In late 2001, a small group of bartenders at the most popular bars in downtown Manhattan saw the writing on the wall: chefs in the vanguard were beginning to use ingredients that they touted on their menus as “homemade,” “handcrafted,” and “organic,” and the public was paying attention. The bartenders saw change coming to their craft, too. The days of the vodka Martini were numbered. So they launched a project to change the way people were drinking in their town. Little did they know that they would help destroy bottle service, bring back classic cocktail culture, and singlehandedly revive the mustache. Paving the Way for Classic Cocktails
Our story begins in 1998, when we were young, eager bartenders behind the wildly fashionable bar Pravda, located in Manhattan’s über-hip SoHo neighborhood. Pravda, a Soviet Russia–themed subterranean vodka and Martini bar, was envisioned by restaurant mogul Keith McNally and opened in 1996 under the tutelage of Dale DeGroff, the most influential figure in the rebirth of the cocktail. Pravda was one of the first bars to take the leap into making drinks with fresh juices and Boston shakers. Ironically, the classic American bar style was the heart of the communist-themed lounge. Pravda’s cocktail menu was heavy on vodka, with more than nine homemade infusions on the menu and more than a hundred frozen vodkas from all over the world. But the cocktails incorporated fresh and seasonal ingredients and were executed in the classic style of bartending, focusing on technique and balance of flavor. Any drink on the menu made with vodka served up could be called a Martini. This opened up enormous possibilities of what could go into a Martini. Pravda set a new level of quality and expertise that few other restaurants could live up to.
Your then-young, fearless authors worked at Pravda, and we quickly became friends. After closing, we would sit in big armchairs and share stories, drinks, ideas, and laughter, unwinding from another frenzied evening of bartending. Before long, we were the major contributors to the direction of Pravda’s cocktail menu. The timing coincided with the emergence of a new American interest in good food. The nation was getting its first taste of the Food Network, and chefs were reaching celebrity status. People became obsessed with writings and publications about food, and the Internet made information accessible to all those who sought it. In the world of mixology, the Martini was the perfect medium to incorporate strange and exotic fruits and herbs not seen before in cocktails. The moniker Martini gave consumers a comfort level in ordering these wild new concoctions. The Martini became the gateway drug that eventually pulled people into the world of classic drink making—a vehicle for introducing then-uncommon ingredients such as pomegranates, blood oranges, and kumquats. We crafted our own syrups and revised the existing recipes with all-natural ingredients. The infusions once made with sweetened sulfured dried fruit now contained both fresh and dried organic produce.
After working at Pravda for more than a year, Dale DeGroff held a follow-up training there. Dale is the godfather, the James Brown of drink making. Dale spoke of the history of the cocktail and instilled in us a pride to treat our jobs as a profession. He described it as a centuries-old craft handed down from generation to generation. He gave us an original copy of the How to Mix Drinks or the Bon Vivant’s Companion—the first-ever cocktail book, published in 1862 by the father of our profession, the “Professor,” Jerry Thomas. We had an epiphany as to how many generations had delved into its secrets. It compelled us to research the foundations of cocktail making and resurrect long-lost ideas. As there was no demand for such books at the time, we easily created our own library, thanks to eBay and used bookstores. We lined up our books chronologically to make comparisons, draw conclusions, and witness the evolution of the cocktail. Dale continued to periodically instruct us over the next few years as we developed our own style.
Crafting homemade ingredients like the masters of old became our focus. Moving beyond one-note cocktails, we raided the kitchen to develop intricate flavors. We began to realize that vodka as a spirit was preventing our cocktails from realizing their full potential. It simply does not contribute any flavor. We reached for gin, brandy, and rye whiskey—and our drinks came bursting to life. However, these cocktails clearly had no place in a vodka Martini bar—and now, neither did we. Change In the City
The real push for us to open our own bar came after September 11, 2001. Before that date, New York was an exciting city with an air of perpetual adolescence, and we were reaping the benefits of all this lifestyle had to offer. After the initial shock of the terrorist attacks, the downtown New York restaurant and nightlife scene seemed to change. People contend that America lost its innocence that day, but it also lost its naughtiness. Nightlife in the city became sporadic, sober, and dull. Destinations that used to be open until 4 a.m. were closing their doors early; only a handful of restaurants stayed open past midnight. New York’s restaurant employees were the ones most affected by this. Our income became inconsistent, and there were few options to go out to after a hard night’s work. While mega-clubs and bottle service dominated the late-night scene, restaurant employees would gather in small dark pubs, sharing stories. There was a sense of camaraderie among us misfits (who, by the way, now run and own some of the best restaurants and bars in the country). We wanted to capture this feeling and bottle it.
