Interview: bartender Michael Lay (Restaurant 1833)

Bartender California

Photo courtesy of Michael Lay

Monterey, a sleepy seaside town with fishing and canning roots, hasn’t exactly been known as a cocktail Mecca, However, that may be changing with help from people like Michael Lay, the head bartender at Restaurant 1833, an ambitious new two-story restaurant in a nineteenth century adobe building. Lay was born in the Bay Area, grew up in Redding and relocated north to Seattle, where he first worked with cocktails and spirits at Tavolàta. The Pacific Northwest got too cold and rainy, so he migrated to San Diego, tending bar at Prohibition and URBN, prior to boomeranging back to NorCal. On March 5, we spoke by phone, and Lay shared several spirited insights.

What’s your first cocktail memory, good or bad?

My first cocktail memory, I was living in Seattle about seven years ago. I’d had vodka gin cranberries and gin and tonics and rum and Cokes. I never had a cocktail. The bar I was working at had Metaxa Sidecars. It was a sugar rimmed cocktail. Metaxa. It’s a type of Greek brandy.

What bar was this at?

This was Zig Zag Café.

That’s become a well known cocktail bar now.

Back then it was under the radar, and I heard about it because I was working at a bar, and I asked this guy, “There’s this little bar that opened near Pike Place Market. Do you know anything about it?” They’re like, “You should go, and go back as often as you can.” A few years later it started popping up in magazines.

What was your first bar job, and how did it come about?

My first bar job was at a place called Tavolàta, which kind of means community table. There’s this giant custom built table that goes down the center of the restaurant, and everybody sits around it. The bar was insanely busy, and the guy I worked for inspired me to keep going. It was a cut throat environment, which intrigued me. I wanted to see if I could make it.

Who was the guy that encouraged you?

Erik Witsoe. He was the man. I was his barback. I’d never barbacked before. We had 15 seats in the bar, they all filled up and we’d turn them quickly. He was the epitome of bartending. He was quick, never made a mistake, knew the classics, and he would punch me and cuss me if I made a mistake. He never made any mistakes, so after that, I wouldn’t make any mistakes either, or I’d try not to. I’d run kegs upstairs all night. He kept me moving and he was the one who inspired me to bartend at all.

Would you consider him a mentor?

Absoutely, we‘ve stayed in touch throughout the years.

What do you want people to know you for as a bartender?

The term mixologist has been kicking around a lot lately. Sometiems that gets lost in the shuffle of things. First and foremost is the hospitality part of it that I would hope wouldn’t get lost on people coming into bartending and mixology. I want people to know me for my presence behind the bar and that I care. Before they get their drink, they would remember the personality and they would remember the drink, but you can’t have one element without the other.

What does a cocktail have to be if it goes on your menu at 1833?

We want to bring local stuff and fresh things and things that are seasonally available. We try to get really creative with it, and if it’s appropriate for the market, then we’ll stick it on there. Monterey seems to be in a transition mode, so our cocktail menu’s set up for people to come down from the city to have a classic cocktail experience, and locals who see outlandish things on the menu, we try to have things that are comfortable and don’t alienate them, and something for everybody in between.

A Sazerac aged in a barrel called Abigail and Sister Sara’s Mule graced our table on February 24.

What’s your top selling cocktail at 1833, and why do you think that’s the case?

Our top selling cocktail is a twist on the Moscow Mule – [Sister Sara’s Mule] – and we had a little fun and were playful in naming it after a Clint Eastwood film. He’s a local guy here. Instead of ginger beer, we’re using a fresh ginger juice syrup that we make with fresh juice, ginger and Sugar in the Raw. We complete it with Belvedere vodka, fresh lime juice and some Angostura bitters.

Has Clint Eastwood had one to drink?

Not quite. I haven’t seen him in there and I haven’t heard of him coming in, but we hope he stops by sometime.

As far as naming cocktails, what’s your approach?

We try to name things after stuff that’s local. We try to be a little tongue in cheek when necessary and our menu’s also set up apothecary style, the whole bar, in fact. It used to be a pharmacy back in the Wild West days. The menu’s set up as painkillers and aphorodiacs, so we try to name thing for medicines, elixirs as well.

What do you look for when you’re hiring a bartender?

Ideally, a good attitude is one of the most important things. There seems to be – not a lack of talent – but the lack of right kind of experience for the kind of bar we’re going after. We have great people, but they don’t necessarily have a background in great cocktails. In building an environment, we want people with great attitudes that are moldable and want to make things the right way. After that, we can build a world-class cocktail program. They can learn.

What’s a great simple cocktail that you would suggest people make at home? What’s your preferred recipe?

Maybe an Old Fashioned. Sugar in the Raw cube soaked in Angostura bitters, muddled with a tiny bit of soda water so the sugar can dissolve, and I’ll muddle that up with a zest of orange or a zest of lemon. When the sugar’s dissolved, I’ll add a couple ounces of bourbon or rye, a couple ice cubes and stir until chilled.

Who’s somebody you’ve never worked with behind the bar that you would most like to work with?

Probably either Sam Ross or Jim Meehan. I picked up his PDT book that recently came out and the book is super, super complete and everything is well thought of, and the guy’s just very eloquent, the way he describes his whole bar program. He would be someone I would like learning from. I guess I have learned from him, but it would be nice to work with him.

Where and what do you like to drink when you’re not working?

My favorite cocktail is a shot of whiskey and a beer. I can get that anywhere without somebody messing it up, but depending on what bar I’m at, I’ll order cocktails off the bartender’s menu and kind of dink around.

If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, one city, primarily to drink cocktails and spirits, what would it be and why?

I would go to Havana, Cuba, just a multitude of reasons. The cocktail culture might not be so alive right now, but the classics, visiting Floridita where Hemingway hung out and where these bartenders went during Prohibition to continue doing stuff. There’s Havana Club, which I hope becomes available someday. There’s so much history and color and it’s beautiful. All those elements in history that gives cocktails a lot of life and being in the middle of all the things that have happened there in the past would be a lot of fun.

If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would be in the glass?

I’d have a Sazerac with Sazerac 18.

Who would you let make it for you?

I’d have any of my guys make it. They make a damn good Sazerac.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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