If anyone knows how to booze, it’s bartender Marshall Altier. He even co-wrote the book on it: How to Booze: Exquisite Cocktails and Unsound Advice, released last year. Most recently, he helped launch Jbird, the latest in a string of new speakeasies to crop up in areas of the city previously unfrequented by cocktail geeks. Fork in the Road caught up with him for some hints on how to spend one’s sips these days.
Describe the drinks at Jbird.
The guys at Jbird had a pretty clear vision of what they wanted: a big list with lots of different techniques and the most up-to-date methods and wares that the cocktail and culinary scenes are utilizing at the moment, with its roots in pre-Prohibition-era classics. The list is divided into cocktail “family trees,” so to speak. For example, all of the “sour” style drinks are grouped next to “Old Fashioned cocktails.” We have also put together a really cool mix of “Old, New, and Borrowed” drinks. “New” being originals from myself and my partner on the project, Jason Littrell; “Borrowed” being a few drinks from some of our favorite bartenders from around the country. It was a really fun undertaking.
Seems like there are big plans for the concept, what with two more locations coming.
At the moment, we are focused on making sure that the cocktails are being executed to the highest possible level at the 48th Street location. I haven’t even begun to think beyond that. I can say that we have had a really great experience working with Jamie [Hinojos] and Josh [Kaiser] and the Jbird crew, and we can’t wait for the next thing to come up.
You opened during a rash of cocktail-bar openings. Is the genre experiencing an overkill in New York these days?
It definitely feels saturated and overwhelming at times. It’s hard for me to even keep up on visiting friends at all of the new locations. That said, there is always room for a great new concept in New York and we feel that taking the “downtown” cocktail mentality above 23rd Street is both interesting and important to do.
What is your ideal bar?
I like simple bars with an eclectic mix of people. I always think about the vibe I got at Passerby [Toby Cecchini’s now-defunct bar]. That was a great New York bar. It doesn’t matter if it’s a wine bar or molecular mixology. … My ideal bar is different from day to day and depends on if I’m out for the night to explore, celebrate, start a fight, or just get a drink after a shift. What I can say is that my perfect bar has a really eclectic, killer jukebox full of old country, rock, r&b, jazz, and hip-hop and really cold beers ready to drink.
Who would be your ideal customer?
Someone who knows what they want and is still open to a new experience. I would like to have served Orson Welles a drink.
If they served booze on death row and you committed some heinous crime in, say, Texas, what would be your drink of choice?
I might just want a completely careless and tantric wine experience for that one. A crazy good vintage of Sassicaia, nosed for a long time in a big ol’ stem glass and then taken to the face. Yeah, I said it. What are some of the city’s establishments that inspire you?
The vibe at Marshall Stack is still one of the best in New York. One of my favorite bars of all time is my old local from my first apartment, Clandestino on Canal Street. It’s just such a democratic place and exemplary of what the neighborhood has to offer: people from all walks who meet and talk over simple drink. That’s New York! As a whole, what Marco Canora and Paul Grieco have put together with the Terroir locations is awesome. The parties at P.S.1 have been epic and really made an impression on me since moving here. Taking a trip to Nathan’s Famous‘ original on Coney Island never loses its magic.
You published a book and helped launch several new bars in the past year. What’s next for you?
More projects with Jason Littrell as we start to really focus in on events production through our company, Critical Mass. We will also continue to focus on hospitality and bar programs here in New York and beyond. I’ve got a really exciting project coming up in Hong Kong that will hopefully blaze a trail in the city. We are employing Hong Kong’s first restaurant rooftop urban garden, filled with exotic herbs, fruits, and vegetables. We are looking to bring in beehives on the roof! Also, I’m just sitting back down with my writing partner, Jordan Kaye, to flesh out a follow up to our book. As for Jbird, Jason and I will be behind the stick making sure that our guests are getting the best possible drinking experience, served with a genuine passion for hospitality and the craft. It’s that simple.