How do you try not to be too geeky about what you’re doing?
I’m very guilty of it sometimes. I’m reading a book about American whiskey and there’s some backstory that I find fascinating. I’ll sit there and talk about it. It’s a balance of serving a customer and allowing them to enjoy their drink without head games.
Okay, but if you were feeling self-indulgent, what would you go on about?
Bitters, house-made tinctures, manipulating flavors can be a fun thing to geek out with.
Do you do a lot of that at Death?
We have some regular customers that make bitters and bring them to us. Avery and his wife, Janet Glasser, who are in the process of starting a bitters company called Bittermens, make some great chocolate bitters. One we use a lot is a mole-chocolate bitter — a sweet chocolate bitter which I use with rum.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from your guest-bartender program?
We just had Charles [Vexenat] from the Lonsdale in London. In New York we use jiggers quite a bit, measuring out every tiny thing to make sure your product is consistent. It was interesting to see his ability to free-pour things so spot-on.
Mixology has become quite the trend, but there are few real stars. Who do you see being the next Sasha Petraske or Eben Freeman?
Giuseppe Gonzalez from Flatiron and the soon-to-open Clover Club in Brooklyn is one of the most underrated bartenders in the city. He’s such an affable guy — he’s great to sit across the bar from, and his knowledge and his ideas about cocktails are so focused and without any pretension whatsoever.
How do you deal with people who don’t get the place and just want a fuzzy navel?
We try to not be pretentious when people order something that they might just know the name of and they don’t really like. It’s not about telling them what they like, it’s like, “Why do you want a fuzzy navel — do you like orange juice and that sweet peach flavor?"
And you don’t make Cosmos?
We don’t carry cranberry juice at all — we don’t have stuff with high fructose. By the nature of carrying something like that we just can’t make a Cosmopolitan. If someone is adamant that they want their Cosmo, we can make them something similar like a pomegranate gimlet.
Bartenders also tend to balk at dirty martinis, no?
I think it’s really unpalatable. A lot of people who drink dirty martinis don’t really like the taste of the alcohol, so what you’re doing is masking the flavor with such a dominant flavor that it really does take over. If you want that, that’s great — it’s your deal. I will maybe make a joke and cringe when I make a dirty martini, but I’ll make it.
So what’s your preferred way?
I personally make it a really classic and wonderful way, using a nice, solid floral gin with a solid, dry vermouth, and I personally like it a little on the drier side so I do a proportion of three to one. And I think a dash of orange bitters is really nice. I stir it up and serve it straight up with a nice lemon twist.
What’s another drink that people have preconceptions about?
People associate a Manhattan with a strong drink or something with so much vermouth in it that you can’t really drink it. It’s great to show people that if they do like whiskey, how great of a cocktail that can be when balanced correctly.
What would you recommend to drink straight?
If we’re talking rye, I’m really a big fan of the Pappy Van Winkle 13-year which is a beautiful, sometimes hard to find bourbon. Going toward the sweeter end, Old Weller stuff is great. Going into Scotch, the Highland Park 12-year-old is so tasty. We use a lot of the 23-year-old Ron Zacapa. It’s aged in caves so that it comes out incredibly rich, incredibly full, and with a complex flavor that’s so great for sipping on.
Do you ever have to deal with the complaints from the upstairs neighbor?
I’ve never even seen the guy upstairs who causes so much problems. The owners told us, “Don’t engage the guy, we don’t want to cause any more problems.” We try to close our gate at the end of the night as quietly as possible — our music is always very low. We do have a host who’s at the door assuring I.D.'s are checked and people are seated. The bar is incredibly civilized.