Interview: Eben Freeman, Director of Bar Operations & Innovation for Altamarea Group

Bartender New York City

Photo courtesy of Eben Freeman


Is there anybody who you’ve never worked with before that you’d most want to work with behind the bar?

I mean, so many people are around there doing things. I think what I can learn the most from right now is really people who understand speed, and being able to be fast and accurate at the same time. Being able to use both of your hands, being able to do everything to make drinks happen, and there’s a host of people who are able to do that, really, that can instruct me. And there’s people in every single city, I think, who can instruct me to be faster and more economical in the way that I work.

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

You know, I have a ton of booze at home, and I’m guilty of not drinking drinks enough for myself when I’m at home. I’ve always been a beer geek, so if I was going to say there’s one beverage that I drank more of, it’s definitely beer, and whenever I go to a new city, I want to try as part of my tour, their beer.

But I do make a concerted effort when I go out. I think when you have some sort of profile as being one of the leaders in mixology, you have to drink cocktails at people’s places. It amazes me when a big cocktail star goes into a place and he drinks Champagne. I know that bartender is so disappointed that he didn’t get the chance to express himself, and for me, it doesn’t matter. If they’re going to recognize you, it’s your responsibility to drink a cocktail, and your responsibility to drink a number of cocktails. So whenever I go, I’ll ask for a cocktail. If I have to drink a bad cocktail, that’s not the worst thing that would ever happen to me. There are a lot of people who it comes across as arrogant – “Oh, it can’t possibly be a good drink.” You’re always surprised at the places that you can get a good drink. So I do really make an effort to drink cocktails. When I go out and I go to cocktail bars, when I go to PDT, when I go to Death & Co., absolutely I’m drinking cocktails. I don’t know why you would go through the hell of getting into a bar and being in a cocktail place, and you drink a can of PBR. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with drinking a can of PBR, but wherever you are, if I’m in a wine bar, I’m drinking wine. You should be drinking appropriate to the environment where you are. It amazes me how many people don’t think about what kind of effect it can have on that person behind the bar. At least try one of their drinks.

Anything goes. If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would be in your glass?

If it was like, you know, there was only cocktail, and it’s not like I would drink it every single day. I would assume that in the context of what you’re talking about, that I’d still be able to drink beer, I’d still be able to drink wine.

Sure, yeah.

If I’m going to drink a cocktail, I’m probably going to drink something more spirit driven, simply because it’s so much different, not necessarily because it’s what I love, but I’d say that if I want something so different from beer or wine, it’s going to be a really spirituous cocktail, so an Old Fashioned to me, if you’re going to say there’s one drink that allows so many different rules to influence it, and if by saying it’s an Old Fashioned, I can change what my base spirit is, you can change what my bitter or what my sweetener is, an Old Fashioned, absolutely, because of its versatility. But again, a drink that’s a strong spirit is so much different than anything else. When I make that choice to have a drink, that’s what it would be.

Who would you let make it for you, if you couldn’t make it yourself?

Well, to keep it local, Alex Day. To me, there are a few people whose physical technique – although he makes a great drink, I’m going to distinguish it from what ends up in the glass – and just say that if I’m going to have someone make me a drink, part of it is watching them work. The economy of motion, the attention to detail. Alex worked with me at Tailor, and I have to say, there are few individuals that I’ve watched behind the bar – in a non-Japanese bar, I’ll say – who really think about the way their body is working the entire time they’re making a drink, they put that focus in. Alex is one of those people and without question, I’d be happy to drink anything he was making.

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Joshua Lurie

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

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