Hamburg native David Busch grew up listening to his grandfather, Ray Gates, tell stories about his time behind the bar at The Steakhouse, an institution where Mason’s Grille 52 now stands. As he takes over the bar program at Carte Blanche on the corner where he used to work as a dishwasher at Buffalo Street Grille, he's right at home.
“I came into a family atmosphere here,” he said of Carte Blanche. There, his menu of classics and riffs on the same complement the restaurant’s eclectic, locally focused menu. “When I was growing up, [Hamburg] was a cultural wasteland. We hung out at Mighty Taco or in the village parking lot,” he said. Today, Busch is working on helping to change the culture in the Buffalo suburb, one customer at a time.
Busch started learning the craft cocktail trade at Buffalo pioneer Vera Pizzeria about five years ago. He moved to Nashville last spring to hone his skills under fresh masters. There, he worked at award-winning The Patterson House, where he enjoyed the chance to learn from the best in the business.
“Sometimes love stories don’t end up being fairy tales,” he said, of why he returned. “I left The Patterson on really good terms, but my time was up there. It felt right coming home.” He stopped at Carte Blanche to check it out, saw its cocktail program and said, ‘I can fix that.’ ”
And so he did. At Carte Blanche, owner Andrew Murtha gave Busch the same control over the drinks as Murtha has over the food. The pair creates flavors for a program that both comforts and challenges customers.
On Busch’s menu, visitors will find lots to excite both seasoned and new craft beverage aficionados. When Busch devises a new drink, he starts with the syrups or bitter and builds from there, backwards from how most bartenders do it.
For the Rush Lane ($10) for example, he started with a fennel syrup Murtha had made for the kitchen. Fernet Branca, an aperitif with subtle fennel notes came in. Next, he added tequila for its earthy base and some Angostura and grapefruit bitters to play off citrus tones. The result is a deeply complex cocktail fans of tequila and mezcal will enjoy.
Dreamin in Nashville ($10) started with a spicy ginger syrup, which he started tasting with Montenegro, an aperitif having a moment.
“I originally infused gin with lemon and limes, but then I found Black Button has a gin that has those citrusy notes already,” he explained. A sprig of mint, lemon juice and a squirt of soda completes a fruity, cooling drink to remind us that summer isn’t gone forever.
For something a little more umami try, The English Breakfast ($10), Montenegro with Black Button Gin, vanilla black tea syrup, rosemary, plum bitters and black pepper. This rich, herbal sipper sees subdued forest fruits with a pop of pepper to get us through those cold evenings. The rest of the menu is rife with “cool drinks with a playful mindset."
[Related: Galarneau's cocktails you should try]
“It’s exciting to be part of the change that’s happening here,” Busch said. “I like when younger people come in and I can totally blow their minds. I like teaching our customers it’s OK to experience new things and I want to keep pushing forward. We’re still a neighborhood bar. You can still come and get a shot of Jameson or your vodka martini, and feel like you’re home.”
For the hometown boy, one of the best things about being back is seeing old friends and family. Many of those remember his grandfather, with whom he now lives. “He raised eight kids by himself, working at the post office during the day and tending bar at night. He’s really happy to see me following in his footsteps. I guess you could say it’s in my blood.”