What do you like to drink after a shift? “I have a strict policy of not drinking on the job. This is mostly because I am constantly tasting and, despite the ubiquitous belief that your talents improve after a few drinks, I know that any amount of impairment of my senses could negatively affect the taste experiences of my guests. So, the best end of shift drink for me is a solid palate cleanser. I find that a gin and soda (no, I didn’t say tonic!) does the trick.”
What is the all-time best dive bar jukebox song? “I can think of several, but lately I’ve been repeatedly playing “D’yer Mak’er” by Led Zeppelin. I just introduced it to my five-year-old daughter and she sings it just about non-stop. ‘You don’t have to go—oh—oh—oh—oh…to bed!’ she sings.”
What drink should be banished and why? “Aren’t we really here to provide our guests with what they want? Many badly balanced and poorly created cocktails exist in the countless cocktail experiences that people have had, but when someone wants something in particular, there’s a reason they like it. Wouldn’t it be my responsibility as a hospitality professional to do what is in my power to provide that person with the experience they desire? I’d be more than happy to switch it up a bit by utilizing fresh ingredients and better components, though, if I think the original version needs a bit of work.”
Name the first good drink you ever drank and where you had it. “On my second trip to Europe, I had an Italian bartender in Milan make me his version of a Negroni. He substituted the gin with bourbon, saying American whiskey would better suite me as an American myself. I hadn’t previously known cocktails could be this good and I found myself coming back every night for one for the entire month I stayed in Milan that visit. This was in my early bartending days (I don’t want to tell you how long ago this was and whether I was into flair bartending or not at the time) and it was about a year later that I realized that this cocktail wasn’t the bartender’s own creation, but a really good classic known as a Boulevardier. Decades later this is still in my arsenal as one of the best ever cocktails.”
What book on cocktails, spirits or food is your go-to resource? “Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide to Great American Writers by Mark Bailey. This isn’t the book that lists out hundreds or thousands of cocktail recipes or tells you what flavor pairs with what. Instead—as cocktails are so much more than the sum of their parts; they have history and stories hiding behind every sip—it helps me to put a background, story, and timeless meaning to what I do.”
What’s your favorite bottle of booze that costs less than $25? “I have many, many. But I do have to say that I love Iron Balls, which is a gin that is fermented and distilled from tropical ingredients in Bangkok, Thailand, and is not currently available in the U.S.”
What’s your favorite bottle of booze that costs more than $100? “I have many, many more. But right now, I’m a huge fan of WhistlePig The Boss Hog IV Black Prince 14-Year-Old Rye Whiskey. It’s pretty pricey, but OH MY GOD!”
What’s your favorite cocktail and food pairing? “A very wet Martini with fresh durian. You have to start with a bite of the durian and wash it down with the Martini. I find durian a bit hard to stomach normally, but when I eat it in this manner, it’s one of the best things in the world.”
What drink are you most proud of creating? “I have this recurring nightmare that one day I’ll wake up and will be all out of ideas and will never be able to create another good cocktail. I know it sounds ridiculously cheesy, but I’m proud of all of them. I have done hundreds of cocktail menus in three dozen countries (yes, this is not an exaggeration) and I do have to admit that I’m incredibly pleased with the seasonal selection at The 18th Room. This is partly because it was created as a challenging task of making a no-impact selection (no waste, sustainable, environmentally conscious, and just plain good). And it’s partly because, although I regularly take the input of a bar team in the creation of a menu, I don’t normally collaborate on my cocktail creations—and this time I did. Working very much in depth with the incredible Australian bartender, Brendan Bartley, over several months, we crafted a seasonal selection that utilizes parts of the fruit you would not normally even consider doing anything with but throwing in the trash. I call it my “This-Is-The-House-That-Jack-Built” approach to bartending, since one ingredient is used for something else that is in turn used for something else, et cetera. And then, after a few months, we scrap the list and do a new selection for the new season.”
What’s your favorite shot-and-a-beer combination? “I really don’t do shots; if it’s a good spirit, I’m the square at the bar sipping out of my shot glass. And I very seldom drink beer. With that said, though, I do think the combination of a Kagua Rouge Beer and a side of Diplomatico Ambassador Rum is sublime.”
What is the one tool that you always make sure to pack when you’re traveling for business? “I used to pack everything with me. I have an old fabric toolbox from Home Depot that had every imaginable bar tool in it that I would check in with my luggage on all my flights. (I used to travel internationally opening bars around the world 350 days out of the year, so the toolbox got a lot of use.) But decent bar tools are almost (but not quite) ubiquitous now, so now the one thing I must travel with is a small measuring cup. There’s a lot of odd-amount unmarked jiggers out there and I need to make certain I know what I’m working with.”
Joseph Boroski is the beverage director of New York’s The 18th Room.
Interview has been condensed and edited.