2000s Archive

Spirited Competition

Originally Published October 2007
Today’s high-end bar has roots in American fine dining, owes a debt to pre- and post-Prohibition cocktail books, and is a hotbed of industrial espionage.

Joe Baum’s Four Seasons restaurant, which opened in 1959, paved the way for Chez Panisse and the many local- and seasonal-focused menus that followed. But Baum is also responsible for the great state of fine drinking today. In 1985 he asked Dale DeGroff to create a “classic bar” at the überluxe Aurora, but DeGroff wasn’t sure what that meant, and he nearly blew his chance. “I balked about giving up sour mix,” he recalls. “Joe said, ‘Dale, they made drinks with fresh juices for a hundred years. If you can’t figure out how to do it, I’ll find someone who can.’” DeGroff figured it out, with a little help from Jerry Thomas’s How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion, written in 1862, and today almost every great bar in New York, and many others around the world, are run by people he’s mentored.

DeGroff’s most celebrated student is Audrey Saunders. In 1996 she took a DeGroff bartending class, then volunteered to work for him for free at The Rainbow Room, the Baum venue where classic cocktails really began their comeback. “Aurora was the rehearsal,” says DeGroff. “Rainbow Room was the show!” When the curtain went up on Saunders’s Pegu Club, in 2005, it was another giant leap forward for libations in this country. At the time, no place was executing classic drinks as meticulously while also innovating so successfully. At least none that wasn’t “by appointment only.”

Sasha Petraske opened Milk & Honey in 2000 with almost no bartending experience. An old cocktail book figures in his story as well, and of course it was given to him by DeGroff. “Dale came in,” Petraske recalls, “took one look at what I was doing, reached into his bag, and gave me a copy of Trader Vic’s bartender’s guide from 1948.” The biggest influence on Milk & Honey, however, was a visit to Angel’s Share, an East Village re-creation of a typical Tokyo cocktail bar, which is, of course, a re-creation of a classic American cocktail bar. “I never would’ve dared to do what I’ve done if it hadn’t been for Angel’s Share,” says Petraske. Ironically, the Japanese, with their fascination for all things American, had helped keep alive a quintessential piece of American culture.

The path from Baum to DeGroff to Saunders and Petraske took about 20 years; each of them shifted the paradigm. Since Saunders opened Pegu Club and Petraske opened his second Manhattan venue, Little Branch, the drinks universe has exploded. Pegu Club and Milk & Honey alums have opened their own places (most notably Death & Co., in New York, and The Violet Hour, in Chicago). San Francisco, which has had good cocktails programs at restaurants, has a few new bars with higher aspirations. And last May, the original Angel’s Share bartenders opened B Flat, in TriBeCa.

Such a dynamic environment can also be turbulent. Bar owners are reluctant to go on the record about perceived slights, employee poaching, and outright plagiarism. Seeing others making their drinks doesn’t seem to bother anyone; poor execution definitely does. One bar owner, after hearing that a new place was butchering a signature drink, called to offer assistance with the recipe but ended up asking that the drink be removed from the menu. Another owner sent an employee to spy on a new place that was felt to be breaching new-bar etiquette. Word got out, adding to the owner’s reputation for prickliness. But that kind of obsessiveness is what makes great bars great. And it’s why it’ll soon be difficult to remember a time when a good Manhattan was hard to find.

Subscribe to Gourmet