This feature is part of our 2023 Next Wave Awards.
“My golden rule is to work hard and be nice to people,” says Patty Dennison, head bartender at Brooklyn’s Grand Army bar. “Whether it be guests or the people you work with, nobody knows what’s happening to anybody in their life and you just have to work hard and be kind to the people around you.”
After attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., earning a bachelor’s degree in hotel administration at Cornell University, and an unpaid internship at the International Culinary Center where she received a level 2 sommelier certification and burned through her savings, Patty Dennison was ready to “sell out” and pursue a career in real estate finance. But the real estate market’s loss was the bar world’s gain.
“I realized bartending could be more than a fun hobby and actually be a career,” says the Stone Mountain, Ga., native, who worked for seven months alongside head bartender William Pasternak and bartender Ally Marrone as a barback at the Cuban-inspired Blacktail before the Lower Manhattan cocktail bar shuttered its doors in January 2020. “It was such a collaborative place and I was on the cusp of becoming a bartender and then they closed.”
She was then set to be among the opening team, along with Pasternak as head bartender and beverage director Adam Montgomerie, at the New York outpost of U.K. steakhouse Hawskmoor. But after less than a week of service, the restaurant was forced to temporarily close in March 2020. As the Hawksmoor reopening kept getting delayed, Dennison spent nearly a year behind the bar at Aita, a neighborhood trattoria in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, where she was finally able to practice the bartending skills and techniques she picked up at Blacktail.
Dennison made it back to Hawksmoor, where, despite being intimidated working among bartenders with more than a decade of experience each, she was able to put several of her original drinks on a menu for the first time. She’s especially proud of her Yacht Rock, a stirred, spirit-forward cocktail in the style of an Old Fashioned with the flavors of a Piña Colada, composed of coconut oil-washed Teeling Whiskey, a bit of verjus for brightness, a touch of miso for savory salinity, and a Sauvignon Blanc syrup that brings a distinctive tropical note.
In late summer 2021, Dennison reunited with her friend and mentor, Ally Marrone, joining the all-women-run bar team at Grand Army as head bartender. “If Ally hadn’t trained me for those two months at Blacktail I don’t know where I’d be right now,” Dennison says. “A lot of people want to learn from Ally. There are strong female bartenders and a lot of female icons like Julie Reiner and Lynnette Marrero, but they’re not necessarily behind the bar every day like Ally is.”
One of Dennison’s favorite approaches to creating drinks at Grand Army is turning a spirit-forward cocktail into a shaken sour, like the I’d Like to Buy a Vowel, Pat, a Sazerac-meets-Jungle Bird riff she started at Hawksmoor that evolved by the time it landed on Grand Army’s game shows-themed menu. “We use a lot of cool techniques and make fun drinks but it doesn’t ever read as being pretentious, but if you want to talk about carbonation and acid-adjustment I’m happy to do that,” Dennison says.
Along with helping to develop Grand Army’s creative themed menus and hosting regular brand activations and pop-ups, Dennison has found the time to take her skills on the competition circuit, making the finals of Mount Gay Rum’s “A Taste of Home” cocktail competition in Barbados and winning the 2022 Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience, which she currently judges. Now, Dennison gives back to the bar community and offers the guidance she received by being a mentor in her own right.
Dennison acknowledges that her endgame is to one day open her own Brooklyn bar with Marrone. “Right now, some of the cocktail bars are just not that fun. I want it to be a place where you can get a great drink and where we use a lot of complex, complicated techniques that you don’t have to know or care about,” she says. “That’s the goal for when I open a bar. It should be fun, approachable, and a cool place to have a good time.”