Absinthe Brasserie Shakes Things Up in New York

Before the great cocktail boom that started half a decade ago, to get a solid drink in San Francisco proved a challenge. At that time one place stood out: Absinthe Brasserie. For almost fifteen years, this bar has pushed the cocktail renaissance into what it is today. Now, as bar manager Jeff Hollingersteps down (though still has a hand), the famous brassiere welcomes Matt Conway, formally of nopa.

“What I hope to see from Absinthe, and what I’m trying to help ensure, is that we maintain our relevance in the growing list of these watering holes,” said Conway. “In my mind, doing that is not about having a ‘celebrity’ bartender or having the most obscure ingredient, it’s about providing your guests with a great experience.” 

Of course, if you aren’t able to get to California any time soon, getting the three-star Absinthe experience is difficult, except this week. Conway, as well as Hollinger, chef Adam Keough, pastry chef Bill Corbett, will be taking the city by storm. First up, Conway and Hollingerwill be guest bartending on Tuesday, July 17 at Death & Co, and then on Wednesday, July 18, they will be at PDT. They will not only being showcasing their skills to these chic bars, but a taste of what Conway plans to do with the Absinthe menu.

“What I am bringing to the bar is some different experiences and maybe some different ways of looking at things,” said Conway. “I tend to let my own personal preferences influence the drink and spirit list, so we’ve [Absinthe] recently brought in more vermouths, fortified wines, and amaros, which I try to incorporate into drinks rather than just have them in the fridge or back bar.”

On Thursday, the rest of the Absinthe team will be whipping up their minimalist, French-flared cuisine during a multi-course meal at the James Beard House. Though these events don’t beat an actual trip to the West Coast to experience the whole of Absinthe, which the San Francisco Chronicle rated as one of the top 100 restaurants in the city in 2011 and 2012—it’s the next best thing. 

Tequila! The Future of Drinking at Phil Ward & Ravi DeRossi’s Mayahuel

Tequila’s never been done enough justice. It’s informally known as either (A) the drink you do awful, terrible things on in college, after which you vow to never taste it again, or (B) a spirit imbibed by bottle-service embracing luddites who wouldn’t know a refined drink if they were bludgeoned over the head with a glass of it. Nightlife artist Ravi DeRossi and star bartender Phil Ward are changing all of that with Mayahuel, which might be the first bar truly dedicated to showing American drinkers why the stuff isn’t for the worst kind of exploits so much as the best kind of drinking. The place looks like an unearthed Aztec basement bar; dark, shadowy, and generally perfect for a mixology revolution.

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What was the genesis of Mayahuel? Phil Ward: I think we were… Ravi DeRossi: Well, Phil’s got a story and I got to add some of the story too, it’s sort of the same, I’ll tell it really quick — I think we were talking one day about our menu at Death & Co., and out of how many cocktails, how many of them were tequila? PW: About 100. RDR: Just roughly, to make the numbers simple to understand. PW: Death & Co. was a place where people who knew cocktails were coming to drink cocktails. A lot of nights, 25% of the drinks would be tequila drinks. RDR: But our cocktail menu was only 5 or 10% tequila drinks. We thought it would be interesting do to a tequila bar. PW: I learned how to make drinks from classic drinks. When you read your books, there’re really no tequila or scotch cocktail recipes…most of those books were written before Prohibition, and tequila wasn’t introduced into the country until around the 1950s, a little bit right after Prohibition, right around WWII, ’cause people couldn’t get as much American whiskey. So they peddled and brought this swill across the border. It was really bad mixed stuff, because the market was there to sell anything. There’s a saying that everything with rye and gin has been done, and it’s not true, but there’s a degree of truth to it. As far as being a bartender goes, you know, making tequila drinks felt like something really original.

It’s innovative. PW: Yeah, and then you get right down to it: the stuff is delicious. RDR: I mean, also, it’s only in the last 10 years that tequila’s become more of a quality spirit. PW: But it’s right back to that first part; the first tequila that was imported to the country was garbage because they knew that people would drink anything because they wanted to get drunk. And then for a long time, up until…maybe even ten years ago…most of the tequila people were drinking was like Jose Cuervo, which wasn’t even a representation of 100% blue agave tequila. So it was really a misunderstood spirit. I almost wanted to call this place was “La Verdad,” “The Truth,” because tequila and mezcal were so misunderstood by people, and we’re here to teach them.

