Milk & Honey's Mickey McIlroy Talks Bad Customers, Anti-Social Bartenders & Just Where They Hid the Vodka at His Bar
Back before every bartender was a self-proclaimed mixologist and seasonal cocktail lists were announced via press release, a business card was circulated among those in the know for an unmarked and unlisted bar on a dingy Lower East Side block where every drink was made with top-shelf spirits, the juices were fresh pressed, and the ice was cracked by hand. Milk & Honey may now have a listed number, but not much else has changed at the narrow, dimly lit bar. Or at least not in the three years since Mickey McIlroy has been behind the bar. Not that he would have it any other way.
Was it difficult to get a job at Milk & Honey?
The reason I came to New York originally was to find this bar. By this time I was taking things seriously [as a bartender in Belfast], I was making what I thought were good cocktails, but it wasn't what we do here. I was 20, 21 at this time and reading about the cocktail scene in the U.K. and New York and Sasha (Petraske)'s name was always cropping up. In the summer of 2004, I flew to New York... didn't have a job yet and I was sleeping on someone's couch. So, I just wrote to him. It was a long shot. But he called me back inviting me down to the bar. We had a chat and he offered me a job.
Among bartenders, does working at Milk & Honey give you a certain cred?
It was the bar that led the way and I think it still does for so many reasons. We've always kept it as it is. It's a quiet bar. We keep it very low key. Classic drinks. I love to think that people still have that fantasy of what goes on here. Still, every shift, I get guys who are there for the first time.
I remember when the Milk & Honey number was a secret and you had to know someone to get the business card.
We had to change that up because people were posting the number. But I still hope that people have that excitement when they come to the bar. I still get excited every shift and love people coming here for the first time. Their eyes are wide open and they're nervous, anticipating what's going to happen. Then, we do get a lot of customers who come in and say, "this is it?" It's like, what more do you want?
What's the worst kind of customer?
A lot of people come in, and they've already made up their own ideas about the bar. People sometimes come in dripping with attitude, trying to stump the guy behind the bar. They'll try to order some crazy drink that was in a bar guide in 1874.
What's the craziest thing someone has asked you for? Very rarely have I not heard of a drink. People come in and they just say anything. You can ask us to come up with something so, once, someone said something like "unicorn." Like, can I make a drink that calls to mind unicorns? I just say, "I'll come back when you're ready to take this seriously."
Do you think that bartending has gotten too serious?
Absolutely. I got into this to learn new ways to make drinks. I never thought I'd be here after five years, but it just happened that way. The whole idea of working in a bar [appeals to me] because I love talking to the customers. I love hosting and making people feel welcome. It happens to be that I can also make a really good Old Fashioned. But I do want to be taken seriously and I love the art. I got into it for the love of the drink. For the glory of the cocktail.
It seems like some bartenders are more interested in "educating the customer" than in serving them.
Nothing pisses me off more than when I hear bartenders say, "I hate people. I hate talking to them." And that's when I say, "Why don't you chef or something? You work in a bar. You're going to be talking to people." I know a lot of people who just can't talk to customers and I think they're in the wrong game. What is exciting about the bar scene these days?
Tiki. To me, tiki represents having a good time. Richard (Boccato) and Guiseppe (Gonzalez), [who are opening Painkiller], are good friends of mine and I know that they'll do a good job. These guys are out for a good time. Everyone has been freaking out about ice, freaking out about what's new, and people being on the pulse. We're very much focused on the classic cocktail, so we keep it that way. But I think tiki is great. It has to be done well and these guys will do it well and then some.
How to you prescribe a drink to someone who doesn't know much about classic cocktails? We have a couple of safe cocktails that people tend to like. Like a Gold Rush, East Side cocktail, a Tom Collins. But, if you gain their trust then you might introduce an egg white or two. You also have to listen. If they say they'd like a vodka tonic, I'll say, "Ok, so you like something fizzy and refreshing." I go with what they like. If you don't like a drink, we'll bring you something else. I'll drink it. It's a win, win.
Do you stock vodka?
We have it somewhere. I don't know where it is. I still haven't found it yet.
What are you doing for the Manhattan Cocktail Classic?
Myself and (fellow bartender) Mr. Sam Ross will be giving a talk on vermouth. Vermouth is an incredible alcohol that doesn't necessarily have to be used as a splash of something. You can use vermouth forward or even on some ice with a twist. It's delicious. We really want to educate people on how to keep vermouth at home and why you should have some. We haven't cracked out an exact set list yet, but we're going to rock out all the hits: the martini up, but also we're going to pull out some delicious, unusual drinks, like the Diplomat [which is made with sweet and dry vermouth as the base alcohol].
How do you not get run down living the bartender lifestyle?
It can be a hard lifestyle. You're definitely going against what your head is telling you to do. When you're up, you should be sleeping. Instead you're working, doing shots with the guys. Being young helps, but I don't know what I'll be doing in five years, ten years' time. I won't be working five nights.
Do you think that's why so many bartenders become brand ambassadors?
A little bit, yeah. It's a tough lifestyle. It's long, long hours. It plays havoc on you. It plays havoc on relationships -- girlfriends, boyfriends. You're living a completely different life from everybody else. You have to remember to exercise every so often and not get caught up in eating shit food at night and getting wasted every night of the week.
Do you have a hangover cure?
Just sleep it off.
You mentioned girlfriends. Do you ever date customers?
No comment. I'm married to the bar.
What's the worst trend you've seen in bars over the years?
Have a restaurant tip or other food-related news? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to New York dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.