Our ambitions were simple: to open up a first-class cocktail bar that would be entirely owner operated. Over the course of a week, we would completely staff that bar ourselves, creating a direct link between the customer and the establishment. We wanted to transport people back to a time when drinking cocktails was part of a lifestyle, and to romanticize it. A secluded destination was ideal for this concept, to keep out the distractions of daily life and reserve the restaurant for people in the know. Many locations we scouted were too big for our original concept, so we envisioned a faux business exposed to the street with two swinging doors passively marked “Employees Only,” which would lead into our hidden cocktail den. Employees Only came to represent the fact that we, the owners, were also working there (see our photos on page 8). It also beckoned our intended audience of peers in the business. Finally, it created a barrier between the real world and the restaurant industry. Drawing Inspiration from the Speakeasy
We found the perfect metaphor to romanticize our concept in the speakeasies of the 1920s Prohibition era. It was a time when cocktails were truly forbidden fruit and finding them was a risky, clandestine adventure. To be historically correct, however, we should point out that few speakeasies looked like Francis Ford Coppola’s Cotton Club. Most were little more than dingy basements with a wood plank on top of two barrels and a couple of chairs. This may sound disenchanting, but speakeasies were also the first places where it was socially acceptable for women to drink with men. Flappers emerged, and, together with fellow male imbibers, took their chances in defying the new law.
Don’t think for a moment that, in their defiance, people were raising perfectly crafted cocktails. Most speakeasies served whatever alcohol they could get their hands on. Most drinks that were served were horrible—and some, containing poisonous methyl alcohol, were even lethal. Many of the mixed drinks created during Prohibition fell into one of two categories: those designed to mask the flavor of bad hooch and those created outside of the country. Either way, Prohibition accelerated the evolution of the cocktail and exported it around the world.
Before Prohibition, cocktails were a purely American phenomenon. They represented the melting pot of the inhabitants of this young country. The idea of “bastardizing” a spirit was appalling to most in Europe, where the cocktail did not progress past simple aperitifs. When the reality of Prohibition set in, many well-to-do Americans vacationed in other countries where booze flowed like water. Realizing this, expert bartenders discovered new places to display their craft. Some emigrated to Caribbean islands such as Cuba, a mere ninety miles from U.S. shores; others fled to Europe and Great Britain, where drinking was part of the daily lifestyle. Cities like London, Paris, and Milan became the stomping grounds of the thirsty American elite.
Out of these migrations, new cocktails were born. Influenced by their surroundings, bartenders in the Caribbean crafted tropical cocktails with new flavors never seen before in mixology. In Europe, many expanded on the aperitif, and old-world flavors crept into cocktail making. New spirits and bitters native to these countries increased the complexity of the cocktails created there. Back in the United States, the small number of speakeasies had to play down the poor quality of bathtub gin, white lightning, and the merchandise of rum runners. Some had to become very creative.
Though Prohibition ended up a failed experiment and many of the cocktails consumed in the speakeasies are best forgotten, drinking was changed forever. Mixology was recognized as a culinary art form around the globe, and cocktails as the first original American contribution to the world of gastronomy. By the time Prohibition was repealed on December 5, 1933, cocktails had attained worldwide acceptance and influence. The notion of what could be a cocktail had expanded exponentially. Seventy years later, we decided to take this idea and romanticize it, to give it our own incarnation. We realized that most restaurateurs were bringing Paris and Shanghai to New York, yet no one was trying to preserve what New York was infamous for. Employees Only would be a New York speakeasy. The Cocktails
The vision behind the bar at Employees Only was to take a culinary approach to classic mixology. All cocktails would be either reenvisioned or modified classics or inspired by classic themes or ingredients. By blending drinks with homemade and contemporary ingredients, we sought to change the way people perceived the old standards and to make cocktail drinking as fun and accessible as it once had been. In a reprint of How to Mix Drinks or the Bon Vivant’s Companion, we found our bar jackets in a portrait of a bartender wearing a clean white coat similar to a chef’s coat. The white coat would let people know that we were serious about our craft and that great effort went into creating our little masterpieces. (Just for the record, in no way were we pretending to be chefs. We are not chefs; we are bartenders. We have the utmost respect for someone who slaves away in a kitchen creating edible art under heat and pressure.) And because the bartender in question wore the same handlebar mustache as our partner, Igor, the picture was complete.
The mustache thing was a coincidence. When we opened, people wrote rave reviews about the “mustachioed” bartenders of Employees Only. What was really scary was when the mustaches began popping up on the other side of the bar.
In late December 2004, Employees Only opened to a select group of friends and industry colleagues. The turnout and the immediate, overwhelming response were shocking. Within a few months, our little secret was out. People from all walks of life and countries passed through the vestibule to taste our libations. Every night at 6:00 p.m., we opened to a bar full of women. We would joke that we would buy a drink for the first man to get a seat at the bar, which would usually happen around 8:00 p.m. Six months later, we held a seminar in London; more than two hundred people attended to find out more about our little gem. Employees Only had become a world-class neighborhood restaurant.
And over the years, EO has become a New York City institution. On any given night of the week, after midnight we have an additional surge of customers: cooks, bartenders, and industry leaders from around the city. We serve more than 130,000 cocktails each year, making EO one of the highest-grossing cocktail bars per square foot. Since our opening, many “speakeasy” cocktail bars have opened up worldwide, bringing that ambience of intimacy and seclusion to other neighborhoods and cities. Popular American culture has become obsessed with period pieces from the last century, and marketing agencies have begun to use vintage packaging and messages to grab consumers’ attention. Restaurants everywhere must now educate their bartenders on proper technique, and bar-restaurant hybrids are found in many major U.S. cities. The greatest compliments that we receive are not from the press but from the young women who dance on the bar one night, then bring their families in for dinner the next to show how mature they are.
They say God protects fools and drunks, and God knows we’ve got both at Employees Only.
Excerpted from Speakeasy by Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric. Copyright © 2010 by Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.