By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 17, 2014 at 5:05 AM

Though we first met him when he was Matt and working behind the stick at The Eastsider, Mathias Simonis really made his name in Milwaukee creating cocktails at Distil on Milwaukee Street.

It was during his time at Distil that Simonis won the $15,000 first-place prize at the Nightclub & Bar Show Convention's "Shake It Up! 2011: Creative Cocktail Challenge" in Las Vegas and took top prize in the Portland-based Herradura Tequila Competition at the North Meets South Food and Drink Jubilee.

The following year, Simonis left Milwaukee and helped open Trick Dog in San Francisco, where he currently works. He also does some marketing and outreach work for a number of liqueur brands in Northern California.

We caught up with him to see how he's doing and what he thinks of the cocktail scene in Brew City.

OnMilwaukee.com: Why did you decide to leave Milwaukee and when did you go?

Mathias Simonis: I left Milwaukee in fall 2012. On one hand it was probably a long time coming, it was one of those things that I always talked about doing, but never pulled the trigger on it. The way it all went down is a really great story!! After all the years about contemplating, It was a discussion I had at Camp Runamok (in Kentucky) with Josh and Scott, the founders of the "Bon Vivants," based in San Francisco that really got the ball rolling.

On my first visit to San Francisco almost two years prior, Josh and Scott took me by this shell of a building that was to be the home of Trick Dog. They were a ways off from completion, but the idea and concept sounded so good that over the next two years, in cities all over the world, and many late night texts and phone calls, the discussion for me to move out was in motion and help open Trick Dog.

Due to some buildout complications, it was a long two-year process to get the bar close to built. That fateful day in Kentucky as we were saying goodbyes over a High Life and some Marlboros, I said to them both,"Guys!! What the f*ck is going on with Trick Dog? I want to move already!!"

The boys proceeded to explain the hardships they have had getting the buildout done – there is this important thing out here about retrofitting old buildings to be earthquake safe – and that they were almost ready, and told me, "Don't you dare go anywhere else. Just be ready for a phone call."

Well exactly one week later, Scott calls me up and says, "How quick can you move?" Explaining that the bar was almost done, they needed a guy at the pop-up bar "Rio Grande," and other work for the Bon Vivants was piling up, they needed me ASAP. I tied up some loose ends, packed two suitcases, and was on my way two weeks later.

OMC: Tell us about where you are now and about your new place, Trick Dog.

MS: It’s been great! I love Milwaukee, with all my heart but, sorry, I’m really in love with year-round hoodie weather! Trick Dog is amazing. If I could have ever described my dream ba, this is it in real life! We are located in the Mission district, speaking as the "outsider" having only been year a year and a half, it was the new hip neighborhood when I got out here. Filled with great food and drink, great little shops, but yet a great mix of people. We have become exactly what we set out to be: a great neighborhood bar with really great cocktails, great booze, great food served late-night, but without the password and bow-tie BS that comes with "Mixologistology" or whatever we are calling it now.

We have a pretty eclectic menu that we change twice a year. We have really had a spotlight on menu formats. First was a Pantone paint swatch, where all the drinks were named after Pantone colors that resembled the color of the drink, second was a record album where all the drinks were song titles and listed on the record label. Now we are on No. 3, which is a zodiac wheel with all the drinks named after astrological signs. It’s been a great run!

Trick Dog was written up as the most anticipated opening for bars in 2011, though we finally opened in 2013. The anticipation and press leading up to this really helped us to come out of the gates and live up to the hype. We have been blessed with unbelievable press nationally and locally, and recently named best "Small Wonder Bar" at this year’s NCB Show in Las Vegas, as well as a recent James Beard Award nomination. All the while, we crank out our cocktails in a high-volume setting. As of our one-year anniversary we did 176,000 menu drinks – that’s almost 500 a day. This doesn’t include beer, wine, old fashioneds, negronis, etc. It’s crazy and continues to get busier.

OMC: Did you use your Vegas contest prize winnings to move?

MS: Ha! No way, I pretty much blew that within a year on bills and the fact that I was traveling so much. I believe that year I spent 17 weeks out of town and I didn't exactly get any vacation time. Although I usually had travel expenses covered, not working took a toll on my "Bankroll" I never did get to book Van Halen for my birthday party!

