Top Bartender Haley Traub’s Current Obsession: Hygge
The Danish concept of well-being has influenced the way this all-star New York bartender lives and works.
Tucked discreetly behind an unmarked metal door on Eldridge Street on New York’s Lower East Side, Attaboy is the definition of coziness. A mere 450-square feet and lit largely by candles, the bar’s one potential source of distress is that it has no set cocktail menu. Guests give bartenders the ultimate decision on what they’ll be drinking—a responsibility bartender Haley Traub takes very seriously.
“We start the conversation with all of our guests with, ‘What do you feel like drinking?,’” says Traub, who’s worked at Attaboy for about a year-and-a-half. “For some people that conversation is a lot easier than for others. Some people are very scared of that conversation.”
One of the things that helps Traub put guests at ease is her newfound love of hygge (pronounced hoo-ga), a concept of Danish living that values finding daily happiness from coziness, togetherness, being present and the regular enjoyment of little pleasures. According to The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark, hygge comes from a Norwegian word meaning “well-being” and has been around since at least the early 1800s. His book touches on everything from light (“No recipe for hygge is complete without candles”) to food and drink.
Hygge is “what I’ve been sort of obsessed with and really focused on as more of a concept in my work,” says Traub, winner of the Speed Rack bartending competition in 2018. “I realized how much it’s actually had an effect on my work and my thought process over this past year. It’s really reinvigorated my work.”
Though Traub had heard of hygge, she first experienced it in practice during a trip to Scandinavia earlier this year. Travelling with her mother, sister and grandmother, they spent a week in Norway—where her family has roots—and then Traub continued on by herself to Copenhagen. On her first night in the Danish metropolis, she met up for dinner with a group of friends she’d met during her three-year tenure at New York bar Dutch Kills.
“I had this group of Danish tourists come in on a Sunday night, and they sat in front of my bar for, it had to have been, like six hours,” says Traub. “A few of them worked in the spirits world in Denmark and we just exchanged Instagram handles and stayed in touch.”
When she knew she’d be in Copenhagen, they made plans to meet up. The first night of her stay, her friends welcomed her to one of their apartments for a dinner party.
It was “myself and nine Danish men in this absolutely spectacular Scandinavian apartment,” says Traub. “You feel like you’re walking into an Ikea showroom because it’s just so perfectly put together. It’s very simple, very beautiful.”
Throughout the rest of her trip, this concept of hygge continued to fascinate and inspire her. When she returned to New York, she took the opportunity to incorporate hygge into her own life, personally and professionally.
“I came back home from [the trip] and spent the summer really working my butt off,” she says. “I started realizing more and more how much this idea of coziness and conviviality was really sort of making me look at my work in a different way.”
At Attaboy, that’s inspired her to try to connect people with her work on a more meaningful level by serving them something they’ve never had before, but at the same time offering them an element of comfort.
“There’s nothing more exciting to me than someone cozying up to a cocktail and having no idea what they’re getting themselves into, but they take one sip and they’re immediately comforted by an ingredient that they’re familiar with,” says Traub. If a guest doesn’t know what they feel like drinking, she’ll then ask them to describe what they enjoy or the feeling they like getting from a drink.
One such cocktail that Traub has found that often bewilders and delights guests is an Old-Fashioned variation combining one ounce each of mezcal and Japanese whisky, and a quarter ounce each of banana liqueur and Amaro Lucano. It’s served on the rocks with an orange twist.
“A way of really finding the beauty in the simplicity is playing around with this idea of less is more,” says Traub. “It’s made me look at it almost with this idea of healthy hedonism, which is, of course, a huge aspect of Danish and Scandinavian hygge—finding the comfort and being able to indulge in it in a healthy and respectable way.”
Traub adds that adopting this Scandinavian practice of self-care into her hospitality work has also had a remarkable impact on her life outside the bar. As someone who’s dealt with mental health issues for her entire life, and has been open about her struggles, she says hygge has proven a boon to her general wellbeing.
“It’s helped me in living my day-to-day life with these mental health issues that I have dealt with and it has helped me figure out how to create a more comfortable, practical and simple life for myself while working in a very crazy environment,” says Traub. “It has helped me really figure out balance.”