Interview with Sasha Petraske - Milk & Honey etc

First of all, sorry for the lack of updates, it's certainly very time consuming to write about cocktails but obviously also to drink them. Nevertheless, I've finally managed to transcribe the short interview I did with Sasha Petraske on March 3, when he was here in Stockholm as one of the judges in the Absolut Invite competition. This conversation took place as the competitors prepared for the second day of challenges. Please remind me to never do live interviews again, it took me ages to get through these recordings...

Sasha Petraske and Andreas Bergman, photo © William Leach

What do you think about the competition so far?


It's great, I especially like seeing the young bartenders from the Baltics.

How are they different from the other competitors?

They're just beginning, but I predict a very rapid increase in quality. I see great things coming from eastern Europe. The technical ability isn't necessarily there yet, but the enthusiasm is, and where enthusiasm goes, ability will follow. Mainly, they all have a great attitude, and enjoy what they're doing. I very much approve of brands spending money on things like this, and the further they reach the better. The cross pollination of bringing bartenders from Latvia to New York does so much good, as opposed to just bringing bartenders from London to New York and vice versa. The further off the contestant comes from, it's money well spent for the brand, and also good very for the industry.

How did you come up with the idea of a cocktail conference in San Antonio, Texas?

A restaurant sent headhunters to New York to determine who was going to be their consultant, and it turned out to be what I think is probably one of the best steakhouses in the world, Bohanan's Prime Steaks and Seafood in San Antonio, absolutely phenomenal. I was brought out there, and I just fell in love with Texas. It's a part of the United States that has the least regulation, and because of that it's possible to be creative.

So, the first conference was this January?

Yes, I think it will rapidly get much larger, and it's always going to be in the end of January. This coming year we're gonna try to have less brand sponsorships. I think they'll still sponsor the parties, but not the contests or the educational seminars.

Are you happy with how it went?

Extremely, I was not expecting it to go that well at all, I was expecting it to be a mess. We'll make it even better in the future, though. A funny parallel, at the same time that we got the idea for the conference, and that it would be a non-profit and charity event, some young bartenders in Oslo got the idea to do the Oslo Cocktail Conference, and they had me come out there as a speaker. They had a similar idea of having it not brand driven, and just kind of a grassroot, educational event. It was very successful, and I will be going there every year. I urge anyone who reads your blog to go to Oslo.

Have you heard about the cocktail conference in Copenhagen?

No, and I still haven't been to Copenhagen. On my next trip, I'll come back here because I missed a very good friend of mine, Andreas Norén who runs 1900. Now when I finally managed to come to Stockholm he was away, so I'm gonna come again to see him, and make a trip to Oslo and Copenhagen. Anywhere else you can recommend as far as the cocktail industry, maybe I'll try to make a speaking tour or something like that.

When I was in Copenhagen last weekend I met Jim Meehan (PDT), and he said that nowadays there is a cocktail week or cocktail conference in every city, so you can basically make a living from doing seminars at all of them. Do you think there's a risk for overkill?

There's nothing wrong with something becoming commercial, for the customers instead of for the staff, but these things will always start as an industry thing for the staff, because that's where the interest is. The ultimate goal for any cocktail conference would be to have more customers as visitors than professionals.

Sasha Petraske and Mathin Lundgren, photo © William Leach 

Do you have any experience of Stockholm?


No, this is my first time ever. Andreas Norén was the opening manager of Milk & Honey in London, which is where we became friends. We worked together for six months, and I always promised to come visit him here.

You're moving Milk & Honey in New York to a bigger space, and you're also about to open a new bar called Middle Branch?

With Middle Branch it's me and the same partners of Little Branch, we're opening in Midtown. We actually just finished building it a couple of days ago and will hopefully open in about six weeks. The new Milk & Honey is gonna be, probably, eight or ten weeks from now, God willing. It's gonna be three times as big, in a non residential neighbourhood, which is a very big issue in a tight city like Manhattan. It will have an interesting entrance, not necessarily hidden, but it will be a clothing store during the day. I'm doing my own line of menswear, shirts, suits and stuff, and so we'll sell coffee, aperitifs and clothes during the day, and there will be a barber chair to get a haircut or a shave. At seven o'clock it will change over to be a cocktail bar. With the way rents are right now, I have to be open during the day, and I've always wanted to get New Yorkers to drink aperitifs, like Italians, a light alcohlic drink in the afternoon like Campari and soda. So, I'm gonna have a very wide selection of aperitivi.

You also recently opened a bar in Melbourne, Australia?

Yes, two of my employees moved back to Australia and opened a great bar called The Everleigh, which I recommend very, very highly. I lived there for a month, just to help to set it up. It's a very interesting, young and wide open city, it reminds me of New York City in the eighties.

A few months ago, Sam Ross and Mike McIlroy did a Milk & Honey pop-up bar here in Stockholm just for one evening which was very appreciated, would you be interested in opening something on a permanent basis here?

Yes, I would need a local partner who I trust and would be willing to come to New York for six months to learn, but it can't be called Milk & Honey. I don't want a franchise or a chain, each bar should be a sailing ship with its own captain, name and flag. Little Branch is not Milk & Honey, it's slightly different, the main owner was my first head bartender. There's a new bar called Silver Lining, which is largely run by someone who used to work for Joseph [Schwartz, Little Branch]. Taking a good employee and making him a partner in a new place, and then you give him creative control and responsibility for that place, I believe this works so much better than trying to make a Starbucks. You can't make twenty bars all the same, and if you try you'll fail.

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