OMC: I hear you represent some brands these days, too. What does that entail?

MS: My role out here has changed quite a bit from when I first got out here. I went from being behind the bar five nights a week and working as a brand ambassador for Tequila Ocho – which I did back in Milwaukee, as well – to now only behind the bar one night a week and working for seven brands. As The Bon Vivants we have built a portfolio of brands that we represent, some locally, and some nationally.

I currently am Doing Tequila Ocho, Pierde Almas Mezcal, Atlantico Rum, Akvinta Vodka, Mandarine Napoleon, Ancho Reyes and Filthy Foods. My role is focused on education, brand promotion, sponsored parties and a bit of sales. It’s really a great gig for bartenders, and really beneficial for small brands. I essentially help build smaller brands in my market. You see a lot of brands going this route, especially smaller brands that maybe can’t afford a full-time person in a market.

OMC: Now that you're gone, I'd be eager to hear your take on the Milwaukee bar and cocktail scene.

MS: It’s definitely growing! I keep up as much as I can with what’s going on around town. I still keep in touch with a lot of the "New Generation" and some of the USBG members. I definitely think we are still WAY behind from growing this mixology thing. There is definitely some amazing talent in Milwaukee! I love seeing more and more bartenders, and I’m not going to say "get into cocktails" but caring more about their craft. Not to sound biased as he is one of my dearest friends, but look at Lee Guk over at Lucky Joe’s. Six-ish years ago we were behind the stick together. We were like brothers behind the bar ... he cussed me out all the time about my "stupid" cocktail sh*t! Take a seat at Lucky Joe’s sometime; he is doing some great things there.

I use him as an example. Years ago he hated what I was doing. His passion now blows me away! Jack Teich over at Hi-Hat! When I met him years ago he was a server, I don't even remember where. All the sudden one day he was doing competitions, and doing really well. And really excited to see what Katie Rose has coming ...  She is amazing. I applaud the growth and seeing individuals caring more about the craft.

Unfortunately, I still find a lack of support from some businesses in supporting the growth the cocktail scene. So many are, if even attempting to have a cocktail list, still using artificial ingredients, whatever flavored whatever is cool that month, and the worst ... inconsistency of a staff!

Owners and management need to support their staff and/or find people passionate to learn the craft. And yes, I know, Milwaukee is Milwaukee, blah blah blah, its a beer and shot town ... bullshit! Look at the history of Bryant’s: The Pink Squirrel, The Tom and Jerry, hell a brandy manhattan. Milwaukee has a cocktail history.

And the argument of its too expensive to use fresh this or that. You can do inexpensive, craft cocktails, and do them fast and quick and perfect!!

Everyone in the biz should take a lesson from Paul Kennedy someday. That cat knows his sh*t. I got my first break after he left Bjonda, and I was able to utilize all the "geeky sh*t" I was into. That cat is one of the best in the biz ever.

With that said, I also have to say to the next generation to stop taking this too seriously. Early on I was just as guilty about proper cocktail blah blah blah, but the days of bow-tied suspender waxed-mustache cocktologist geek are over. More and more of these cats that blew this whole thing up nationally a decade ago have opened their own spots and are continuing to do so. And although the knowledge, technique and creativity is bigger than ever, the hospitality has to come first.

OMC: Do you get back much these days? Any new favorites locally?

MS: I've been back a few times over the past year and a half. I haven't been to all the new spots yet, but Lucky Joe's is doing some great things. Joey Houghtaling has been crushing it with some new menu ideas. I love what has happened hat Hi-Hat. Blue Jacket has a solid thing going. I would love to see more high-volume, smaller spaces that banged out cocktails. I think Elsa's, Taylors circa 1998 ... packed! I definitely think those days can come back, with craft cocktails. More passion and better training, and let’s face it, better drinks. Milwaukee is a drinking town. In order for this thing to grow, it has to be done fresh, balanced, quick and cheap. It can be done ... if you shake it, they will come.

OMC: Would you ever consider coming back to open a place?

