Interviewed by Edward Washington
There’s no doubting that Sam Ross is ours, however for the better part of a decade he has been holding court at Milk & Honey, New York.
In 2011 he took out the American Bartender of the Year award at Tales of the Cocktail and in December he popped his head up down under courtesy of 666 Vodka and Keystone to host a couple of Bartender 101 seminars revealing a few tricks and insights to the NY bar scene. As they say in show biz….take it away Sam.
Q+A – What’s your proudest achievement in the bar industry thus far?
“I would have to say the relationships that I have made. Lifelong friends dotted all around the planet.”
How did you first get into the bar business?
“My sister, Alex Ross, was the manager at a groovy café/restaurant on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. It was a Friday night and they were down a barback, so she called me up to see if I would be willing to help out, I was an eager little 15 year old.”
What is your role at the moment?
“I have been at Milk & Honey in New York for six years now. The owner, Sasha Petraske, is in the works to move M&H to a slightly bigger location uptown later this year. At that point, Michael McIlroy and myself will take over the current space, renovate, rebrand and open our cocktail bar, Attaboy, with Sasha’s backing of course.”
What’s the attraction of the bar business for you?
“I love almost every aspect of the bar business. The hours work splendidly for my body clock. I like people (a trait often over looked in the service industry). The team aspect of a bar also appeals strongly to me. It’s like a sport; all members of the team need to be working together, firing at the same time. When this is achieved, success is the only outcome. Every customer will have had a great experience and all of the staff has had an enjoyable night. Who said you can’t come to work and have a good time?”
Do you miss the Australian bar scene?
“Of course I do, I miss the comradery of the Australian bar scene. I miss all of those pretty faces I get to see so rarely these days.”
How have you evolved as a bar operator over the years?
“Responsibility. Your focus (sadly) shifts from chasing girls and getting shit-housed to making sure the orders are made, bills paid and staff happy. People rely on you, that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Plus, we’re not rock stars, we can’t keep that sort of behaviour up forever, can we?”
How do you continually develop your creative ideas?
“Reading! Not just old texts but new ones too. Cooking books also provide me with inspiration. You’re also able to travel a lot in this industry; there’s not much greater inspiration than seeing how your fellow cocktail bartenders are doing things on the other side of the globe.”
How did you come up with the Penicillin?
“Back in 2005, we got delivered the Compass Box Whiskies set and were asked to play around with them. I experimented with a riff on a Gold Rush (bourbon, lemon, honey), using the Asyla as the meat of the drink, and added some fresh ginger juice to give it spice. The drink was good but needed something to make it pop, so I drizzled the Peat Monster on top of the rock of ice and the Penicillin was born. People were very tentative in using single malt Scotches in cocktails previous to this, especially something so ferociously smoky such as an Islay, I think this fact did help it gain some modest recognition.”
Do you have any exciting plans for the future?
“I mentioned Attaboy already. I also have a cocktail iphone app coming out shortly called Bartender’s Choice. So look out for that!”
What excites you about the international bar scene?
“Staff sharing/swapping. Guest bartending rules! I strongly urge bars in different countries to establish relationships and swap bartenders for a week. Get liquor companies involved to help with the financials. It’s an excellent way to develop. I hope to be pulling a number of shifts a couple of times a year at the Everleigh in Melbourne.”
How are Australian cocktail bartenders perceived overseas?
“Very professional and friendly. The lure of instant cash can attract people to the service industry in the US, this is not necessarily a good thing though. Often these people have a less than pleasant attitude and demeanour when they go about their job. You don’t have this with Australian bartenders, I feel. It is more of a definitive choice that they make when getting into this industry.”
What cocktail trends do you think are popular at the moment?
“Bottling and barrel-aging cocktails seems to have been universally embraced. Also, I had an Angostura Sour at Fort Defiance in Brooklyn recently. A combination of dark rum, lemon syrup, Angostura (obviously) and balanced with an old soda fountain trick, acid phosphate. Pretty f’in cool!”
There’s a bit of a trend toward ‘unique’ stemware these days. Why is the vessel such an important part of the cocktail?
“Why go to all of the trouble to make an incredibly delicious cocktail and strain it into a grande martini glass? Aesthetics are very important in anything we consume, complete the drink with a fresh, appealing garnish and strain it into a thoughtful, attractive glass.”
Are there any local or international bar operators that you admire? If so why?
“I admire the team behind the Frankies Empire in NYC. They are restaurateurs first, but each of their newer places have come equipped with an excellent drink program. I hate being let down after a great meal with a bad coffee, or being led off with a watery Negroni. Every aspect of their establishments is done very well. I respect that.”
How important is staff in operating a successful business?
“Staff are the single most important thing in a venue. People come back for bartenders. Treat them well, pay them a little bit more. The rewards you get for longevity are priceless. The bartenders at Milk & Honey and Little Branch have been there for years. They love the venue, the venue loves them. If your bartender absolutely must move on, offer to back them in their own bar. Examples: Sasha Petraske opening Little Branch with Joseph Schwartz, Varnish with Eric Alperin, Dutch Kills with Richard Boccato and the Everleigh with Michael Madrusan and Lauren Schell.”
What advice would you give young bartenders who want to open their own bar one day?
“Don’t rush! There’s plenty of time for you to do this and do it well. Travel, work in other cities, learn from more experienced bartenders, ask questions, LISTEN! We don’t know all there is to know about this craft, I don’t. Gain as much information and experience as you possibly can before you make such a commitment.”
What are your Top 5 tips for running a successful bar business?
1. Treat your staff well.
2. Be a constant presence.
3. Bestow responsibility
4. Be consistent
5. Be nice to health inspectors