Interview with Sofia Present - Middle Branch / End of the Century Bar

First of all, apologies for not having published anything for a while. Let's just say I've been busy with other things - but now I'm back in business! First out is an interview with Swedish expat Sofia Present, who has been working at some of New York's best cocktail bars during the last ten years. Recently, she opened up End of the Century Bar in Queens together with a couple of friends, but she can still also be found at Midtown Manhattan haunt "Swedish Ninja's Headquarters" aka Middle Branch.

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What made you pursue a career in bartending and how did you get your first bartender job?

Working in the service industry was never my intention but once given the opportunity starting as a host I realized I had a real fascination with cocktails. After training as a server and learning a lot from that, training as a bartender became the next logical step both for me and my employers.

Where are you originally from, and how did you end up at Middle Branch?

I grew up in Umeå, Sweden but have now lived in NYC for over 10 years. When Middle Branch opened up I knew that's where I wanted to work. A new bar with the perks of coming from a "family" of bars that has a well tried out and respected program was exactly what I wanted and I was lucky enough to get hired.

Can you describe the current cocktail concept at End of the Century Bar and the story behind it?

Me and two partners got an opportunity to take over a space out in Forest Hills, Queens. This neighborhood hasn't really seen cocktails before but have high end restaurants so we tried to keep the basic cocktail menu simple, offering a variety of classics and modern classics. We also wanted to add our specialty and passion to it so among other things we also offer Tiki drinks.  Art from all over the globe on the walls and a pool table in the back. Think rockstars who's coming home to their grandparents' livingroom... you can be cool and all but here we are all the same, you can come in, relax, have a drink and a good time.

© Hakima Bird
Which place/places has/have been most important regarding your knowledge and skills?

Well, there are two ways of seeing it for me. I can absolutely say that working at Painkiller (PKNY: a tiki bar)  gave me a somewhat unique skillset if I'm singling out a specific bar but the aspect of coming from Sweden gave me a different perspective on things that has proven to be very useful.

Which is your favourite and least favourite drink to make and why?

 My absolute favorite drink to make is one that makes the guest happy at the same time as I'm proud enough of it to serve to anyone.  I mean I definitely don't mind serving you a vodka & soda but it's not what I would serve to someone looking for an experience.

Least favorite is probably drinks that I suspect you order because you just want to get drunk, not because you're enjoying them.

How would you describe the perfect customer?

There's no such thing. Hah, no, jokes aside I think that most things you do with a good intention translates automatically. Someone who trusts in me to take care of them is always flattering and I think you, as a guest, usually end up having a better time when you relax and allow yourself to enjoy the service.

What's the weirdest drink order you've gotten?

A large party once ordered 20 Zombies at once, such a strong and obscure drink, that definitely made me giggle.

What do you like most about your job?

Same things that makes it hard. It's a constant challenge, it never gets boring. You meet a lot of interesting people. You do a lot of physical movement (lifting, shaking, reaching for ex), at the same time you have to use your brain (memory, math and creativity).

Do you have any special bartending skills you're extra proud of?

My swedishness is a great tool: I might have a little extra patience and politeness that comes naturally for me who was born and raised in the Swedish society.

How do you spend your spare time?

I love going swimming before work, even though I don't get to do it enough, and relaxing with a good movie after. On my few days off I often end up doing something related to work: events, tastings, educational meetings or just visiting friends working at other bars, both for fun and to learn more.

© Lush Life Productions / Natasha Moustache
What do you drink when off duty?

 I love to enjoy some wine but my go to cocktails are classic Daiquiris and Negronis.

What do you have in your private liquor cabinet?

 I rarely drink cocktails or spirits at home so it has become a simple little collection over the years. The few times I do it's the aged rum and whiskey that gets poured.

What upcoming cocktail trends do you think we can expect in the near future?

Low proof cocktails are something that already is trending, almost like a counter movement after the thrill of our little Zombie invasion, along with other strong cocktails. I believe we'll go even more into using wines, amaros and sherries in drinks.

Which are your favourite bars/bartenders around the world and why?

Attaboy, Dutch Kills and Little Branch are bars I love walking into, they remind me why I fell in love with this industry and the quality of their cocktails are amazing.  Bartenders... I have to mention two that comes to mind: Karin Stanley and Sammy Ross are not only great at tending bar and coming up with amazing cocktails but they're also taking the time to answer questions and make an effort to teach you. I will forever be grateful for all the time they've taken to show me the ropes and all the texts with questions from me they've answered.

© Shannon Sturgis / Bartender Yearbook
In your opinon, how do bars in New York/USA compare to Sweden and the rest of the world?

From what I've seen NYC is still the forerunner when it comes to cocktails. Great bars exist elsewhere of course, but what we take for granted here in NYC, when it comes to quality and knowledge, is almost spoiling us. The amount and range there is of amazing cocktails bars here is in my eyes unseen elsewhere.

What are your thoughts regarding the different cocktail competitions you've entered, and what's your opinion on cocktail competitions in general? 

It's rarely about the best cocktail and or presentation. It's so much politics. Let's not forget the ones organizing these events are brands that incorporate bartenders with the end goal to promote their products. That being said it's a fun challenge that will leave you with more experience than you had before and a great opportunity to network.

How do you come up with new cocktail recipes and what inspires you?

I usually start with an idea: "what happens if I combine this" or "how do I achieve this flavor", then I take inspiration from a classic cocktail, using it as a skeleton to build around. The "Mr Potato Head method" as I've heard it called.

Which of your signature drinks, if any, and what else in your career are you most proud of so far? 

Most proud of... hmmm. Maybe the Oresund Bridge Swizzle because I got an opportunity to incorporate swedish spirits. Scandinavian gone Tiki, haha. It's a drink made with Swedish Punsch and Akvavit as a base, with fresh lime and pineapple juice as well as a Cynar float.
The different bars I've had an opportunity to work at is humbling to me, I'm so grateful for the time at PDT, Dutch Kills, Painkiller, Maison Premiere, Pegu Club, The Bourgeious Pig Brooklyn, Gallow Green and Middle Branch. I took so many different experiences with me that I'm able to apply in what I'm doing now.

Where do you see yourself in five years from now? 

Hopefully doing what I'm doing now with more time for education: learning and consulting.

© Alexa Scordato
Would you like to share one of your own recipes?

Here's one that easily can be done at home, and on the subject of low abv cocktails:

The Passport
1 oz Campari
1 oz Cocchi
1 oz Grapefruit juice (freshly squeezed)
1/2 Lime juice (freshly squeezed)
1/2 simple syrup
1 small dash grapefruit bitters.

Give a quick shake, serve in a tall glass on ice and top soda water.

Thank you for reaching out to me, and let me blab about my passion. Always fun to intellectualize what we're doing.
Cheers!

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