Kevin Denton isn’t in Kansas anymore.
The 2001 alum had a bucolic childhood in a small town on the Missouri River. (Ask him about it, and he’ll open with, “My old man’s a bricklayer.”) Now he’s standing behind the marble-topped bar at WD-50, celebrity chef Wylie Dufresne’s hip, pricey outpost of molecular gastronomy on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. As the restaurant’s beverage director, Denton has designed all manner of exotic libations, from the Kentucky Cardigan (brown butter bourbon and bitters in a glass rimmed with crushed butterscotch candies) to the Fountain of Youth (Venezuelan rum, fino sherry, and cream soda made of vanilla bean, cane syrup, and a “tea” of oak chips). “With drinks, you’re either helping someone celebrate something, helping them forget something, or lubricating a social situation,” says Denton, clad in a brown oxford shirt, a black apron, and a pair of Levi’s as he lays out the baskets of paper-thin lavash crackers that serve as the restaurant’s bar snacks. “You can set the mood and the tone.”
In the dead of winter, as Denton explains on this freezing February night, New Yorkers crave dark spirits like whisky—but they also gravitate toward the bright flavors of the southern citrus season, like the “Tommy-O 2.0” he’s concocting from the French aperitif Lillet, gin infused with orange peel, and blood orange juice that has been clarified in a centrifuge and carbonated. Other drinks currently on the ever-changing menu include the ¿Qué Pasa Calabaza? (tequila, squash essence, and the juice of an Asian citrus fruit called yuzu, served in a glass rimmed with black salt), the New School (peanut butter sake, white vermouth, raspberry), and the Persephone’s Folly (pomegranate and gin with pine essence). “There’s an alchemy to making something complicated in front of someone,” says Denton, whose mane of shoulder-length hair and heavy-framed glasses give him the inevitable air of the urban hipster. “I try to strike a balance between showmanship and practicality.”
The WD-50 gig is the latest stop in a circuitous path that has taken Denton from the small town of Atchison, some sixty miles north of Kansas City, where he often spent weekends laying brick with his dad. “I was brainy and introverted, but I always had friends and I lived on ten acres, so I had a lot of space to run around and dogs to chase,” he recalls. “It was a great place to be a boy, and very formative of my later life, but it was also confining; I saw the limits of it.” He was a day student at an all-male Catholic boarding school—“I ran around with the boarders, because they were from somewhere else”—before coming to Cornell to study city and regional planning. Always passionately interested in music, he lived in the Just About Music (JAM) program house and formed a rockabilly band called the Swinging Mutts within days of matriculating.
After graduation he went home for a while, decided Kansas wasn’t for him, and returned to the Hill for a master’s in urban planning. During grad school, he and a few Cornellians formed a band called the Crooners, which still plays regular gigs. (Their website describes them as “mixing high-octane bluegrass with a rock ’n’ roll sensibility of blues and swing.”) Planning jobs in Ithaca and Philadelphia followed, but “the allure of New York was too strong” and a Cornell friend got him a job with famed restaurateur Danny Meyer. “Then,” he notes, “the career path gets extremely nonlinear.”
A stint as the American liaison for an art and language school in Tuscany. More touring with the Crooners. Work at a chic cocktail bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The recording of a solo album. The management of the bar at the Gramercy Park Hotel, where he cultivated a lush rooftop garden that drew attention from Esquire, GQ, and Martha Stewart. A break to learn surfing in Nicaragua. Eventually, Denton made his way to WD-50, where in addition to designing cocktails and managing the beverage business, he works behind the bar five nights a week. “Beverage is exciting because it’s seeing a renaissance,” he says. “People are interested in drinking better, the same way that they were interested in eating better ten years ago.”
The visionary Dufresne, an occasional judge and contestant on shows like “Top Chef,” is a leading practitioner of molecular gastronomy, in which dishes are reimagined by exploring the chemistry and physics of cooking. His eggs Benedict, for example, consist of yolks poached into small columns, tiny cubes of deep-fried hollandaise coated in English muffin crumbs, and a thin chip of Canadian bacon. “At once concise and comprehensive, it’s perhaps the tidiest Benedict the egg-loving world has ever known,” Frank Bruni wrote in his New York Times review, giving WD-50 a coveted three stars. “It’s quite possibly the best, yielding more yolk, more hollandaise, and a more pronounced juxtaposition of textures in each bite. And it’s a window into what makes WD-50 and Mr. Dufresne, its chef, so amusing, important, and rewarding. He pushes hard against the envelope of possibility and the bounds of conformity to produce food that’s not only playful but also joyful and even exhilarating, at least when the mad science pays off.”
Denton embraced the challenge of taking a similarly avant garde approach to the restaurant’s libations. As he puts it: “Anyone can make a drink; anyone with a certain level of understanding can put ingredients together and get a fairly decent result. But at a place driven largely by technique, how do you incorporate a centrifuge or carbonation?” Take the “fat washed” bourbon in the Kentucky Cardigan, a twist on the classic Old Fashioned. The liquor is combined with brown butter and the mixture put into the freezer, so the fat rises to the top and is skimmed off. “You have the essence of brown butter,” he says, “but you don’t have an oil slick in your drink.”
Denton quotes a friend, a sommelier who calls himself a “wine D.J.” Like him, Denton says, he takes a product that someone else has created and uses his expertise to figure out what’s best for a particular audience or occasion. “The barman has always been the Internet of his place and his era,” Denton observes. “You’re a bulletin board of information about people’s comings and goings. You’re a consoler, a celebrator, the life of the party, a shoulder to cry on.” And for the longtime singer and guitarist, being behind the bar isn’t all that different from being onstage. “Mixology is the coming together of culinary acumen and a certain level of showmanship,” he says. “I’m a huge showoff, but I’m also very interested in combining the best ingredients to make something delicious. Early on at Cornell, I was introduced to what the good life was about: eating and drinking, good music, being among friends. No matter what people do, that’s the common ground.”