Junoon's John Filby On Indian Cocktails, Unruly Customers and New York's Drinking Scene v. London's

Junoon's John Filby
Junoon's John Filby

If you thought fancy cocktails were something to be sipped only with house-made charcuterie, local cheese, and other dressed-up bar bites, you were sorely mistaken. Junoon, the nouveau Indian that opened off Madison Square Park last December, has just relaunched its bar as a proper cocktail lounge called Patiala, where you can sip something before dinner or even with a meal. Bartender John Filby explains.

How do you make cocktails to go with modern Indian food?

We wanted to do something with the bar that was an extension of the restaurant menu. With the whole mixology craze, a cocktail program is kind of expected now. We use a lot of the spices in the drinks that we use in the food. ... Cumin, curry, sage, and we do a lot of spice infusions. We really want to bring food-and-cocktail pairing to the forefront.

So, what should you drink with spicy food?

Anything sweet goes well with spicy food. In terms of wine, we have a lot of Rieslings on the menu. One drink, the Tandoori Tequila (tequila, lime, muddled tandoori pineapple, curry leaf, and pippali pepper), always pairs well with our food. Especially the Piri-Piri shrimp, which is a really spicy shrimp dish we have. A spicy drink pairs well with it.

How did you get into bartending?

I was in college when I first started to bartend. I'm originally from London, England. I really needed a job and didn't know what to do so I started bartending at a pub that my father used to frequent. It was an old guys' bar. They mostly drank Scotch; the average age of the patrons was, like, 75. Once or twice a month there was a funeral. When I finished school and came to the States is when I got more into the cocktail side of it.

How do the London and New York bar scenes compare?

I was working in a pub in London, so there wasn't that much to it. American bars are a lot more cocktail-based. Even though Prohibition put a hold on things here, it's much more advanced. But London does have a good cocktail scene -- it's very progressive. In New York, it's more about classic cocktails. Whiskey, bitters, sugar, like an old-fashioned. In London, you might get all kinds of fruit, syrups, and flavored spirits.   Do you miss English pubs at all?

It's more nostalgic for me. I like the fact that most bars with great cocktail programs are always moving. Pubs can seem boring because they don't really change. But it's nice to go to an English pub for all the history -- the beers they have on tap are all cask-conditioned ales, the building might not have changed in 500 years, [same goes for] the old characters sitting there. Unfortunately, the English pub is something of a dying institution. A lot of them are being bought up by big companies.

How do the customers differ here from across the pond?

Well, they tip here. ... But I think you can go anywhere in the world and the bar situation is pretty much the same. Bars are a social setting, and when people get a few drinks in them, they tend to get along.

How do you deal with unruly customers?

The trick is to nip it in the bud before it gets unruly. If you let it get to stage where they've already gone that way, it's more difficult. And you have to be nice -- that's the best way to diffuse a situation. There's a lot of psychology in this job, and the way you speak to people is very important. But you can't let one person spoil the evening for everyone.

Who has been your most memorable customer?

I was working in a hotel in Florida and had an older lady once. She must have been 75. She kept trying to take me back to her hotel room. She kept trying to bribe me! She ended up leaving me, like, $350. I kindly declined. Just one of the joys of being a bartender.

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