Alex Straus was bartending at a Washington Heights nightclub when an influential friend championed his cause and convinced Sasha Petraske to pluck him from relative obscurity. He ended up downtown at the now bygone East Side Company, working with Petraske and Sam Ross. He transitioned to the Hotel Gansevoort and bartended there until TAO Group owner Mark Packer recruited him to open TAO Beach in Las Vegas. Straus has been in Los Angeles since 2009, first at Beso, next at the Hotel Shangri-La and now at Hemingway’s. We recently met in the Ernest-themed bar, where Straus discussed his background and approach.
Which did you become interested in first, spirits or cocktails?
Cocktails, actually, because I started training with Sasha Petraske down at The East Side Company in Manhattan. That kind of piqued my interest in actually making quality drinks. That goes hand in hand with quality spirits. Initially it was learning cocktails, which kind of drove me toward working with quality spirits. For sure.
Was that your first cocktail related job?
The first with fresh juices and quality cocktail program was definitely at East Side Company down on Essex. It’s now the Painkiller.
How did that come about?
Strange story, I was bartending up in Washington Heights at this urban nightclub, and a good friend of mine was an investor with Sasha in that bar. He wanted me there, wanted to have somebody he knew working there, so he kind of begged Sasha to get me in there and get me working. That’s how I got the job, and then I was there for a year-and-a-half. ’06 Best Cocktails in Manhattan from Village Voice. It was a great experience for sure.
How did you end up in Vegas?
While I was working at [East Side Company], I was also working at the Hotel Gansevoort, which is this really kind of high volume hotel in New York’s Meatpacking District. I met Mark Packer, who’s the owner of the Tao Group and a number of other ventures. I met him through his daughter. He kind of gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse to move to Vegas and to open up Tao Beach, which was this crazy pool party that also focused on cocktails and quality ingredients and really crafting cocktails at this mega high volume, which was a real challenge. On that project I worked with Willy Shine and Aisha Sharpe of Contemporary Cocktails. They kind of spearheaded the cocktail creation. I stayed on to maintain the quality and integrity of the program. I hated living in Vegas, so after five or six months I came out here for a little while. I spent a few months, honestly, just spending some of the cash I made in Vegas. Then I met with Eva Longoria and Todd English. I did a Christmas party for Eva at her house with Tony Parker and met with Todd English. They brought me on to do the spirits and cocktail program at Beso, which is right next door to here. I was at Beso. I did Hotel Shangri-La for a little while, which is a great project from Marc Smith, a really beautiful hotel, built in 1939. They kind of took their cocktail program in a different direction recently, so I kind of amicably parted ways right as this project was starting up. So it kind of worked out perfectly because really I feel at home here. It’s a great spot. It’s a great vibe, really quality clientele and they’re really moving forward with a great spirits program here as well.
What is it that inspires you about cocktails?
Just the love. I love what I do. I love the work. I love cocktails. I love spirits. I love flavors. I love food. So all that really drives my commitment to creating quality and new cocktails.
Do you have a first cocktail memory?
Yeah, seven years old, I took a shot of Amaretto Sour behind the bar in Jamaica at Runaway Bay…One of my first experiences behind the bar, I was six or seven years old and would help my babysitter (aka the bartender) at the resort. I’d hang out with him all day, delivering drinks and beers. New Year’s ’88, I took my first shot behind the bar.
How did that turn out?
I’ve been hooked ever since. It was great.
Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?
I’m a bartender. Mixologist is just part of the whole kit and caboodle. A bartender is a name that’s good enough for all the people in the long line of people who are doing that. A mixologist is just one of the tools that you need to be a good bartender. Knowledge of service and hospitality. Preparedness. Conflict resolution. There are so many things that are as important as being able to create a balanced cocktail, a quality cocktail, knowledge of spirits. That’s all the mixologist side of it. But really what it is, is being able to host people and create a memorable evening.
What are some hallmarks of your bartending style?