A Legendary Bartender’s Last Drink Before Dying
Brad Thomas Parsons interviewed bartenders across the country, including Toby Cecchini, about their desired final drink before dying for his new book, “Last Call.”
Toby Cecchini, a self-described “senior statesman” of the bar world, has been tending bar for thirty-one years. The Madison, Wisconsin, native was living in Paris but moved to New York to chase after a girlfriend. That didn’t work out, but wandering the city streets ended up steering the direction of his career when he walked past the Odeon, the legendary Tribeca bistro whose neon sign illuminated the downtown scene in Lower Manhattan in the 1980s, drawing a cast of boldface regulars. “I had read Bright Lights, Big City when I was Paris,” says Cecchini, of Jay McInerney’s breakout 1984 debut novel that featured an illustration of the Odeon on the cover, “and was walking around New York kind of destitute when I looked up and there was the neon Odeon sign. I said to myself, Hey, that’s the cover of that book. And I literally walked in and was greeted with, ‘Yes, can I help you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I would like a job I think.’” Cecchini’s legacy lives on at the Odeon due to creating a certain pink-hued cocktail that became a pop-culture phenomenon.
Living in Brooklyn, Cecchini was one of the many people to walk past the long-shuttered Long Island Restaurant on the corner of Atlantic and Henry in Cobble Hill and shake his head in disbelief at the potential of the historic space and its art deco bar and glorious but long-dark neon sign. “The story went that three Spanish women owned it and they wouldn’t talk to anybody. Every restaurateur in the city was trying to get in there.” Cecchini eventually managed to arrange a walk-through of the space with Emma Sullivan, who had run the bar with her husband, Buddy, and her two cousins, Pepita and Maruja. Alperin. The bar seemed frozen in time, as if they had shut down and locked the doors after a long-ago last call. Sullivan sized up Cecchini and didn’t believe he was a bartender—he was too professional-looking—until Cecchini showed her his calloused, banged-up hands, still rough from years behind the bar. Once he established his bona fides as a bartender, there was a spirited conversation and the impromptu interview turned into a handshake deal. Soon he and his business partner took over the lease and the neon sign was back on in 2013. “My basic philosophy is that we have this amazing space,” says Cecchini. “I want a really easygoing place where you walk in and think the food and drink are unnecessarily good. People are working super hard behind the scenes to make a very casual-looking place elevated.”
What is the last thing you’d want to drink before you die?
It’s not the Cosmopolitan. Once this woman came in and said, “I want something with whiskey and bitters.” Oh, that’s easy enough. “Not just bitters, but amaro. Do you know what amaro is?” Yes, I think I’m familiar with the concept, thank you. The particular thing I was messing around with at the time was the China-China from Bigallet, which I knew and loved. I had been playing with Suze on some things. Other than that, you’ve got sweet vermouth and whiskey, and that’s a no-brainer. And then swapping in the China-China. That’s just a take on the Manhattan. But put an equal part of Suze in there, and you’ve got something vinous. Something sweet. Something bitter. This woman loved it and said, “Oh my god, what do you call this?” I said, “Up to you.” She said, “I call it The Erin.” I thought, Oh no, don’t tell me your name’s Erin? That’s the worst. I hate that. I’ll come up with something else later. But of course I never did.
Look, if you’re about to kick and you’re looking back on your life, you want something to bring you back in—something that’s going to take in all the facets. The Erin is a big drink that’s just swirling with complexity, with all kinds of big flavors and aromatics. My father was a huge fan of brandy, and when he was on his deathbed, I brought him a 1951 Cognac from Delamain. The year he came to America from Italy was 1951. He was incredibly ill when we busted into it at his bedside with my sisters and my brothers gathered around, but he was so game about it. He took on this very strong spirit when he was so sick. I was very much brought back down to Earth by my father’s death. It really brought it home. You know that people die, but when you see your father die in front of you, you understand that you’re going to die. If I’m on my deathbed, I’m sure going to have something strong. You’re looking back on your life, so I would want something strong, sweet, and bitter.
- 2 oz New York Distilling Company Ragtime Rye
- .5 oz Bigallet China-China Amer Liqueur
- .5 oz Suze
- .5 oz Sweet vermouth (preferably equal parts Cinzano Rosso and Carpano Antica Formula)
- 5 dashes St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram
- Glass: Double Old-Fashioned
- Garnish: Lemon twist and orange twist
Add the rye, China-China, Suze, vermouth, and allspice dram to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir until chilled and strain into a double old-fashioned glass over a large ice cube. Garnish with the lemon twist and orange twist.
Reprinted with permission from Last Call: Bartenders on Their Final Drink and the Wisdom and Rituals of Closing Time, by Brad Thomas Parsons, copyright © 2019. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.
Photographs copyright © 2019 by Ed Anderson.