Learning to Bartend at One of the World’s Best Bars
Read this excerpt from top bartender Eric Alperin’s new book “Unvarnished” about his experiences working at New York’s Little Branch and navigating the world of craft cocktails.
Christy Pope, a Milk & Honey alum now working at Little Branch, shows up for triage. I thought I was handling things, but the room says otherwise. I’m behind on orders, have lost count of who’s next and who’s who on the waitlist, and now I’m wafting eau de gingembre.
As Christy helps me get the wheels back on track, I see Courtney, the girl I’m dating (we haven’t had The Talk so I’m not calling her my girlfriend), posted up at the bar. We’ve been in Wynn Handman’s acting class together for a year, and falling for her was complicated by the fact that she had a boyfriend who was also in our class. I sometimes witnessed him being surly and verbally uncouth when we rolled over to P.J. Carney’s Irish pub, on Fifty-seventh and Seventh, for all the Jamesons. One night when he wasn’t in class, Courtney and I found ourselves squished up against a wall in the bar and I told her she deserved better, and she agreed, and we kissed. So I sought him out at his apartment to tell him how it was going to be.
“I already knew asshole,” he said. “I can read behavior too you know.” And instead of punching me, he punched the door and slammed it in my face.
So now Courtney and I are dating.
When I try to catch her eye, I mis-garnish the Old-Fashioneds I’m supposed to be managing, which makes Micky grab the peeler to show me how it’s done and he promptly slices off a piece of his index finger.
“Take over,” he says under his breath, downplaying the blood pooling fast in his palm.
“What?” I ask, my stomach flipping, because, while I feel formidable on the floor and capable behind the bar, I’m definitely not ready to be back there weekends.
“And remember Romeo,” Micky says before disappearing, “when you jigger, make clean and defined movements, and after you pour the spirit, say a little prayer before dumping it into the tin.”
Sayruf, our eternally good-natured Bangladeshi barback who notices everything, slides in behind and loads me up with clean tins, then checks to make sure the garnish bins are full and that I have all the ice I need.
I got this, I tell myself as Christy, who looks at me questioningly but doesn’t take the time to ask questions, throws down one ticket for a Blue Collar, which is a Manhattan twist, and another ticket for four drinks: a Gold Rush and an Enzoni, which are shaken and served down, a Moscow Mule, which is shaken and served long, and an Eastside, which is shaken and served up.
“Christy?” I point to the Blue Collar.
“Orange bits, quarter Maraschino, quarter CioCiaro, half sweet, two rye, lemon twist,” she says. “It’s Madrusan’s cocktail—remember? We made it together on our Wednesday shift.”
“Oh yeah, right. Shit. I got this.”
I got this I got this I got this.
I set up a chilled mixing vessel and four tins from left to right, which is the order the drinks are written on the chit and also the order in which the guests are seated, then start with the cheapest ingredients first so if I mess up early on in the process, I’m not dumping the gold.
Muddled items first (mint, cucumber, grapes). Then bitters, syrups, and citrus. Then the amari, liqueurs, and booze.
I remember to jigger left to right, doing my best to reuse the same jigger for multiple ingredients until no others can be crossed. Lemon and lime can use the same jigger, and simple syrup can go before honey, or any syrup for that matter, but not the other way around. Vodka can go before any other booze, and light rum can be followed by dark rum, like rye before bourbon. The whole idea is efficiency and execution so that the first finished and last trayed cocktails are completed within thirty seconds of each other, delivered and served to a table at the same time. It’s like steaks ordered at different temperatures all landing on the table concurrently—everyone should eat together; everyone should drink together.
I tray the first round, which Christy whips up into her hands and takes off into the room with, and start on my second. I can feel myself gaining confidence, sliding into the zone, my movements syncing to the music—Al Foster’s pre-noise-rock cymbal crashes on Miles Davis’s “Moja.” It was recorded live at Carnegie Hall, so it sounds like Miles and his band are here in this room. I glance up. The whole room’s watching. Well okay not the whole room, but it feels like it, except instead of making me nervous it steadies me.
I twist the cap off a bottle and flip it under my middle finger. It stays in place as I grab a jigger, pour, and spin the cap back on. Quarter turn to place the bottle back on the shelf, label side out, and pull off another just like that. I’m not thinking; only a mnemonic refrain for the drinks runs through my brain: MM for Mercy, Mercy; SR for Southside Rickey; CC2 for Clover Club No. 2; Enzo for Enzoni.
