Kenneth McCoy grew up in Queens and started working at his father’s Manhattan bars pretty much as soon as he could shave. He acted for years and bartended to earn money on the side, but eventually, bartending took over. He ascended through the bar world without ever leaving Tribeca, and in early 2009, McCoy partnered with fellow bartenders Michael Neff and Abdul Tabini on Ward III, a Tribeca bar known for “exquisite libations” and “bespoke cocktails made to custom perfection.” Last month, they expanded their focus in the Theater District with Rum House. We met McCoy last year, during the Ward III triumvirate’s guest bartending appearance at the The Edison. We recently caught up with him by phone, where he shared more details about his background and approach.
Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?
What’s the difference?
A mixologist is someone who does one thing. A bartender is someone who makes cocktails, who can talk to people, pours beers, gin and tonics, sort of is your working class hero, does everything. The mixologist thing has gotten blown out of proportion…It boxes you into a corner and labels you as one thing. For me bartending is making cocktails for people, and also pouring beers and having a good time with people. Mixology is saying this is what you do and having this stuffiness about it, and that’s not what it’s all about. A lot of times it’s not about the drink, it’s about who you’re with and discussing how your day was, and the music.
How did you partner with Michael and Abdul?
I’ve been in Tribeca for over 10 years. Michael and I opened Le Zinc on Duane Street. Michael and I were the original bartenders in 2000. The owners had a place called the Odeon, and Abdul was the head bartender there for 15 years. We’ve all been in Tribeca and never really left Tribeca, so when we opened Ward III, we knew what the neighborhood needed and what was missing. Michael and I worked at a bar called Grace on Franklin Street. It served food until 4 a.m. and had 16 taps. After that closed, there wasn’t really anything like that, so that’s why we opened Ward III.
How does Ward III differ from Grace?
Just the whole bespoke cocktail list. We were doing things like that at Grace, but we did it on our own. We asked people what’s your favorite movie, book, what you drink. Here it’s presented specifically, with categories, spirits, spices and fruits. Grace was a cocktail bar, no doubt, but we decided to take it a step further.
Do you have a first cocktail memory, good or bad?
Probably the first memory was bad, drinking Blue Whales at a party in high school, blue Curacao, vodka and one other thing. I remember getting quite sick and being extremely hung over.
What is it a given you’d become a bartender?
Not at all. I was an actor for many, many years. I made a living as an actor, but I bartended to earn money on the side. I knew I was good and could earn a living at it.
What was your first bar related job?
I worked at one of my father’s bars bussing tables, and I was a barback when I was 12 or 13, on a St. Patty’s Day. I worked that summer at a bar on the beach called Chauncey’s, which doesn’t exist anymore. I was a barback/runner/busboy.
Did you become interested in spirits or cocktails first?
Most of the bars I worked in were cocktail bars, so I sort of fell into it. I ended up working for Michael Waterhouse, a big cocktail bar owner here in NYC. I worked for him for three years and learned a lot about cocktails. Dylan Prime had a lot of product in terms of alcohol, liqueurs, house infused vodkas, gin, their own syrups. I already worked at two cocktail bars, but that’s when things took off for me and I learned this is something I could do for a living. I liked making good cocktails, fast. Everything was jiggered, so there was no free pour, which is the opposite of what we do now.
Would you say that you have any mentors?