Going 10 Rounds With Top Bartender Leo Robitschek
The bar director of Eleven Madison Park and the NoMad Bars tackles our speed round of questions.
What do you like to drink after a shift? “I am very much a time and place kind of guy. At a dive bar, I lean towards a Campari & Soda, or a beer and whiskey/mezcal. When I go to a restaurant with a strong cocktail program or a cocktail bar, I usually order my first drink from the cocktail list, although I am just as happy with a great glass of wine.”
What is the all-time best dive bar jukebox song? “I love anything by Journey or Elton John, but my go-to jukebox song is “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads.”
After all these years bartending and creating drinks, do you still enjoy going out to bars? “I honestly love it. My passion for the industry started as a kid. Growing up, my favorite thing in the world was family dinners, especially when we would go out to restaurants all together. I loved trying new dishes, experiencing the new flavors and felt so special when I received great service. As time went on, my love only grew and expanded with the addition of wine, cocktails and spirits. I hope this joy is never lost, but if it is, that will be my sign to pursue other interests. Also, going out to bars is as important to the craft as studying spirits, history and technique.”
Name the first good drink you ever drank and where you had it. “The first person who really opened up my eyes to craft cocktails and what you can do with fresh ingredients and refined technique was Paul Tanguay when I worked for him at Sushisamba in NYC around 2002. My first ‘aha’ cocktail moment was in 2005 at Pegu Club when Chad Solomon served me a Gin Mule.”
What book on cocktails or spirits is your go-to resource? “Do I have to pick just one? Ha. I love flipping through cocktail, spirit and cook books—but the book I reference the most is hands down Dave Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence. I guess it’s more of a technique-based book, but I keep going back to it time and again.”
What’s your favorite cocktail and food pairing? “A Bamboo cocktail (sherry based) with some jamón or anchovies or a yummy Margarita while barbecuing some churrasco.”
What drink are you most proud of creating? “Oh wow…This varies on a weekly basis. With some of my past menus, I’ll be obsessed with a cocktail, and then never want to see it again by the end of the season. If I have to choose, I would say The Detox Retox. It’s a Scotch Old-Fashioned variation with tiki flavors, but it was the first time that we started manipulating dilution in a new and different way. Instead of diluting the cocktail with water through stirring or building over ice, we replaced the water with chilled fresh coconut water. This changed the cocktail and added other dimensions to the flavor and texture. That led us to playing with other teas and some savory macerates, such as shitake mushroom broth.”
Is there one person (dead or alive) you’d like to make a cocktail for? “Sammy Davis Jr. or any member of the Rat Pack. They could appreciate a well-crafted cocktail, plus they had amazing stories and could serenade me. Dorothy Parker would also be incredible. She shared a love for quality cocktails and Champagne, and we could have a witty conversation.”
What’s your favorite shot-and-a-beer combination? “An ice-cold pilsner and delicious mezcal. Surprisingly, Bud Light with lime and Campari is also quite delicious.”
What is the one tool that you always make sure to pack when you’re traveling for business? “I’m going to sound like a pretentious dork, but honestly a refractometer. I can usually find or MacGyver something to measure, shake, stir or strain with, but I’ve realized that sugar refinement and other sweeteners vary from country to county. I can at least keep consistency in the products that I am making by measuring the brix level of the syrups.”
Leo Robitschek is the Bar Director of Eleven Madison Park and for the NoMad Bars in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. His book, The NoMad Cocktail Book, comes out in October.
Interview has been condensed and edited.