MM, SR, CC2, Enzo. MM, SR, CC2, Enzo.
I pop the four drinks up onto a tray and am working through my third round, a full jigger in hand, when Sam sneaks up behind, reaches around, and dick-taps me, causing me to spill gin across the tops of all the tins.
“Oh, sorry bud. You gotta start that round over,” he laughs. “I’m bouncing to Milk & Honey to help cut ice. Cervantes will be here in five. Christy’s got the floor handled, unlike you, but no worries pal. You’ll get there.”
Sweat drips down the center of my back as the air from the old HVAC vent stationed directly across from the service well works overtime trying to keep the bar area cool, but it’s stacked three deep, guests’ winter layers draped across their arms or hanging on hooks when they can find them. Bodies backed up to the stairs. Chits are piling up and guests are staring at me. “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” by Sam & Dave, plays as Cervantes enters the scene. The chillest Dominican man I have ever had the pleasure of bartending beside. He parts the crowd like Moses and the Red Sea and floats behind the bar, tagging me out.
With the bar and floor covered, I race upstairs to the staff hang-out, which is supposed to become a private event bar at some point, to devour the Grey Dog sandwich I bought five hours ago, which is now soggy. I’m wolfing it over a trash can, juices dripping down my arm, when Courtney appears at the top of the stairs.
“Nice table manners Sonny Bono,” she says.
I assume she’s insulting my peach polyester button-up and acetate baby blue blazer, finished off with a sailboat tie courtesy of the Salvation Army on Eighth. She either really likes me or takes pity on me or some combination thereof, because in all the tumult, I totally forgot she was in the bar and have been ignoring her for hours.
“Thanks,” I smile. Hoping there’s nothing in my teeth. “I’m sorry I couldn’t talk…It got…” I gesture toward the bar downstairs.
“Don’t worry about it,” Courtney says. “You looked pretty good back there. Seems like the hell Sam is giving you is only because he cares.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Tough love. I hope you’re right.”
“Well…” She edges toward the exit. “I just wanted to say goodnight. I’ve got rehearsal early with that L.A. director.”
“Oh yeah,” I say. “That’s so cool. Good luck. Which you don’t need because you’re great.”
“Thanks,” she smiles, which makes her eyes crinkle, which makes me sweat. “I’ll call you after.”
When she leaves, I wonder if she likes me as much as I like her. If I’ll ever have a rehearsal with an L.A. director or if I’ll be eternally shoving soggy sandwiches down my throat in bars at midnight.
The lovely couple from Ohio stay for a few too many and need help getting up the stairs. “Here’s our number if you ever open a bar in Cleveland,” reads the note they leave on the table.
Two brothers from Paris at table 2 fall in love with the ladies at table 3 and ask me to introduce them. Within the hour I’ve moved them all to a four-top.
I communicate with a Japanese couple visiting from Tokyo via their map of Manhattan, circling neighborhoods and attractions I think they might like, bring a round of amaro to a table of locals, and tell the beautiful girls at table 6 playing Truth or Dare that while I can’t meet them later at Kokie’s, maybe ask Cervantes?
“How’d it go tonight?” Richie asks, raising the “fuck-off lights” to full blast.
“I’m still here,” I tell him.
“Gonna f-f-fire you tomorrow,” Micky yells from upstairs, his mouth full of Grey Dog. “This sandwich sucks!”
“Hey, you think I should give working the bar a shot?” Richie leans up against the bar and takes a sip of his shift drink—Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 13-Year Rye. His position at the door is the only one singular in nature, since it’s at the top of the stairs and not a role you can tag in and out of during service.
“Fuckin-A yes you’ll kill it brother,” I tell him. “Just work left to right, cheapest to more expensive. Oh, and remember that a Pink Lady doesn’t get ginger syrup. I screwed that one up twice tonight.”
“Yeah. Cool. Pink Ladies. Thanks man.”
“Come on Richie!” Micky yells down. “Let’s go.”
“Meet us at Blue Ribbon when you’re done,” Richie says, gulps down the rest of his drink and takes off.
The rest of close-out duties fall to me, Cervantes, and Sayruf, and we start ripping the bar down piece by piece. All the custom stainless grates are Tetrised together, and even if two pieces look identical, one fits in a spot of the scupper drain better than the other. Most of the grates are too large to fit in the glass washer, so we hose and wipe them down by hand. This part of the night’s work is what I think people mean when they say something’s “meditative.” My body, which has been held tight at attention all night relaxes, my shoulders fall away from my ears, my feet move with purpose but less hurried now. The whole vibe of the room is like this, all of us in a dance but slower—not a slow dance, but no longer moving with such intensity. A lot of people hate closing and cleaning, but to me it’s a perfect coda, a time to mentally take stock of the night as I clean and polish and replace and replenish.
