Oral History of Milk & Honey's Beginnings

https://punchdrink.com/articles/milk-and-honey-cocktail-bar-nyc-new-years-eve-1991/

I thought some here might be interested in this oral history I put together for Punch about the early days of Milk & Honey. It’s the 20th anniversary of the bar’s opening. Some of this history may be familiar to you. But, even though I’ve done a good deal of research into Milk & Honey over the years, I still learned a few new things, particularly from Kelvin Perez, M&H first employee and longtime bar back.

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A good read, for sure.

I suppose I’m growing a little wary about over-mythologizing Milk & Honey, though. I was a bit late to visit Milk & Honey—I probably didn’t get there for the first time until some point in mid-to-late 2000. I’d already been spending plenty of time at Audrey’s restaurant bars, Beacon and Tonic, at Julie’s C3 bar, and various DeGroff activities. So, Milk & Honey was a very different atmosphere (but not entirely unlike Angel’s Share), and the drinks and service were quite nice. However, from the customer’s side of the bar, with my particular prior experience, there was nothing shocking to me about Milk & Honey—not even the hassle of getting in, which I’d already encountered at Angel’s Share. Would craft cocktails really not have happened without Milk & Honey? I think they would have happened anyway, just maybe a bit slower, maybe with a somewhat different trajectory and order of progression. We certainly would have been poorer without Sasha and all the personnel and joints he spun off.

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I take the opposite view. I don’t intend to mythologize Milk & Honey, but I think it’s hard to overemphasize its influence. Beacon, Tonic, C3 and even Dale’s work were important stepping stones, in their way, but they failed to spark the imagination of other bartenders and bargoers to the enormous degree M&H did. Even Angel Share’s, as seminal as it was, is important basically because it inspired Sasha to use some of the same ideas in M&H. In 14 years of covering this business, I’ve heard dozens of stories of how people walked away from M&H wanting to be a better bartender or create a bar like it elsewhere. I’ve never heard any such stories in regards to the other bars mentioned.

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Happily, I think our points of view are not so much in opposition as on different axes.

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Agreed. Here’s one interesting comment from Chad Solomon that I wasn’t able to fit into the oral history. It was in response to what he thought the legacy of M&H was.

“Sadly the one thing that I feel hasn’t caught on in any meaningful way is a wariness and safe distance from liquor companies. On the whole, Milk & Honey was fiercely independent, and operated on the periphery of the industry. It is this independence of thought that fueled it and it’s influence in the first place.”

Too true.

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I like that.

What is the current roster of still-operational Petraske programs?

To my reckoning:

Attaboy (NYC)
Little Branch (NYC)
Middle Branch (NYC)
Varnish (LA)
Everleigh (Melbourne)
Milk & Honey (London)
Seaborne (Brooklyn)
Dutch Kills (Brooklyn)

Once could go further; I think most bars founded by Petraske acolytes, ever after his death, are basically Petraske programs (Fresh Kills, Attaboy in Nashville, etc.). But those are the bars that he had an actually hand in (though Seaborne, one of his projects, opened after his death).

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I think Milk & Honey’s biggest influence was that it created the “bar team.” Bartenders there shared an aesthetic and a common purpose, like members of a rock band do. Before that, they were independent contractors. If they did the job right and made money for the boss, that was the most important thing. Beyond that was their own business. If they worked at a great bar, they might take pride in that, but it was more individual pride in their capabilities than a collective sense of mission. Today, one hears incessantly about the team. There are awards for it. Until Sasha, that team used to be the staff.

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The “bar team” seemed to enable long-term relationships, and for subsets of Milk & Honey bartenders to open—with Sasha or not—other establishments. I gather Sasha used new equity in establishments as a way to reward and enfranchise the people closest to him.

What other distinctions did the “bar team” idea bring?

Sasha did indeed reward loyalty by opening new bars with his longtime bartenders. Thus Little Branch (Joseph Schwartz), Dutch Kills (Richie Boccato), Middle Branch (Lucinda Sterling), Everleigh (Michael Madrusun) and Attaboy (Sam Ross and Michael McIlroy). If fact, towards the end of his life, he sometimes bemoaned that his partners were doing better financially and professionally than he was.

The Bar Team aspect is an important point. Beyond that, I think Sasha fostered a certain aesthetic and cultural mindset that his team took with them no matter where they went. Every bar opened by a Petraske bartender has always felt like a Petraske bar to me. Same basic standards and tenets.

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I think the other things the bar team concept did are a) increase knowledge, since the bartenders were working together, rather than as independent contractors, and were far more likely to pool knowledge and work together on educational goals, and b) make bartending look cool to young creatives seeking a place in the world. If they had the right attitude, the team would teach them the skills. That was, and is, very powerful.

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