Employees Only 510 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014
Macao Trading Co. 311 Church Street, New York NY 10013
It’s not about whether your Negroni is the best… That’s not reason enough to make a bar great. How long can you sit in the place where the Negroni is the best in the world if there are rules that you need to follow like you cannot talk to anybody or you’ve got to remove your fucking hat?
This is a bar. And in a bar, people get laid. Hopefully. So we need to create an atmosphere that enables that – this carefree transporting for a brief moment into a different time and a different place.
I believe very much in lineage. All these people who work for me here behind the bar are part of my lineage now. And I got this lineage from Dale Degroff, and he got it from Joe Baum, and he got it from someone else… And you can go back all the way to Harry Johnson and Jerry Thomas.
What Dale gave me is not only a solid foundation, but also the ability to understand that bartending is a career and a very fluid one. It’s not being in the Post Office and stamping the same thing every day for 35 years until you retire. You have to … evolve.
When Jay Kosmas and I started conceptualizing Employees Only, there was nothing like it on the market. No one was doing homemade ingredients. We were the first ones to infuse vermouths. We were the first ones to infuse Gin with lavender. We started making our own Grenadine in 2003. I would go back into these old books that I would borrow from Dale or buy myself, and I thought: Okay, so, why would Jerry Thomas have an apothecary appendix in his first edition for syrups, tonics, and cordials?
America was a very different place then. A barrel of Whiskey was all that was available to you and maybe some Rum at the most. The rest you would make yourself. For Vermouth, you would have to find some wine, go to the local church and buy all the local plants that the priests were using, and hope for the best.
So Jerry Thomas came out with this recipe guideline; he was passing on his lineage. And I’m looking at his book and at the unbelievable amount of ingredients I have at my disposal in the 21st century, and I’m like “Oh my god. If they could do it 200 years ago, we’ve got to do it.”
It’s not about secret ingredients or secret recipes. I believe in giving everything away. A cocktail is like a piece of music: it’s a repetitive, creative art form. And a recipe is like a sheet of a music: this is the harmony, this is your bass line, this is the melody. However, every musician will perform it differently because they’re all different people.
Me, Gary Regan and Aisha Sharp – the three of us founded the unofficial Institute for Mindful Bartending. We were trying to explain that it is your inner state that creates your experience and not the event itself.
Think about it: you’re laying with Monica Bellucci, she’s looking her best – soft, rounded, smelling good – but your mind is on something else. You won’t remember that experience as much as if you were there, in that moment.
Nothing we manipulate is anything more than a form of energy. Slow energy, high energy, even higher energy. On a quantum level, all of these are just processes. If you understand that on a quantum level nothing is ever solid, that these are just always-changing processes, then you are actually able to manipulate that to the way you see fit.
Drunken Dragon’s Milk
6 Thai Basil leaves
2 oz Charbay Green Tea Vodka
2 oz Fresh coconut purée
0.5 oz Pandan leaf syrup
0.5 oz Lime juice
3 dashes Macao Five Spice Bitters
1.5 oz Wild Turkey 101 Rye
1.5 oz Campari
0.75 oz Six Grapes Ruby Port
5 drops Orange Flower Water
2 dashes Regan’s Orange Bitters
First, I have somebody independent pre-measure a Negroni: an ounce of Campari, an ounce of Plymouth Gin, an ounce of Sweet Vermouth. You make two sets of those per bartender, for five or six bartenders. Then all you do is give everybody the same ice and one big tin. They pour the first Negroni into it, add the ice, and they just swirl it around ten times then strain it into an empty glass.
Then you call three independent tasters from their bar team to take a look at these Negronis. First, you have all different colours, which is already kind of unbelievable. Then you see an obvious difference in dilution, even though they all swirled it ten times. Then you ask them to taste the drinks – because, remember, they all had the exact same ingredients, the same ice, the same tools. So do they taste the same? No.
Next you instruct the bartenders to visualize in front of them somebody they would really like to please. It doesn’t have to be the woman of their dreams – if they have a very strong visualization of that, that’s great – so long as it’s someone they really want to please without needing anything in return. They all do the same as before, but keeping that image in their mind while they’re making the cocktail.
They put this new drink next to the first one, and the tasters go at it again. So what do they find? Across the board it never fails: the second one is much more balanced; it’s sweeter – not in the sugary sense – but sweeter as an experience.
Why is it that we are able to manipulate these smaller universes with our intent? Quantum theory, the Zen Buddhists, Tibetan Buddhists, Indian Yogis, they’re all about that: they’re all about you being the creator of your world.
Over time I’ve met a lot of master distillers and many of them have very similar mindsets. When I asked Miles Karakasevic, the master distiller of Charbay in California about this once, he just looked at me (he’s a despot; he’s like the macho, older man, in his sixties; the big don patriarch), he just looked at me and said, “What do you mean? Of course it matters what mood I’m in when I walk into the distillery.” As if, like, “Duh.”
In America, the local thing went out of existence after the Second World War. Even when I arrived in America in ’95, it was quite impossible to get an espresso unless you went to an Italian restaurant. Now you have these geeks roasting their beans in the store – in Williamsburg you have places like Bluebird Coffee. This was science fiction 20 years ago.
So coffee is upgrading. Wine is upgrading. The experience of food in America is upgrading. People are informed more about why organic is better, why seasonality is better. All this stuff is now changing. So of course cocktails are following suit. And it will be a trend for a very long time, because these are good values. Why would someone who is conditioned to believe that they are doing something that is right for them, why would they change that?
For every cigarette I smoke, it’s five minutes longer in my Downward Facing Dog. I’m a strong advocate of a healthy life behind the bar. Because if you don’t, just like a machine you will break.
It’s easy to teach a bartender what to do. Just give him the sheet of music, give him the skills, and very soon he’ll be able to replicate that. But if it’s just about that, then a machine really would be a better bartender than a man. I actually judged a competition recently in Portland between drink-making machines and humans. It was like listening to a computer-generated rhythm machine go up against a real drummer. It’s a totally different thing.
I’m a bartender, but I’m also an entrepreneur. And I’m looking at ways to serve my teacher, to serve my craft, to serve my students and to serve my investors. Ultimately, this job is about me filling the register. Which is the only job that a bartender has. The bottom line of your role is: fill your register the best you can. And that ensures that one day you too will be a successful bar owner.
Here at Macao, you go through a two year apprenticeship then you become a bartender, then principal bartender, and then, hopefully, you go out and start doing something on your own. Otherwise I have failed as a teacher.
But can anyone be a bartender? No. I don’t thing so. Making a sound out of an instrument doesn’t make you a musician. Give me any instrument and in three minutes I can figure out how to make a sound out of it. Does it make me a virtuoso in that instrument? Hell no.
I see this in some of the kids I train. You either have it or you don’t. And if you don’t have it, you don’t last long. It’s just not for you.