Attacking the garnish bin, I dump the night’s fruits and juices, because at this point they’ve lived through the open air of a room filled with bodies. It’s not much waste, since Sayruf takes the orange juice home, and the grapefruit I defer to Cervantes because I’m still the new guy and looking to shore up my relationships.
Each garnish bin has a rectangular piece of wired glass trimmed in stainless, which slides into its front and acts as a kind of sneeze guard. More important, it deters guests from reaching in and grabbing pieces of fruit. After a night of service, the glass is cold and slippery. I do my best not to crack it, using kid gloves to wipe it down before placing it gently on the bar top to dry.
I lift up the over-sink stainless-steel adjustable strainers inside each dedicated dump sink, flip them over the trash can to knock out the muck of dead muddled ingredients and tasting straws, then use a paper towel to pick them clean before passing them off to Sayruf for the wash. Jiggers, spoons, muddlers, and dirty tins get hauled over to the pile of items awaiting their own spin.
The speed-rail bottles get buffed with a rag, then I do the same with the backbar bottles, which I also twist so they face label side out. The practice of cleaning and wiping and facing as we go is ingrained in us all, so none of the work I’m doing is major. It’s mostly just tweaking and making sure everything is ready for tomorrow night; that the next bartender is set up out of the gate.
Back out on the floor, I gather any menus that have been left out, wipe them down and place them in the host stand, extinguish any oil lamps and votives still lit, give them a buff so the paraffin buildup doesn’t grease their sides, then throw all the drinks left on tables onto a tray.
“Stop. Go drink beer,” says Sayruf with a toothy grin. It’s a kind way of telling me I’m overloading the dish line.
“Sorry,” I mumble and reach into the cooler, grab two Czech Rebel lagers—one for Cervantes and one for myself (Sayruf doesn’t drink)—and sit down in a booth to start counting money. Cervantes fires up a joint, taking huge puffs that hang heavy in the still barroom air. Then, like a drug-counting assembly line, we place bills in their respective piles facing up and looking left, count out tomorrow’s bank—$400—and fill in the close-out sheet which asks for gross sales, individual staff hours, and tips as well as the cash drop, then rubber-band all the money and drop it into a Carpano Antica vermouth tin that’s been repurposed as a bank bag. I pop it into the far left corner of the bar by the espresso machine on the lowest shelf behind some backup booze—our version of dropping money into a safe.
“Your turn guys,” Sayruf tells us, having left the floated wooden floorboards, aka “deck boxes,” for us to haul out from behind the bar. Standing on a deck all night, as opposed to hard concrete, can seriously extend a bartender’s life. They also sit a bit higher off the floor, giving us a better sight line of the room. The downside is they’re heavy as fuck.
Cervantes and I tip each deck together, one by one, and lean them along the customer-side bar wall, leaving the floor clear for the porters to come in and clean. The final job of the night.
We stand still for a second under the bright work lights. It’s something beautiful now, like standing onstage after a show with the audience gone and you can see the spike marks on the floor and the glue holding everything together. Seeing places in ways they aren’t meant to be seen makes me feel like I’ve been given the keys to something special.
At 5 AM we lock the front door. Some nights, all you want to do after work is crawl into bed. Others, you’re too amped for sleep and want to dance, drink, or socialize until dawn.
Sayruf decides to head home and hops into a cab. Cervantes takes off on foot to some chick’s place, probably someone he charmed earlier from behind the bar or the girls who were headed to Williamsburg. I stand alone in the cold, weighing whether I’m up for meeting Micky and Richie and the rest of the industry owls at Blue Ribbon. Across the street, Daddy-O’s stragglers are getting kicked to the curb and I’m tempted to pop over to enjoy a lock-in with the crew. But my bed calls. So I pull up my hood and head east on Carmine, cross Sixth to Minetta Lane toward MacDougal, where a line of drunks are spilling out of Mamoun’s—the best $2 falafel ever served out of a closet-size kitchen. The smell is a siren call, and I hop on the end of the line. Thankfully, I don’t have to wait long— the more inebriated patrons wander off—and soon enough I have a warm fried sandwich in hand and am wending my way home.
“Hey man, you need green? Got green.”