But hasn’t Patron recently kind of become a pop standard? I hear it’s not actually good stuff, as far as cocktails and connoisseurs are concerned. PW: When they first started producing, Patron was a quality product. The distiller, Siete Leguas – quality stuff – was the one producing Patron; but Patron got popular and decided they wanted to start outsourcing their agaves, and eventually outsourced their distilleries and decided to mass-market for profit.

And they can get away with it because the public doesn’t know… PW: Well, the public doesn’t care. Most drinkers—they see marketing and it’s just programmed and habit, it’s Stoli/Tonic, Patron, Jack and Coke, Johnny Walker Black on the rocks…most of the drinking, consuming public aren’t really that interested in what they’re drinking; it’s more about image and getting drunk. RDR: Until they become educated, which is sort of what Phil and I have set out to do.

How did you guys both get started doing what you’re doing now? RDR: We drank way too much. [Laughs] My background is all in arts, I was a painter and a writer, did a little bit of theater. I have a BFA in Fine Art Painting as well as theater, I started my masters in theater at Tisch and dropped out and went to a conservatory, and then I lived in LA, lived in Pasadena Arts Center for a while…How did I end up doing bars? It was after September 11th; I’ve only been doing this for five years. It became really difficult to sell paintings. I’d done really well, I was selling paintings for $10-20,000…and after September 11th it became really difficult, and I was sort of just fucking around, living off the money I had made, and I was like, “shit, I gotta do something.”

How did this place happen so quickly? Did you get trusted investors to help you out? RDR: No, I did it with my own money. I made some money off painting, then opened up my first little bar, which was a tiny old 20-seat Bourgeois Pig…the very first Bourgeois Pig. Because that’s what I new best at the time, wine and cheese and those kind of things, so I did that. Within three months, it was like a two to three hour wait, every night of the week. And it just grew from there.

Had you worked in the service industry before? RDR: I’d waited tables at some restaurants as I was doing theater.

What are some of the better lessons you have learned over the years the hard way? PW: I don’t know, I have to think about that for a second. We could be here all day talking about how many mistakes I’ve made.

Phil, where did you come from? How’d you get started doing all this? PW: Dumb luck. I was 28 in Pittsburgh, bored out of my mind, drinking myself to death…

What were you doing in Pittsburgh? PW: Just waiting tables, reading books, things like that. Just threw everything I owned away, brought a plane to Rome, was over in Europe and Africa for four months, just traveling. When I was running out of money, I bought a plane ticket back to New York instead of Pittsburgh because it was about $700 cheaper, and I had a friend who lived here and I visited one other weekend so I figured I’d stay here for a week before I went home and threw myself in front of a bus in Pittsburgh. And in the course of a week, one of her friends was going on tour with this band to Europe, so he offered me a $300 sublet in Bushwick, so I had a 30-day try-out for $300 in New York. I wound up just getting a job as a bartender at the Flatiron Lounge, and just started seeing what they were doing there, got interested in it. That was the neat thing about being unemployed in New York was almost like having a job looking for a job. Every day you could look on Craigslist and make your schedule four different ways.

And so how long did it take you to go from bar-back to bartender? PW: That might have been about six months.

And from Flatiron to Pegu? How did you get so interested in cocktails? PW: That’s really funny, because when I got hired as a bar-back, I got asked if I wanted to bartend, and I said, “No, I don’t want to bartend,” because bartending to me was serving vodka tonics and Miller Lites to douchebags in Pittsburgh. I just wanted to work behind a bar because it was fun, it was good money, I got to work at night, it was a pretty easy job. Not an easy job, but a good job, in my mind. But then I started watching them do all these things with drinks and I was like, “What the hell are you people doing? What are all these four-ingredient drinks and shit like this?” So, eventually, I started bartending there and I started playing around I just got really interested in it. I started getting cocktail book after cocktail book and it was cool, ’cause you just found all these old recipes.

