1534's Justin Noel Talks Frenchified Cocktails, Serving Jon Stewart & the World's Most Expensive Mai Tai

Justin Noel
Justin Noel

1534, the new cocktail bar located beneath the French bistro Jacques in Nolita, is opening ce soir with its menu of colonially inspired drinks and snacks. Head bartender Justin Noel started working with the bar a few months back as a consultant (he's with Contemporary Cocktails, which has designed beverage programs for the Breslin and Forty-Four at the Royalton). The relationship blossomed into a partnership, he says, so you can expect to see him behind the bar, starting tonight at 5, and for many moons to come.

What's the concept behind the cocktail menu?

We came up with a French-colonial theme. You've got the French restaurant [Jacques] upstairs and the bastard little children of France downstairs. We didn't want to pigeonhole ourselves. It's easy to jump to tiki or whatever, but we wanted to be able to diversify the menu as much as possible. The menu breaks up into different parts of the former colonial empire: the Americas, the Indochina colonies, French Polynesia, and Africa.

And the name?

1534 is an important date in French history that also had a gentleman by the name of Jacques in it. It was the year Jacques Cartier left France to discover a trade route to the Pacific and ended up going north instead and hitting Canada. It was kind of anti-climactic.

So, any poutine on the menu?

We're actually thinking of putting one on there. We'll see.

What's your favorite food-and-cocktail pairing on the menu?

I really like the merquez meatballs paired with the Foreign Legion punch, which is a cognac cocktail with chai red bush tea, lemon, demerara, and black cherry preserves. The tannin-y, sweet aspect of the cocktail pairs well with the spice and full flavor of the meatballs.

What have you tried to do differently from other high-end cocktail bars?

We're not trying to be a speakeasy. Nothing against speakeasies, but I think it has become a buzzword that people use to denote a bar that's small and does cocktails. The reality is that we're a small bar, but I wanted to do something more in the London style, where it's underground, it's a place where you can go and be comfortable and relaxed, and at the same time get a great drink and be in a great atmosphere.

We don't have that in New York?

In a lot of places in New York, they give you a choice. They say you can either get great decor and great music, but everything else will suck. Or you can go to a spot with cocktails and great food, but then it's got jazz music and an uncomfortable setting with bad lighting. We're just trying to be more informal cocktail geeks. We cut our own ice; we have our own infusions and syrup. But not the quintessential bow-tie-vest-and-mustache venue. Nothing against those spots, but we're trying to get away from that.   What's your earliest cocktailing memory?

This is by no stretch of the imagination my first cocktail experience, but it's the most memorable: I used to work at SkyBar in South Beach. They moved the MTV Awards to Miami, and Jon Stewart was down there. We were doing different flavors of mojitos, and he came up and asked, "What's a mojito?" I don't think I served him his first-ever mojito, but I made him one right then and there with coconut rum. Nowadays, it's kind of a bastard thing to do, but that was what we had down in South Beach back in the day.

What's your go-to hangover cure?

I love Vitamin Water Rescue Green Tea. When I wake up in the morning and feel like shit, I drink that and become normal. But for the alcoholic-minded individual, you should do a shot of anything that's agave-based, like tequila.

What's your take on caffeinated alcohol beverages like Four Loko? Evil or fun treat?

I'm not the biggest fan of them. Most of it will make you sick, but if someone wants to put that in their body, who am I to tell them no? I'll never have any in my bar. I think they're evil in the sense that somebody had the need to make crack in a can. No matter what companies do, people are going to put stuff in their bodies that probably shouldn't go in there anyway.

You're on death row and have been granted one final drink. What is it?

I don't think they serve this anymore, but the Merchant Hotel in Belfast had the world's most expensive Mai Tai. They used a 25-year-old rum for it. Based on description[s], that would be my drink. Anything they save the bottle's last four ounces of for celebrity bartenders from around the world to use, really. But that'd be a great cocktail to have on death row.

Have a restaurant tip or other food-related news? Send it to fork@villagevoice.com.


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