What is your background?
I started in the service industry at 15 waiting tables at a diner and ice cream shop in the Boston suburbs and have more or less stayed in the industry since. I bartended through college to help pay bills etc. Went to college for politics and Theatre but despite a couple of years working in non-profit have been bartending for about 18 years. 11 in New York, almost 6 years at Attaboy and over 10 at a local whiskey Bar called Lucky Jack’s which I ran for about a decade. I always enjoyed doing cocktails at one and slinging pints of Guinness and whiskey shots at the other.
How did you get into bartending?
I took a year off between Sophomore and Junior year of college and waited tables. I was 20 but the restaurant had a bar and one day the bartender called out sick. Gave me a start, and then when I went back to college I did what most young bartenders do, I lied about how much experience I had and did a lot of faking it the first few months. There were no smart phones back in 2002 so I either made stuff up, asked the guest really politely how to make the drink they were asking or tried to look it up in dusty books behind the bar. Thankfully no one was asking for many cocktails then, it was mostly beer, mixed college type shots (surfer on acid, soco and lime etc.) or maybe an older customer would ask for a manhattan, which we made with some dusty bottle of vermouth and a bright red Maraschino Cherry. The pace or a busy night and making money instead of spending it like my friends were on the weekend were enough to keep me hooked.
Where does your cocktail inspiration come from?
I would say I’m inspired by mostly the classics. It tends to be what I drink when I go out. But I have always had a soft spot for equal parts drinks with 3 or 4 ingredients. I think they are often probably the more difficult ones to balance but when done well from a negroni to some contemporary classics like the Paper Plane or the Naked and Famous I think often those ones will stand the test of time.
You recently opened up a bar called My Friend Duke. Who’s Duke?
There is most certainly a Duke and he is a dear friend and one of the most unique people I know. But mostly it is an inside joke between a group of close friends. We felt like it was fun and playful for a name and something everyone could be a part of. Basically anyone can be Duke when they come to the bar.
What trends do you see behind the bar?
I would say Agave based Spirits in general are popular all over and especially for us, if you would have told me Mezcal would be my number one selling spirit a year ago before we opened I would have thought you were nuts, but that’s the way people are drinking in general it seems.
I think in general people are just becoming more adventurous. We are able to pour far more interesting wines, and give people a ton more rum options than I would have thought possible a few years ago.
What are some of your favorite ingredients?
Anything fresh I guess. Nothing in the world quite like fresh pineapple and raw ginger. Both of which are pretty well represented on our menu. As for Spirits I drink a fair bit of everything but lately its been Mezcal and Scotch, find a lot more nuance between brands, and varietals than you find in other spirits so it keeps it a little more interesting.
What’s the trend you hope goes away soon?
8+ ingredient drinks. There are some that are done incredibly well, but most just end up tasting muddy with nothing that stands out. I wish more bartenders would stop adding flavors to get their drink to taste better and instead start removing some.
Customer pet peeve?
I like most customers, but I guess for me it’s the ones who have their minds made up before they have the experience. Like they want to have a bad time or they want to not like a place right when they walk in. I wish more guests like that would just continue on to whatever type of place they prefer if that scene isn’t for them.
What do you drink in your off time?
It used to be exclusively Manhattan’s on the Rocks (so i didn’t drink them too fast) with an orange twist, but now it really varies. A negroni is probably the cocktail I drink most often but on a regular day I’m probably just as likely to have a pour of scotch and a can of domestic beer.
What is one bar/lounge/restaurant in the world that really impacted you behind the bar?
Its Cliche at this point probably but Milk and Honey. I was a regular there the last few years it was open, became close friends with the staff and was there until about 8am the final night of service for them on Eldridge Street. Their cocktails changed my understanding of what a drink was, their service and vibe were always incredible but I also like how they did it their way without catering to what everyone may have expected. Someone said to me once that the reason you can get a decent Manhattan in many bars across the city and even the world is because of Sasha Petraske and I very much believe that.