By Mitchell Bushell
Milk & Honey, London: www.mlkhny.com
Now unless you have a Toblerone on your cocktail list and chocolate buttons in your garnish trays you will likely have heard of Milk & Honey – only one of the greatest bars to have lived.
Sasha Petraske opened his original in Chinatown, New York City in 2000, bartending changed and 19th century style drinking would ride again. While most us were losing our heads over flavoured vodkas, Chambord and the finer points of the fine strain, Sasha was changing his phone number to keep numbers down and tuning his mantra of ‘offhanded excellence’ in service and drinks to carve himself out a piece of modern bartending folklore.
In 2002 a collaborative masterstroke saw Jonathan Downey and Petraske work together to open Milk & Honey in Soho, London. Since then, they have won just about every award conceivable. Over the years some of the finest drinks slingers in this part of the world have worked for Downey and some of them are lucky enough to work at Milk & Honey in London.
Recently a couple of Aussie bartenders returned to our fair shores after stints at the famous watering hole, so in the hope of some divine enlightenment I sat down with them for a chat.
Mr Timothy D Philips, 2008 CLASS bartender of the year (big deal), senior bartender at Milk & Honey (bigger deal) and part of the team that made the Black Pearl in Melbourne the hot house of magic it is now (bigger deal still) was joined by David F Fisher who won Galliano and Cosmopolitan‘s Australia’s hottest bartender in 2009 (biggest deal yet).
Setting myself the ridiculous task of trying to sum ‘Milk’ up in 850 words I had Fisher meet me a half hour earlier as I knew that both of them would give long winded answers – littered with, ‘ahhs…’, ‘ohhs…’ and extended, ‘umms’. I would soon realise however that it was more about what wasn’t said, than what was; this is Milk & Honey after all – it’s a member-only bar with some pretty serious house rules. The team (both present and past) take their shit seriously and guard house secrets closely.
Let it be said they have been banging out hot drinks over four levels with one of the most decorated alumni of all time for 10 years so you’re not going to get that far as a journalist asking them questions like; ‘what puts it ahead of the pack?’.
I have a Cynar and tonic (being just recently off the wagon and loving it), Fish has water and Tim has a cappuccino with sugar. Our water supply at the table borders on overwhelming and while I firmly believe The Wine Library has the formula right, I can not help but wonder if their very attentive staff somehow sense that I am asking for a little of the sacred gospel word here.
My dictaphone is rendered all but immediately useless by drawn out answers. Points are danced around with clinical training and class. Experience rules here and I am getting a schoolboy lesson. They’re both charming but I see it’s a nod in the right direction as apposed to how it’s actually done.
Trial by Fire
Your trial of three months is a baptism of fire. You are trained to think the ‘Milk’ way. You’re reminded about where your knowledge is lacking and what you will need to work on to get your technical skills up to speed. You are taught that no detail is too small and excellence will never be achieved without consistency.
This is the fucking Marine Corps of bartending and only the strong survive – the weak are ushered out to serve in the sanitary platoon. If you had an elite force that trained, groomed and sustained itself through pride in work would you except anything but the best?
Amongst all the creativity is a one eyed passion for building on what they offer without ever straying from the point; excellent service in perfect conditions for amazing drinks – simple right?
Judging by the enthusiasm with which they both talk of their early days, being broken down and built back up, the ‘Milk’ mould has installed a sense of pride in the venue and its staff, a badge of honour in being involved at all. This is Ninja shit.
Training never stops, monthly within the umbrella group and fortnightly within the venue, every shift is a new chance to improve your craft while always understanding what has come before you.
Both of them are able to quote (including page and paragraph number) The Manual, a sort of unicorn bible that has 10 years of collected excellence scribed between its covers. Respect, trust and confidence are all part of the peer system, as well as an understanding that we are all human and have our flaws. And that’s it.
Milk & Honey Sample Cocktail Selection
Champagne Cocktails £9.50
Knickerbocker Royale – Rum, raspberry, curaçao, lemon, sugar
Shorts & Sours £8.50
East 8 Hold Up – Vodka, Aperol, pineapple, passionfruit, lime
Fresh & Up £8.50
The Business – Gin, honey, lime
Punches, Cups & Cobblers £8.50
Sangaree – Maderia, port, sugar, water