Part 2 of our interview with NYC’s Phil Ward


Phil Ward has an enviable resume: from 2003 until now, he’s worked at four New York bars, each of which are justifiably famous: the Flatiron Lounge, Pegu Club, and Death & Company, before opening his tequila and mezcal bar, Mayahuel, in 2009.

Ward was in Australia as part of his work with Mike Tomasic of Sydney mezcal bar, Mr Moustache and their sister company, Casamezcal (who bring in the El Jolgorio brand of mezcal among others). Despite a hectic schedule conducting agave trainings and masterclasses, we managed to pull him away from the agave for a few minutes to ask him a few questions — below is part two of our interview. For part one, click here.

How did you get your start bartending?
Dumb luck. I moved to New York on a whim and I got a barbacking job at Flatiron Lounge. The timing was just impeccable because 12 years ago, the only other bars that were open at the time, that were good cocktail bars, were Milk & Honey and Angel’s Share.

So I got in right when the shit was about to hit the fan, it was really dumb luck. I remember Julie Reiner when she interviewed me. I was just going for a barback position. She asked me, ‘do you want to bartend eventually?’ And I was like, no — I was from Pittsburgh and to me bartending wasn’t a sort of social interaction bartending was like vodka tonics and light beer douchebags and I don’t want to do that. I just wanted to work in a bar so I didn’t haven’t to get up early.


What’s the scene like in New York right now?
There’s a lot of bars opening now, and I think one of the things you see happening now is you see more laidback bars opening, for a really long time in Death & Co days, when Death & Co opened and PDT, and Little Branch and all that, we were really serious you know? Door policies, no standing, things like that. It was what it was. We were really intense, we loved what we did, and we loved to have the opportunity to actually be able to make good drinks for people — that was always my pet peeve.

Like Flatiron and Pegu, I loved working there, they’re great bars. But Pegu club, you know, six to nine every night and most of the earlier days of the week was really laid back, all the people really loved cocktails. Thursday, Friday, Saturday night, about nine o’clock, all of the last of the people who are there to appreciate you as a bartender to make drinks left. And you’re like, you bastards, you left me here — you know what’s coming!

We would just get bombarded with people coming in for Vodka Tonics and Red Bull — Pegu was hard because we tried to not have all the things that people like that would want. It would get to the point where I’m getting sorry for this person and feeling like such a schmuck because I don’t have what they want.

What are your thoughts on the agave crisis?
In layman’s terms, it’s just really short sighted. You know these people they’re not thinking long term, they just want to get rich fast. The agave conditions in Jalisco, every ten years it’s just a stupid cycle: the price is really high, because there’s a shortage, and then the price is really low because there’s a glut — instead of just having a standardised price. You know when the price is low, everybody just starts planting corn. It takes six to eight years for agave to grow so by the time four years later they realise that shit the price is getting high because we’re short so we’ll plant it and it’s just a dumb, hideous cycle. But you also have problems like in Jalisco they never let plants breed naturally, sexually — they do it all asexually with clones. So there’s a lot of sickness with the plants, there’s no genetic diversity it’s just clones of clones of clones of clones. You also have problems like this year, the price of agave was really high so you have these disgusting pigs going down to Oaxaca and buying four year old plants of other species and taking them up to make shitty tequila in Jalisco. So there’s a lot of problems.

And it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens with mezcal because the demand is really going up, and these farmers and producers have been really good for generations at knowing just how much of the wild species they can harvest every year to make sure there’s continuity.
But you’re going to have these larger brands, people who don’t have any foresight, coming down and trying to get as much as possible as quick as possible. With those wild varietals it’s not just a question of shortage it’s a question of extinction.

If we couldn’t have any more tobala, man, that would be a pisser.

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