Drink creatively this season with summer cocktail recipes from NYC's best professional bartenders. These talented individuals redefine what it means to tend bar and have created sustainable careers in the service industry. I chatted with them about their experience and philosophies that have made them successful in one of the world's most competitive bar scenes. Then, I taste-tested tons of cocktails (shout out to my liver: thanks for taking it all in stride) and selected the most killer drinks in town:
Jack McGarry (The Dead Rabbit)
World's Best Drinks Selection 2014, International Bartender of the Year 2013
"There's many different interpretations of being the best in the world. When we came out here [from Belfast] it was all about stating what was our interpretation of being the best in the world. Dead Rabbit is all about the product, the experience, and the hospitality and those are the three core values for us. When we first came here it was all about Tales of the Cocktail and [we had won] all these awards and stuff like that. The greatest satisfaction I see now is the likes of the team, all I think about now is the team... I train people to act like they own the place and I am very proud when I see them take on bigger responsibilities and lead the line."
"Bars in the 80s, 90s, even the early 2000s, you could walk into any bar and know what you were going to get. Everyone basically had all the same selection of bottles so you could go anywhere and ask for a Bud and a shot of Jack Daniel's and I think that made people lazy. People didn't really have a reason to think about what they were going to drink because everyone was offering the same sh*t. Then there was such a huge explosion of bars in New York in the 2000s that now we have all these spaces and can afford room to specialize. Your bar doesn't have to appeal to a wide audience and you can really get into specifics. You have an opportunity to say, "Hey man, try this. And if you don't like it, no harm no foul." We respect that."
"My philosophy is that you can always do things a little bit better. It's interesting and fun and you can push yourself to do more. There is so much to learn... The social aspect of having your friends come visit you or having regulars whose lives you know and care about-- you have all these amazing conversations and relationships. My regulars were at me and my wife's wedding."
Alicia Leslie (Milk & Honey)
"It's not just slinging drinks to make money. It's about creating something interesting for people, and opening people's minds to something they maybe never tried... Whenever a person comes back to see me, it makes it worth it. Its hard work, long hours, but it's really fun. You're throwing mini parties for everyone all night. You have to do things as perfectly as possible, but you don't want to take yourself so seriously. Your job is to have fun and make people drinks."
Hunter Orahood (The Crow's Nest)
"Knowledge, consistency, and a good palate are all important [qualities in bartenders], but nothing is as clutch as being an all around hospitality person, being friendly and anticipating guests needs. I really like the feeling that every day I am going to work or step behind the bar I am hosting a party and everyone is invited. That and the fact that the service industry and bar community these days is packed full of some of the most creative and amazing people you could ever hope to meet."
"There was a backlash against [strict policies]. Thats why we did what we did at our new bar, Attaboy, where we got away from all the reservations and the rules and the uniforms and the same music and were just like man, come on. Just come in, hang out, if there's room, there's room, if there's not we'll call you back. You sit down, have a drink, and the Rolling Stones are playing. It's awesome... Consistency. I think that's the key thing. To ensure that all the staff are up to spec, that they know what to do, they know what the bar is, what it stands for. And thankfully that's what we have. To me, it's the best staff in the world."
"I'm not thinking of this as just a job. Of course I have to pay my rent, but if you can forget that you're there to make money you can focus on actually learning something and sharing that with people. One of my favorite things about the service industry is that you are never fully educated. There's always new things to learn about, like brands or techniques. The possibility of learning something new makes me excited to go to work because I feel like I am bettering myself."
Michael McFerran (Bua)
"Personality and hard work are everything. I don't really look for NYC experience necessarily because you can teach anyone how to make a cocktail. It's basically just following a set of ingredients. What you cannot teach someone is how to engage people, how to make them feel at home, to feel welcome, how to make them want to come back. Some people just have it, they're built for this industry."
Grant Wheeler (The Garret)
"I think the whole pretentious bartending trend was a rebellion against a particular social stereotype. Making a bar austere or elitist was a natural reaction to people feeling marginalized about... what they were doing for a living. The best people behind the bar are those who really enjoy making people's experiences first and foremost. There needs to be a certain element of technical savvy but just because someone is the most knowledgeable bartender spirit-wise doesn't necessarily make him the best. Warmth and hospitality are everything."
All photos courtesy of Gabrielle Dominique