certain drinks due to improper flavor balance or consumption.

"Some people have this stigma of rum due to a bad experience from a hard night of drinking as a teenager," Paul said. "I try to teach them the right way to approach spirits. I'll suggestion a gin or rum aviation. I'll make it and say `This is it. If you don't like it, don't worry about it.' Sometimes I'm able to bring them around to enjoy something they might not have expected."

But Paul's favorite part of his job is naming his drinks, which often draw from literature and relevant local tidbits, such as the Bartolo Colon, a fatty cocktail he named after the Major League Baseball player of the same name, or the Thru Hiker, which incorporates local and national ingredients, earning its title as a "traveled" cocktail.

And he is always out to learn more about his profession, keeping up with mixologists in London and New York City. And although he doesn't have access to foam centrifuge and he isn't a molecular mixologist, he incorporates as much research as he can into his profession.


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