Bartending Lifestyle Series – NYC Big Apple Experience!

Two months ago I had the opportunity to travel to one of the biggest, brightest, busiest cities in the world, New York. It’s a bartenders dream to be able to even get the opportunity to experience the Big Apple. It is home to some of the world’s greatest bars, restaurant & nightclubs and I wanted to see them all.

Shawn Soole Cocktail Competition

I had three days & three nights to absorb as much as I could from the short time I had. I am not a big fan of flying, being 6’5″ tall it’s not always easy to get comfortable in small economy seats, the six hour flight seemed to take forever. But soon I had landed in JFK, a small town Aussie boy in a city with the same amount of people as the whole of his home state. What happened to this visiting Aussie as soon as he hoped of the plane? He got ripped off!

As soon as I walked out of the arrivals lounge, I had a tall, bulky Jamaican ask if I needed a cab to Manhattan, I passed him my bags and followed him to the car park. I soon realised when a pimping Chrysler 300C rolled up that something wasn’t quite sure. It wasn’t till we started rolling out of the airport that he informed me that it was going to cost me $120 to get to my hotel. It was a 45 minute cab ride and I thought to myself that that was fair. It wasn’t till the next day when I hopped in a yellow cab that I realised I had been had.

I finally arrived at my hotel and met up with Mike from the New York Bar Store. I had never met the guy and I was going to be spending the next three nights sharing a room with him. I was getting pretty exhausted by now but nonetheless, a bartender never gives up going out on the town. I freshened up and headed out following Mikes lead. We started at 200 Orchard, a little local hole in the wall. It was like a ghetto sheik bar, a bar where young, well off bohemians go to drink cheap beers and listening to grunge music. It seemed the designer of the place just shoved a bar in the corner, a stage in the other and dotted old school video games around the place. It appealed to the locals, but I quickly downed two coronas and moved on.

The next local we walked into was Lucky Jacks, a large awkwardly shaped venue with pool tables down one end and a cramped DJ booth at the other. Of course we hit some shots there, of Irish whisky of all things. The bar looked like it had been there for 20 years, with a long wooden and copper shingle panelling along the walls and ceilings. The bar was well appointed with all the main necessities and of course Abbie. Abbie was the gorgeous little bartender that looked after us, apparently she had been voted sexiest bartender in NY the year before. Now Lucky Jacks was just your regular local bar but there was a jewel in the basement that surprised me. We ascended the stairs and found a tiny little cocktail bar, only as big as a New York apartment but all the funky, hip crowd were down there sipping their martinis. It added a little class to the local bar round the corner.

It was my first night in New York and I was experiencing true NY style taverns, bars with no actual definition. They are barfly’s local bar during the day and the haunt for young ghetto hipsters who sip martinis and bop their heads to a DJ in the evenings. We left Lucky Jacks and walked, some of us stumbling along to the next bar. By this time of the night, our group of six had widdled down to Mike and I. We slid into Katra, a Moroccan inspired bar with stencilled wood panelling, loud remixed hip hop and copper lamp style lighting. The bartenders were all inspiring models actors working the wood until they got there big break. It was a two story place filled with the young beautiful people of the Village, all scrambling to be noticed or pick up someone as beautiful as them. Mike and I stumbled out of there at close to 3am and caught our cab back to Soho to try and get some sleep before the next days festivities at the New York Bar Show.

Waking up the next morning, my excitement overwhelmed my hangover. We grabbed some breakfast from a dodgy, very worrying convenience store being run by one elderly Middle Eastern gent and his grandchildren. We headed down to the Javits centre and started setting up for the days show. The Javits centre is massive, it had more booths pawning off their wears from alcohol to outdoor heater, neon lights to energy drinks. The show was pretty uneventful until the flairers came onto the main stage.

I had never meet or seen my heroes in action. I used to flair and watch these guys to learn new tricks now I had the opportunity to meet them. I got the chance to meet guys like Dean Sernells, Ken Hall & Christian Delpech. Dean & Ken are the godfathers of flair, they were the peers that so many people have looked up to throughout there careers. And Christian Delpech is the master of the tin and bottle; he is the most decorated flair tender ever. It was a true honour to meet the guys that have shaped a part of my career. It was an absolute privilege that night when I actually got to hang out with these guys.

We finished up the show and I caught up with Chris Cardone, Dean Sernells, Ken Hall & his wife, Jim Allison and a general who’s who of the bartending industry at Bar Americana. We enjoyed cocktails, some dinner and dessert at one of Booby Flays fantastic restaurants. The conversation turned from work related to how Sopranos was going to end, Ken got the conversation heated when this topic was raised. We ended our dinner early so Ken could get back to the hotel and see the last episode.