How many years ago was that? PW: I think it was like six years ago. It was cool, because the thing is, when you have customers there, you can be like, “Look at this drink I found.” I always tell bartenders, “you have to learn to make classics,” because it teaches you balance and structure. After that, it’s easy. So I really got ingrained in that before I started making drinks. I worked in Flatiron for three years, and I think I only put four or five drinks on that menu. And at Pegu, for about a year and a half, I put a few more drinks on there. But it wasn’t until Death and Co. that I really started to put more drinks on there.

You’re getting a lot of first-timers not familiar with your product. Are they ordering the Mezcals? PW: I guarantee you that since we’ve opened, we’ve probably had over 1,000 people taste Mezcal for the first time. RDR: And probably half of them really enjoyed it. A lot of them don’t like it. People just aren’t ready to drink it. They drink it depending on how you’re serving it. Drinking it straight, people aren’t ready for it; but in a cocktail, people like it. PW: That’s the whole idea of cocktails; I think it’s the perfect vehicle to introduce people to different spirits. You can wean them on to it, rather than just hit them over the head with it. ‘Cause you don’t just wake up tomorrow and decide you’re going to drink peaty scotch, you have to learn to like peaty scotch. An acquired taste is a just reward for an effort put forth…you have to work to enjoy something.

Does anybody come in and try to order a regular drink, like a margarita? PW: A margarita is a gem. If people want a margarita here, we’ll make them one of the best margaritas they’ve ever had. RDR: But it’s not gonna be frozen, it’s not gonna, you know, be that– PW: It’s just a classic margarita.

Is it on the menu? PW: No. It’s one you didn’t have to put on the menu. It’s assumed. There’s tequila here; you should be able to get a margarita. The margarita is a modern-day miracle. It came about when people were drinking swill and garbage, and you had this beautiful drink called the margarita come out of that time. It’s a miracle, and it’s delicious.

What’s being most ordered? PW: A lot of things. There’s a lot of parity. A couple of the ones that have really been big-sellers are the La Vida Rosé, which is like a strawberry tequila sangria with rose, and the Watermelon-Sugar, which is tequila mezcal, fresh watermelon, lime… RDR: I wonder if that’s because those are the ones that are more fruit-based, or at least they read to be more fruity. PW: Yeah, I mean, those are the more easily accessible ones-—but one really complex boozy one that’s probably been one of our biggest-sellers is the Slight Detour; it’s jalapeno tequila, Mezcal, Resposado tequila, with Mole bitters. That would probably be one of the top five.

Móle bitters? PW: They’re made by Avery (and Janet) Glasser with Bittermens Bitters. They just commercially hit the market. RDR: Yeah, he’s an old friend of ours who’s just been making them and bringing them to us for years. He does actually some really interesting stuff, some grapefruit bitters, we use it at all of our bars.

What’s your favorite drink on the menu? PW: There’re too many different days, too many different things, and even yourself, you know the things–like, what’s your favorite food? Could you pick your favorite food? You just can’t do it. Different days, different moods. Favorite, best—the word in my book is “different.”

Is there a trend you’re seeing in people ordering? PW: I see people drinking a lot more tequila and mezcal.

Did you feel like opening with the tequila theme of it would be a bit risky? RDR: No, not at all. I think cocktails in general, at least the craft of good cocktails, I don’t think it’s risky at all. There’s only so few places you can get them, and I think everybody in New York City wants to be drinking good cocktails at this point. PW: Think about it: we’re doing a tequila cocktail bar. A) It’s never been done. B) You’re in a city where people love cocktails, that’s obvious; we’ve come from places where people love our cocktails, and people love tequila. So you’re banking on the cocktail crowd and the crowd who like to come and sip tequila. RDR: Yeah, I think this is sort of like a no-brainer. And really good Mexican food, who doesn’t like Mexican food? It’s the most approachable food in the country, I think.

And how’d you guys end up teaming up, again? PW: Uh… RDR: Long story, we were just drunk one night. Leave it at that.