Richard Boccato Discusses the Cocktail Collective at Forty-Four, Why Ice is Hot & the Best Old Whiskey-and-Beer Joints in Town
Richard Boccato has been a busy man this past year. He and partner Giuseppe Gonzalez opened the tiki bar Painkiller on the Lower East Side, he continues to run - and reinvent - Dutch Kills in Long Island City, and he's gearing up to launch the Tribeca outpost of the popular Weather Up cocktail bar in Prospect Heights. Oh, and he also managed to find time to join the all-star team of bartenders known as the Cocktail Collective, with whom he designed the drink program at the newly opened Forty-Four bar at the Royalton hotel.
What is the Cocktail Collective, exactly?
Willy Shine from [consultancy] Contemporary Cocktails designed the bar at the Royalton - the physical bar structure - with Simon Ford from Plymouth gin and John Lermayer from the Delano [in Miami]. I don't think that they had any plans to do anything more than just designing the bar, but Willy decided that it might be a good idea to organize the talents of bartenders from all over the county, so he gave me a call and asked if I might be interested. I didn't think I could really say no to such an opportunity.
Did you actually physically get together with the other bartenders?
We went back and forth for maybe three weeks where we basically set up our plan of attack via email and wound up with hundreds of pages worth of information: cocktails, recipes, philosophies, and a training regimen. Eventually, we came up with this service manual. Then we started meeting at the Royalton and getting equipment and, the next thing you know, we had a bar on our hands.
Tell me about the menu. Is there a vision for it?
The inspiration for us right away was the history of hotel bar culture. In New York City alone, you have famous hotel bars like the old Waldorf Astoria being the most famous, The Metropole, The Netherland, The Knickerbocker, the birthplace of the martini and, of course, The Savoy in London and The Ritz in Paris. The list goes on and on. Sometime around the 1980s, Bemelman's Bar at the Carlyle had been very popular, then the hotel lobby bar began a decline in lieu of all these other bars that were popping up. So, we thought it would be a good opportunity for us to create a rebirth for that put something together that was sort of a classic menu with variations on originals that inspired us.
Do you have a favorite drink on the menu? My favorite cocktail on the menu out of all of them? Man, I really shouldn't say one of my own, should I. I really like the Stone Place. It's Willy Shine's. It's a variation on the classic Ward 8 cocktail. He uses Jamaican rum, housemade grenadine, lemon juice, one orange wedge shaken in the shaker with the ice and some fresh-grated nutmeg. It's very delicious. And, of course, all of my drinks are amazing. But I'm not into self-promotion.
Where do you like to drink when you're not at your own bars? I don't really go in too much for cocktails when I'm not in my bars, so for me just whiskey and beer will do. I like to go to a place called Rudy's in Midtown where they have free hot dogs and cheap pitchers of beer. I've been going there since I was a teenager. Another place I like to go for whiskey and beer is a place called Milano's on Houston. I've been going there since I was a kid, too. I guess you can see a pattern here. And, of course, I have to be loyal to my pedigree. I love going to Little Branch and I love going Weather Up and, of course, Milk & Honey. All three are my alma maters. You never forget the family.
Do you feel that as these old bars in New York are disappearing we're losing something important?
I think Rudy's is definitely not as much fun as it used to be. The jukebox used to be amazing. Now it really sucks. It's electronic and they have horrible Top 40 music playing there, but there's something about that place that's always going to be timeless for me. Milano's is definitely along the same lines. It's not going to be the same place it was when I was 16 years old. There are a lot of bars in New York City that people don't know about that they don't go to just because they're not popular, in neighborhoods that aren't visited too often. There's a place called Montero's in Brooklyn that is definitely worth the trip if you want to get an idea of what it was like to be a stevedore or a dock worker around the earlier half of the 20th century. There's places like that that aren't going to go away. You helped revive the tiki trend. What do you think will be the next big thing in cocktails?
I think that people are going to be very focused on their ice. We've pushed the envelope in so many ways. We've done the classics, people are now doing the tiki thing. I think it's not that we've exhausted these ideas - the modern speakeasy, the saloon, the tiki bar are all valid and great when they're done right. I don't think that's going to get played out easily. But the next thing people are focusing on is not only how they make the cocktails, but what they put in them. People are going to be concerned with the ingredients, the dilution, and all the things that ice contributes to these drinks.
Like the ice program at Weather Up Tribeca?
We've done it for the past ten years at Milk & Honey and Little Branch, froze our own ice. When we opened Dutch Kills, we started working with the block ice, and nobody's really followed suit that much in New York. At Weather Up Tribeca, which we're opening in late October, early November, we bought the machine that makes this block ice. So we're going to be the only bar on the East Coast that's harvesting their ice in house.
What do you think is played out in the cocktail scene?
What I'm sick of seeing is people taking themselves too seriously. It's OK to be proud of your work and do your best to make sure the product that you're putting over the bar is exemplary, but I don't think it's really important to take yourself too seriously or promote yourself shamelessly because ultimately we're not really making people's lives better. We're sometimes making them worse.
Well, maybe better for a few hours.
Well, yes. We want to take pride in doing that to the best of our abilities, but let's not confuse that with curing ailments or helping children.
Is there anything else at Forty-Four at the Royalton we should look out for?
The punch bowl program is going to be interesting. I think the people are going to really enjoy that. It's going to be exciting for people to have large punch bowl service, but it's very classic and meticulous punch bowl service in a large hotel lobby setting. It's going to be fun, especially with this large block ice we're using.
Will Weather Up Tribeca be very similar to Weather Up Brooklyn?
Aesthetically it will be similar, sure, with the vaulted tile ceilings. But it's going to be an amalgamated marriage, if you will, between Dutch Kills and Weather Up and the guys at No. 7. We're going to have amazing ice, like I said, in-house block ice harvesting and production. We're going to have oysters. We're going to have caviar. And we're going to have great cocktails. If you weren't a bartender, what do you think you would have been? I would have liked to be a boxer. I think that there's a lot of honesty in the boxing ring that there isn't in other arenas. I've been punched in the face in the ring and I've been punched in the face in the street and there's a big difference.
What's your earliest drinking memory?
I remember my father took me to some bars when I was a kid. There was a place on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn that is now called Hank's Saloon and there used to be this writing outside it, this quotation that said, "Where friends meet." I always thought that's where my father went to meet his friends. I think I enjoyed going there because he put a fist full of quarters in my hand and told me to go play pinball. The bartenders I remember didn't make fancy cocktails. I suppose the real inherent talent in being a bartender is not how effectively you shake a daiquiri, but how welcome you make your guests feel. Not by rolling out the red carpet and pouring them water, but by making them feel more comfortable, like they came for a reason rather than to drink their troubles away.
Do you have a favorite tipping story?
I don't really remember any outrageous tips or big tips, but we kind of try not to make a point of talking about those because sometimes egregious tips can be perceived as condescending and unnecessary. I remember several unappreciated tips that I've received, but those too are not really something that I get upset about because you shouldn't work a bar if you just want to make tips. You work in a bar because you enjoy it and respect the trade. If you get a bad tip or a really great one, it's just part of the job.
Is there anything coming up at any of your other bars?
At, Dutch Kills we're about to relaunch our menu format and we're very excited about that. And with that, we will relaunch the website, as well, which will be a big departure from anything that we've done before in the past. So, we'd like to have people look out for that.
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