Going 10 Rounds with Top Bartender Ektoras Binikos
The co-founder of Sugar Monk in New York, tackles our speed round of questions.
What do you like to drink after a shift? “Most of the time I like to drink a well-made Negroni with Plymouth Gin with a lemon twist. It is one of my favorite drinks. Sometimes, I will ask to substitute Campari for Branca Menta and split the red vermouth (half and half) with Bonal Gentiane-Quina to bring some earthiness to the cocktail and decrease the sweetness. I also love to add some bergamot bitters, when available.”
What is the all-time best dive bar jukebox song? “ABBA, “Dancing Queen.” I know it sounds corny, but it makes me feel nostalgic for my early days in Greece as a young pre-teenager and all the summer parties at my parents’ courtyard on the Greek island of Ikaria.”
After all these years bartending and creating drinks, do you still enjoy going out to bars? “I totally do! I love to discover bars with a certain sensibility, a soul, so to speak. I was just in Athens last week visiting my family and I went to this bar called Archangel in a new hot neighborhood in downtown Athens called Gazi. The bar offerings were very simple, just your standard fare, a short cocktail list and a few wines by the glass. But the place had a soul! The owner was super friendly to everyone and knew most patrons by name. It was very dark; the music was amazing. The place was packed and the guests were of all ages, sexual orientations, including many artists and famous Greek actors. We all sang along to every song playing. My friend and I had a blast.”
Name the first good drink you ever drank and where you had it. “Early experiences often last a lifetime. I tasted my first real cocktail in Athens at a bar named Aerostato (air balloon). I had just turned 18 and could legally drink. I heard about this cool and very popular place attracting artists, intellectuals and students. I had no idea what a cocktail was, so I looked around and pointed to the server a cocktail that visually looked stunning. Ha! It was an Irish Coffee! Very tall glass crowned by a thick layer of foam and a coffee bean with a drizzle of green Crème de Menthe on top. I thought it was the most wonderful drink in the world.”
What book on cocktails or spirits is your go-to resource? “I have a few: The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock is among my favorite references. Very influential; it was one of my early guides to bartending. It is also a great historical book. It details how people used to drink during the Prohibition-era and the evolution that occurred in the cocktail world when bartenders travelled overseas with original recipes and expanded those recipes using local, available products.
Another absolute favorite: Imbibe by David Wondrich. Wondrich is a genius and the kindest man I know in the industry. I love his wondrous tales through Jerry Thomas’ viewpoint. It is a great reference for some old and very important recipes.
Another favorite is Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology. I have given this book as a present to my bar staff many times. Gaz was one of my mentors and a great supporter of my cocktailian work. I like his sense of organization and classification system. I think his book is a must for every aspiring bartender. And, of course, I feel very humbled and honored for being mentioned in the 2018 updated and edited version where he references my work; in particular regarding a cocktail I created for Marina Abromović’s 60 birthday party at the Guggenheim Museum in 2006. What a great loss for our industry.”
What’s your favorite cocktail and food pairing? “The Penicillin and Stilton cheese. Heavenly pairing. Call me crazy but I also love to drink a well-made tart Pisco Sour with oysters.”
What drink are you most proud of creating? “Hmmm…I think the Absolut Kelly. I created this drink for the inaugural opening event of the new Sean Kelly Gallery in Hudson Yards in 2012, one of the top contemporary art galleries in the world. Sean Kelly is a dear friend of mine. It’s always more exciting to create a cocktail for a person you love and admire. He owns one of the most comprehensive collections of Joseph Beuys’ works. So, I worked with a Beuys’ idea called the ‘anti-image.’ I believe I was one of the first bartenders back then (2012) using activated charcoal. The cocktail is dark gray, almost black, but the outward appearance, with its gray muted tones belies its combination of unexpectedly colorful, complex flavors. Since the FDA implemented a ban on using activated charcoal in food and drinks a few years ago, I now use black sesame powder to achieve the color.”
Is there one person (dead or alive) you’d like to make a cocktail for? “I have already created cocktails inspired by many people, mostly dead artists. I studied film and visual arts, so I have a bias towards artists I admire. I am working on a book with my business and life partner Simon Jutras called The Artist’s Cup, translating the essence of artists into cocktails. We have done 14 artists so far. Simon does the photography of the cocktails, referring to the artist’s work, personal life and epoch, without mimicking the artist’s style but by offering a personal interpretation. My next artist is Ana Mendieta. The great Cuban/American artist known for her work that focused on the spiritual and physical connection to the Earth.”
What’s your favorite shot-and-a-beer combination? “I love drinking beer! My preference is for Czech-style Pilsner or sometimes a good IPA, depending on my mood, and a shot of Gammel Dansk, a bitter dram from Denmark. I was introduced to the combination a few years ago by a very good friend in the town of Helsingør in Denmark (also known as ‘Elsinore’ in Shakespeare’s Hamlet). The play takes place there.”
What is the one tool that you always make sure to pack when you’re traveling for business? “My Mercer Barfly (copper plated) bar spoon with a teardrop-shaped end. Someone very special gave it to me years ago when I used to work at the original Aureole restaurant. I am attached to it.”
Ektoras Binikos is co-founder of Sugar Monk in New York.
Interview has been condensed and edited.