MS: I have actually been asked this quite a bit. It is not out of the question someday. Milwaukee will always be home and and I miss it ... a lot. All my family and countless friends are there. A big part of the reason I decided to leave is I didn't want to open a place in Milwaukee. Finding the perfect space in the perfect location and being able to build it my way never really worked out. Who knows? If that perfect spot comes my way it could happen.

OMC: What is your specialty/signature drink?

MS: Depends who is ordering. Not to give you the standard answer of "whatever makes the guest happy" ... this is a given. Aside of our menu cocktails, we have our "house standards," whether it’s a classic cocktail that we all make the exact same way all the time, or some originals that do not require special ingredients to be constantly made. We refer to this as our dealer’s choice list. When someone is looking for a spirit forward gin drink that is on the dry side, we have a few choices. If the guest wants whiskey, citrus and refreshing, we have options.

The idea here is that our go-to drinks for each possible scenario can be made any day of the week by any of the bar staff. This eliminates the "So and so made me a drink last month and I think it was this and this." We always can freestyle, when we nail something new it usually gets worked into a "Rolodex," so we all know the drink, and we all can make it the exact same way.

But, if I had to choose, I do a mezcal drink a lot that I call "Big Trouble in Little Cynar." Its 1.5 ounces Pierde Almas La Puritita Mezcal, .75 Cynar, .75 Benedictine, grapefruit and chocolate bitters, stirred and served up with grapefruit zest. It’s the kind of drink that a guest can take the recipe home and make it for themselves.

OMC: What is the most ridiculous thing you've seen a drunk patron do?

MS: Roots, New Year’s Eve '05, I think. A guy who had been cut off and asked to leave got a little aggressive. He began to verbally abuse a woman at the bar. He then spit on her and took a swing at her. Myself and the other bartender jumped the bar and physically removed him. It got a bit ugly outside. Ill just leave it at that.

OMC: Ever break up any bar fights?

MS: For sure. Part of the job!

OMC: Best and worst pickup lines to use in a bar?

MS: I have always been a fan of buying a woman a drink from across the bar, by this I mean send her a drink. If she comes up to you and thanks you, it’s probably worth striking up a conversation. That was always my go-to. It’s kind of like the car door test for boozers.

Cheezy and funny, witty, cute or disturbing. Lines are lines. They never work. The worst game plan I ever have seen, and still see it practically every weekend is the "strangler," the guy who hovers over a woman and tries to force-feed them drinks. Ninety-nine times out of 100, she will not go home with you. And if you even can keep her upright enough to say yes, shame on you for even trying! Do it the old fashioned way, strike up a conversation.

OMC: Best/worst parts of being a bartender?

MS: The ability to make a career out of being behind a bar is better than ever, the money is great, the freedom of the schedule, the ability to eat and drink amazing things, and get paid to do it are all great. The feeling you get when you know you create and experience for a guest or guests is the best!

The worst? Our health. We have never lived healthy lives as bartenders, or any service industry professionals for that matter. Especially now with cocktail bartenders, the strain we put on our bodies just shaking and stirring all night becomes detrimental to our health. Couple that with the drinking, smoking, poor eating and sleeping habits, it really becomes a bad lifestyle. There has been a big push in the industry to become more conscious of this.

OMC: Do you go out to bars when you're not working?

MS: Always. Part of my work is to be out making and maintaining relationships, especially with some of the brand work. I really try to keep a balance nights out to nights to myself. I always keep one day a week to stay in, and one day doing non-bar-related activities.

OMC: Beer, wine or cocktails?

MS: Miller High Life, two fingers of Tequila Ocho Plata. My happy place!

OMC: Do you have a favorite bartender?

MS: I have a lot of favorites! Richard Hiel at Papa's Social Club to start. He told me my first day on the job, "You can do this 50 years and you'll never know everything. You will learn something new every day." He is also one of the most entertaining bartenders I have ever: met, magic, jokes, wit and a smile.

Paul Kennedy is a great host, humble as they come. Kids, take notes. Charles Joly of The Aviary in Chicago. He taught me balance is everything. Dushan Zarich of Employees Only NYC, the master of "Zen Bartending." Bobby Head, the OCD of Perfection. And John Dye. He could be completely in the sh*ts, and still smiling no matter what. Put all them together ... that’s my favorite bartender!

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.