Painkiller's Giuseppe Gonzalez Talks Tiki, Frozen Drinks & The Hangover Cure That Comes in a Syringe

Giuseppe Gonzalez brings the Pain(killer).
Giuseppe Gonzalez brings the Pain(killer).

After much anticipation, Painkiller is set to open tonight. Partner Giuseppe Gonzalez is busy unpacking glasses and making syrups for the big night, but took time out of his busy schedule to talk with Fork in the Road about the business of tiki.

What was the inspiration for Painkiller?

Painkiller is named after the classic cocktail from the British Virgin Islands. It's a Piña Colada variation with rum, cream of coconut, fresh orange juice and pineapple juice, and a little nutmeg on top. You know, both our parents are from the Caribbean islands. Richard (Boccato, partner) is [half St. Lucian] and my grandparents are from Puerto Rico, so we're used to seeing these drinks and taking in the energy.

Did you anticipate the tiki explosion?

It's been a discussion between bartenders about who is going to win the tiki race. And some people want to distance themselves from the tiki name, which is ridiculous. [Painkiller] is not going to be a classic tiki bar. We have our own passionfruit syrup and grenadine, our own recipe for Curaçao... all of our syrups are going to be made in-house and the recipes are going to be a little more modern. We won't be sourcing from anywhere -- if we have to open a can, we won't serve it. If you can't juice it, we don't offer it, which might be a problem with [some things.] There will, of course, be a few challenges.

I hear you won't just be specializing in rum drinks.

We don't really work with long comprehensive lists of offerings like [some bars] that have 200-300 rums. We're not going to have it just for the sake of having it. We will try to show off the category with distinct varieties. Though rum will be the main focus, it does not necessarily [define] the tiki bar. We will make tiki drinks with all kinds of different spirits.

How did you get into bartending?

Through the family. I was dragged into it. No, [I'm kidding]. But I grew up with it. Both my father and grandfather were in the business.

What will be the biggest surprise?

It's a totally different animal, in terms of mise-en-place. When a bartender helps create the bar, you end up with the back bar looking different. For example, we're doing frozen drinks. We had to compare blenders to see which we were going to get married to. We try to keep everything frozen in different freezers and have several different ice bins for the different kinds of ice. We also sculpt our own ice for various drinks.   In terms of glassware, typically you would have seven or eight types of glasses in a speakeasy. Here, it's like 15-20 for all the drinks we have. So, we had to make space for all of this stuff: scorpion bowls, tiki mugs, zombie mugs, old-fashioneds, daiquiri glasses, frozen drinks. Most important is the fresh fruit. We won't be keeping it prepared on the bar. Also, we are going to use a lot of flowers and even dry ice. Of course, it all has to be accessible and not kill the bartender when he's in it behind the bar.

Sounds ambitious.

It will be a mixture of music and energy and a lot of fun.

What trends are you sick of seeing now in bars?

I can't really say in public what I feel about mixology, but "sick of" would be a strong term. Though I would like to see a shift away from the cocktail and back to the bartenders acting like hosts again. The most important thing about bartending is being a good host. It's one of those things my grandfather and father did a lot, where people didn't primarily come for the drinks. They came just to be around the guys.

Is that the atmosphere you hope to instill at Painkiller?

Definitely. We both come from speakeasy backgrounds -- Richard from Milk & Honey, me with Flatiron and Clover Club, and both of us from Dutch Kills, where the atmosphere is more intimate. With the tiki bar, it should be a lot more fun. The drinks are elaborate and the garnishes are, as well. We want to transport you somewhere else. But still with our style of drinks and a real level of quality. You won't get a boat cruise drink -- there will be a lot of care taken. We're trying to mimic old 1940s tiki bars where, by default, everything was natural and organic. There was no canned pineapple or bottled lime juice back then.

What's your go-to hangover cure?

I'm a type-1 diabetic, so insulin makes me better.

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