I’m always propositioned for weed in Washington Square Park. Sophomore year of high school, I was forever taking Metro-North from Westchester to buy marijuana for me and my friends and learned some big lessons about seeing the goods before giving the cash. I got ripped off twice, nearly swearing off drugs before a couple of NYU stoners took pity on me and gave me a free dime bag of shake. And a dime bag of shake, once you pick out all the seeds and stems, goes a long way among high school kids.
“Whatcha got man?” I ask. “Good green. You’ll like it.” “Gotta see it first.”
He pulls out a bag.
I shake my head and frown. “I don’t like oregano,” I tell him. “Ain’t no fuckin’ oregano, bumbaclot man!” he yells into the wind. It would have been nice to get stoned, but I don’t need it to sleep. Between the walk, the food, and the cold, I’m more than ready to peace out. I land on my stoop at 27 Washington Square North, reach into my pocket for my keys and…Where the fuck are my keys?
I pat myself down, thinking I just can’t feel them through the bulk of my layers, and then recall taking them out of my pocket and placing them behind the cash drawer when I got behind the bar so they wouldn’t bite into my leg as I leaned against the well. My hand hovers over my buzzer, but my seventy-three-year-old roommate, Milt, who wrote a book about Michael Rockefeller mysteriously disappearing in New Guinea and allegedly getting eaten by cannibals, is unlikely to wake to the sound. Besides, I don’t want to startle the guy.
I’m starting to feel supremely cold as it dawns on me that I can’t even get back into Little Branch to get my keys because my bar key is also on my key chain which is inside Little Branch and I’m about to sit down on the stoop and sleep right there when I remember that Sasha lives in the staff room.
I hail a cab, and five minutes later am knocking gently on Little Branch’s steel side door.
Knock a little harder. Nothing.
I turn back to face the street with the depressing realization I’m going to have to take up real estate at Veselka until Milt wakes up when—
I turn around to see Sasha cracking open the side door. “Oh Sasha. I hope you weren’t sleeping. I forgot my keys.”
“I was just making myself an Old-Fashioned,” he says. “Would you like one?”
I follow him gratefully inside and downstairs, amazed at how for a broad man, he moves with such grace.
All the lights in the room are off except for the spots over the bar. Sasha walks behind the service well. He’s undone his tie and top buttons, loosened the grips of his suspenders.
“I’m only making Old-Fashioneds as we don’t want to disrupt the fine work that Sayruf does for us,” he explains as he sets out his ingredients. “You guys are lucky back here. I hope he never leaves us.”
“He’s the best. Especially to me. I’m still, you know, struggling with rounds and he always has my back.”
“You’ll get there,” Sasha assures me. “Takes time, but then one shift…it all clicks.”
He takes out two rocks glasses, drops a sugar cube in each, adds three dashes of bitters and a touch of soda. He muddles each into a paste, pours in the Elijah Craig bourbon, then grabs two rocks of ice and gently lays one in each vessel.
“Mind peeling some citrus?”
“Of course,” I say, joining him behind the bar.
“Be careful when you peel the oranges to leave the least amount of rind on the underside,” he cautions. “It should look like the skin of a Band-Aid, where you can see all the dimples.”
“Okay. You got it. Appreciate that.”
He finishes off the drinks and slides one my way.
“Since you’re an actor, you’ll probably book something big and leave us for Hollywood, won’t you?” he asks, gazing into the middle distance.
“I don’t think so,” I tell him. “I like theater, which is in New York, you know?”
“I have a cousin in Los Angeles,” he says, like he didn’t really hear me.
“It’s always sunny there and people seem healthier. And with all the colors you’ve chosen for your outfit, all that’s missing is a palm.”
“I’m just having a little fun.”
“Of course, but may I suggest a different material? Something that breathes, perhaps?” Sasha takes a long sip of his drink. Then he picks at the orange peel, inspecting it. “Can you imagine doing yoga in L.A.?”
“I’ve never done yoga,” I tell him. “But I do like to drive, which I know is strange for a New Yorker to say.”
“I don’t even have my license,” Sasha says, then pauses. “What kind of car do you like?”
“A convertible, for sure.”
“Yes,” Sasha smiles and raises his glass to mine. “A convertible. I’ll buy an extra case of Royal Crown, so I don’t muss my hair.”
From the book Unvarnished by Eric Alperin and Deborah Stoll. Copyright © 2020 by Eric Alperin and Deborah Stoll. Published on June 23, 2020 by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.