What does a cocktail have to be if it’s going to appear at PDT?
A PDT cocktail is typically based on a classic, or loosely derived from a classic cocktail. It can have a seasonal ingredient in it, it usually or typically has a new ingredient an something historical in nature. For example, Kronan Swedish punsch is a new product, but it’s based on a historical product…or a product like Aperol, which wasn’t available for a long time, I try to work new and interesting products in our menu. For me a cocktail at PDT should be sessionable and pre-eminently quaffable. It should be something you can finish and have another one. It should be balanced and it should be delicious. There are a few drinks on our menu that are always quite odd or challenging, but I’ve been inspired by working for Julie Reiner and Audrey Saunders. When I go to their bars, the drinks go down quick.
Typically, our drinks have one ingredient that is quite unusual, not part of typical mise en place. It shouldn’t be unusual for unusual sake, but it should be house made or not normally considered a part of a cocktail bar’s usual repertoire. It’s not just to spin variations on classics but for $15 a drink, I don’t think people come to our bar to learn about something – and I resent when bartenders try to teach me something instead of serving me – but when they do come, I do think they’re looking for something exceptional to talk about with their friends.
When I published our book, I wanted people to have our recipes and recreate them in their bars, but in order to recreate them in your bar, you might have to go on a bit of a shopping trip in order to do so.
What do you look for when you’re hiring a bartender?
I don’t hire bartenders anymore. I stopped hiring bartenders a little over three years ago. I was always and still am very impressed by Sasha’s teams at his bars. A bar is as strong as its weakest link, staff wise. Three years ago, I hired Sean Hoard, who moved on to Teardrop Lounge and Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon. Sean changed the culture at PDT, he was friends with a bartender and PDT regular named Aaron Polski. Aaron referred him and he interviewed as a barback and took the position and worked for six months as a barback. A bartender walked off the bar one Saturday night and Sean jumped in and saved the day. From that time on, I hired barbacks, who Sean trained, before he moved on. Half my staff started as a barback or host. What I look for in a barback or host is a good person. I can train them to do what I want them to do, but I can’t train them to be nice, to enjoy serving people, or to be hospitable. My staff represents me while clocked in and clocked out so I choose my staff very carefully.
Who’s somebody you’ve never worked with behind the bar that you would most like to work with?
That’s a good question. I guess Murray Stenson. Murray, when I went to Zig Zag, invited me behind the bar. I didn’t make any drinks, but he gave me a big hug. Murray’s a lovely person. He’s in his 60’s, He’s so fast, and he’s such a good bartender. Murray has this low-key, professional and kind demeanor that I think it would be fun to knock around behind the bar with him for a night or two.
What’s your top selling cocktail at PDT, and why do you think that’s the case?
The Benton’s Old Fashioned: Allen Benton’s bacon fat washed Four Roses Bourbon with grade b maple syrup, Angostura Bitters and an orange twist. It was created in 2007 by Don Lee at the height of the bacon frenzy in New York City restaurants as classic cocktails were becoming more common. We created 2” by 2” ice cubes to serve it with and now use perfectly clear cubes cut by an ice sculptor, which customers love. The drink has been written about many times and has become a modern classic of sorts.
As far as naming cocktails, what’s your approach?
If a drink is based on another recipe or is fundamentally a fizz, Collins, smash, or other classic formula, I’ll typically incorporate that into its name. Sometimes, we’ll include one of the prominent ingredients in the nomenclature and other times we’ll be more playful with titles. I always stress to my bartenders that a drink’s name is a marketing plan to interest customers in ordering it. Enduring classic cocktails have captivating names that are easy to call for: this is important to keep in mind when naming a new drink.
How are you able to maintain balance in your life, if you’re even able to?
I wish I could say that I have balance in my life, but I don’t. My wife logs a lot of hours as the general manager of Market Table in the West Village, which gives me time to clear my schedule so we can spend time together on her days off. I blame New York City for a lot of my struggles: it never stops, which is part of what’s great about it too. I suppose if you love what you do, it’s not really work per se, but I’m doing my best to make more room for family, friends and time for me to recharge my batteries mentally and physically. I don’t take days off and haven’t taken a vacation in five years. I do as much as I can each day and don’t sweat the deadlines.
What’s a great simple cocktail that you would suggest people make at home?
The Negroni is probably the most fool proof cocktail on Earth and it’s delicious no matter how it’s served. The classic recipe calls for equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari; served on the rocks with an orange: half wheel or twist. I prefer it stirred and served up with more gin than sweet vermouth and Campari. It’s a great drink to experiment with new brand of gins (I prefer Beefeater), sweet vermouth (I prefer Martini) and there are even Campari alternatives out there if you want to go there: but I don’t.
Where and what do you like to drink when you’re not working?
When I have the opportunity to go to great cocktail bars, I drink cocktails. Otherwise, I typically drink beer or wine. Favorite restaurants include Momofuku Noodle Bar, Gramercy Tavern and Motorino among many others.
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’m dying to get to Tokyo. A handful of friends have made the pilgrimage and all come back with amazing things to say. Hidetsugo Ueno has become a friend over the past few years and it would be great to visit his bar (High Five) and learn more about his practices and Japanese bar culture. I’m a huge fan or Yamazaki and Nikka’s whiskies and would love to check out their distilleries. The food is supposed to be amazing.
If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would be in the glass?
I had the great fortune of visiting Alex Kratena at the Artesian Bar in the Langham Hotel in London last night, and he made me and my colleagues at least a dozen different drinks: many with glasses that were created specifically for the cocktail it housed. It was insane. I suppose if I only had one more drink, I’d have Alex choose it for me. His attention to detail, sense of humor and eagerness to please is unparalleled and it’s a joy to be served by him. Not to mention, he makes delicious drinks.