Chris, I & Dean parted ways with Jim, Ken & his wife and headed to Little Branch. This was the bar I was waiting for, it was downstairs in a small little basement but the cocktails were fantastic & the crowd were all the top guys from the flair world. It was like a speakeasy from the 1920’s, the bartenders dressed in crisp white business shirts, black ties and suspenders. The ingredients on the bar were the freshest you could find, the sort of place I would love to one day own. I think I spent about five minutes there before I got called upstairs to meet up again with Jim, Ken and his lovely wife. They had got reservations at Milk & Honey for six and were heading down.

I have to give a big thank you out to Dean Serneels, the consummate gentleman bartender. He gave up his seat so that I could truly experience a NY cocktail bar. We caught a cab to the lower east side and got dropped off at a dirty, garbage filled alley with panhandlers still rummaging through the towers of trash that lined the street. We walked down the street a little and found what we were looking for, the most elusive and exclusive cocktail bars in New York. Behind a barred, dusty window lay the words “Tailoring, M&H, Alterations” in the turn of the century gold letters. The buzzer on the door gave us a final clue and as Ken pushed the button I knew I had reached the holy-grail.

As the door buzzed with and we pushed through the heavy door we were fronted with two heavy black curtains that swan around us in such a confined space. We finally pushed through and were met by a small long space, exposed brick on the walls, candle light and the gentle sounds of music. We walked up to the bartender, a short, funky looking guy dressed sharply and he motioned for us to take a seat. The whole room could only fit maybe thirty people in tiny, private booths. We were soon joined by the bartender who introduced himself in a very Australian twang that his name was Sam and that he would be looking after us. Sam was an ex-pat from Down Under chasing the same thing I was, fame and fortune.

There are no lists at M&H, the bartenders custom make each of your cocktails for you personally. Sam went round the table jotting down our preferences, likes and dislikes and then scurried off to his very small but very well appointed bar. Having an experience at M&H is not about speed of service, it’s about the drinks that come out. I asked for a Chartreuse based cocktail, Sam didn’t disappoint. An eclectic mix of cognac, Chartreuse, ginger and lemon juice was placed in front of me. We rotated our drinks around the table so that everyone could experience each persons drink, all were exceptional conceived and prepared.

Soon the talk turned to work and mixology; questions were flying to and fro about the sexuality of gin and how do you do this or do that. Imagine, I was sitting with my heroes and they were asking me what I thought. We got another round; Ken received quite possibly the best pina colada I have ever tasted. I also got a treat, a concoction of scotch, honey and lime juice it tasted just like smoked, bbq ribs. An awesome achievement, thanks to Sam for giving us all an experience that we could enjoy.

We left M&H and met up with all the other crew at the hotel. We still wanted to keep going and began walking somewhere; we were all pretty tipsy so any direction was fine. We found ourselves in an Irish pub just outside Time Square, a stereotypical joint with carved wood, high ceilings and 15 different beers on tap. A mob of 20 bartenders just descended on this place at almost midnight on a Sunday night. We ordered a round of drinks, some food and burrowed in for a few drinks to finish the night off.

After a few hours, the group began to dwindle and the core players that started the night were there till the end. Chris & Jim were in one corner discussing the politics of flair competition judging. Ize and Ken’s wife were discussing something in Mexican; meanwhile Ken and I were discussing the difference between US, Canadian & Australian service. After this everything began to become a bit of a blur, apparently I picked up Chris Cardone and carried him out of the bar. We all caught cabs back to our respective hotels and I woke up the next morning with a migraine and little recollections of the wee hours of the previous night.

It was Monday, competition day. I had entered the Marie Brizzard Mixology Competition a few weeks before and now was the up on stage performance. I watch as the mixologists walked in and started preparing for the event, there were about 27 of us and I was up last. While I waited for my turn, I hooked up with my editor and we schmoozed the show crowd & made connections.

It was my turn up on stage, I always promised to put on a show for the crowd & I did. Taking photos, chatting to the crowd and enjoying being up on stage after so long. I had the biggest show happening across the building, Christian Delpech’s flair performance. I know who I would prefer to watch. I created my cocktails and waited for the judges to decide, I didn’t win. But I had so many people telling me I should have from the show I put on, it was worth it.

I spent the rest of the day relaxing with Mike and Andrew from New York Bar Store and Anthony from Chilled Magazine. The rest of my trip was expensive cab trip after cab trip, traveling everywhere from Long Island to Uptown and back out to the airport. I was exhausted by the time my flight left JFK at midnight that night, but I was glad to be headed home. If it wasn’t for Mike, Andrew & Anthony, I may never had one of the best bartending experiences of my life. The people I met, the places I saw, ate and drank at & the city I saw was worth the money swindling cab drivers, the smelly crowded streets, the enormous skyscrapers & the loss at the competition. All worth it & I would do it all again, hopefully sooner than later.

Shawn Soole
August 21, 2007

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