Raines Law Room's Meaghan Dorman Talks Speakeasy Overload, Creating 'New' Classic Cocktails, and Being a Lady United for the Protection of Endangered Cocktails
Meaghan Dorman is just your average drinks slinger-slash-Penthouse writer. She's also the head bartender at Raines Law Room near Union Square, which has just introduced a brand-new cocktail list, the first major overhaul to the menu since the bar opened a year and a half ago.
So you've just launched the new cocktail menu. Tell me about it.
Myself and our staff felt like, since we've been open for a year and a half now, it was time to just redo everything and have more of our own input into it. Based on the questions we get asked so much, we reorganized the menu by style -- tall and bubbly, strong and stirred, seasonal -- to make it more cohesive, easier for our guests to go through. There's a lot, about 25 drinks on the menu.
So what kind of drinks are popular there these days?
We have two distinct rushes during our night: a solid after-work crowd, where people tend to drink lighter drinks because they're still conducting business or they're going to dinner. Then, we get a late-night date rush, where people are drinking a little bit more, so it's a little more varied. We have a drink on the menu right now with Beefeater Summer gin and fresh raspberries that's doing really well. But also stronger drinks like the Harold & Maude with Scotch, which everyone loves. I tried to make it really varied, so there's something for everyone, whether they're a seasoned cocktail drinker looking for something challenging or it's their first time drinking gin. We try to address the whole spectrum.
How do you come up with a recipe when you're starting from scratch?
Our bar is really rooted in the classics, so I always try formulas that have worked, like a corpse reviver or daiquiri, but then try to mix it up a little, like the Islay Daiquiri, which was dark rum and Scotch, a little darker and smokier for the winter. So I base my drink in some kind of classic, then branch out from there, changing one thing at a time. It's always a process.
Do you think we're in speakeasy overload at this point?
I do. I hate that "speakeasy" term anyway. We're not a speakeasy; we're a legally functioning bar. We are definitely rooted in, like I said, classic cocktails, and I do love the fact that we can control our crowd so it's never too full, which guarantees a good experience for everyone, but we have a lot of regulars. I think people look at these bars and think it's for a special occasion, but I have people who come in two or three times a week. It's their neighborhood bar. Just being secret isn't really enough to sustain you more than a couple of months.
What kind of advice do you wish you could give customers who are new to the whole classic cocktail experience?
You always have to pick your battles. The bartender part of your job is to read people. When people are out with their friends on a Saturday night, they just want a vodka soda, so that's not really a time to pick a battle. But we are in the hospitality business and I want people to trust us. I want you to have a great time. I want you to have a good drink. I'll ask you a couple of questions and I'm pretty sure I can make you something great. It's like going to a good restaurant: You wouldn't order the most boring thing off the menu. You're spending money and you want to get something great. Even if you're not happy with your first drink, we will make you something else. Don't be afraid to branch out.
Where do you like to drink when you're not at your own bar?
I moved to Brooklyn recently, so I've been trying to drink and eat my way through Brooklyn. I have a drink once a week at Milk & Honey. I try to visit our neighbors at Flatiron and Rye House when I get off early. It takes awhile, but I try to see every bar that opens. And I'm taking a wine class. I've been trying to drink more wine and visit wine bars.
What do you like to drink at home?
I definitely make less drinks than I used to, just because I make so many at work. I've been trying to buy a lot more wine and I always have champagne. In summertime, Whiskey Smashes always go over well for a party, or a Pimm's Cup at brunch is really fun. I take it easy at home. Let's say I don't do a lot of juicing.
Is the wine tasting just for yourself or to flex your tasting muscles?
I just felt like I had taught myself so much about spirits and cocktails, and I had a big gap in my knowledge. I hate to feel like I don't know something if someone asks me. I want to be able to explain our wine list as well as our cocktails. I want to be confident when I go out and order stuff. I'm encouraging people to branch out at our bar, so I don't want to always get the same glass of Tempranillo. You're also a writer, is that right?
Yes. Right now, I write for Vibe and I do the spirits stuff for Penthouse.
Are there any skills you acquired behind that bar that help you with writing or vice versa?
Definitely. I've been a bartender on and off for about 10 years. And for the past four years, I've been writing, too. In part, that is what got me interested more in classic cocktails. I worked at an Irish bar, I worked at a sports bar, which was really fun, but very different than what I'm doing now. And I trust my own palate, so it makes it easier for me when I'm writing about something. I can't just write about anything. I write about stuff I like to drink.
What drink trends are you sick of seeing? Everyone wants to have a cocktail program these days, but it's important that your whole staff is trained, that they know the classics ... even if you're going to have an entirely signature list. It can be frustrating when you have a question for someone that they just can't answer and instead are just trying to put the flash list in front of you. It's important to me that servers are trained just like bartenders and are able to explain drinks to people. I think it's a part of the service.
Tiki is the thing of the moment. What do you think will be the next thing of the moment?
I don't know. I will say that Painkiller is one of my new favorite bars and I have a great time every single time I go. I do think people are paying more attention to the aperitif/digestif approach to drinking, where they have drinks for before dinner and after dinner. Europeans seem to have more appreciation and more knowledge of what to drink throughout the night, but it's crossing over here. I'm happy that we've evolved from that you-have-to-get-trashed-on-the-first-drink attitude.
So, cocktail hour isn't always Manhattan time?
Right. And people need to remember that, a long time ago, someone had a Manhattan at a bar and loved it so much they went to another bar and asked for the same thing. Same thing with a daiquiri, which the great thing about simple drinks is that you can go anywhere and re-create them. So if one of my regulars moved to California, he could absolutely still have a drink that he had at my bar. I make Greenpoints and Penicillins (both from Milk & Honey) all the time. These are like our eras of classics. Sure, it's fun to go out and have a drink with all these homemade syrups and infusions, but drinks become classics because people go outside of a bar and order it somewhere else.
You're a founding member of the New York chapter of LUPEC (Ladies United for the Protection of Endangered Cocktails). Do you still see sexism behind the bar?
I haven't experienced any kind of awful sexism in my career, but it's definitely still out there. People think that my bar back is my bartender all the time, and I'm the cocktail server. I don't take these things too seriously. I was trained by a great guy that treated us all equally. I actually worked with Audrey Saunders on the James Beard gala a couple weeks ago and what she told us is, "The best thing you can do every day is be fierce behind your own bar." All you can do every day is go to work and do the job. That proves I deserve the position. I'm not better or worse than anyone else because I'm a woman. I just do a good job every day at my bar. It seems like it works out.
So, LUPEC isn't in the business of fighting for women bartenders' rights?
With LUPEC, we wanted all the girls to know each other and to know there is support out there for them. Now I can ask Julie [Reiner] or Audrey [Saunders] anything that might help me at my own bar, and I can help the younger girls that might have questions. It's not to leave anyone out or make the guys feel bad, it's just a really positive thing for us.
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