Ward III's Michael J. Neff Talks Bespoke Cocktails, Expansion Plans, and What Your Favorite Superhero Has to Do With Your Drink
Michael Neff will make you a Wonder Woman cocktail.
Ward III opened in Tribeca nearly one year ago. In fact, it's preparing to celebrate its first anniversary at the end of June. The three owners, Michael J. Neff, Kenneth McCoy, and Abdul Tabini, can almost always be found at the bar in some capacity -- usually behind it mixing drinks, which is where every good bartender-owner should be.
So you're a bartender and an owner. Which one is more fun?
Well, they're both very different. We're in the world of owner-operator now, so you have to balance running a bar and running a business. It's fun to sit around and discuss what kind of spirits we want to have and discuss what kind of programming we're going to have on Whiskey Mondays, which is a huge event we do on Mondays, but nothing actually compares to being at the bar. We sometimes have to make the sacrifice of not being behind the bar because we have other stuff to do. We can't necessarily work until 4 o'clock in the morning, then have an interview at 3 o'clock the next afternoon. You have to be fresh for it.
You have an anniversary coming up. Yeah, we've been around a year now, which feels like one big, long day. We're going to have a big anniversary party, which will be at the end of June. It will be announced on our Facebook page. We'll probably launch our new cocktail list on the same day.
You do seasonal cocktails?
Yes, but the thing is we make cocktails in a way that's not usual, so we have our list, which is the list we wrote. Then we have what we call a bespoke cocktail menu. That's more of a vocabulary primer for people to talk to us [about what they like]. It starts with a list of spirits, then a column for mouthfeel, and fruit and spice, and all these different [aspects of a cocktail]. That is always very seasonal. We go through a series of questions. Say, "What do you like? What do you not like?" Sometimes it's very esoteric. Sometimes I'll ask, "What's your favorite superhero? What month were you born in?" Because a lot of making cocktails is storytelling.
When a customer orders a bespoke cocktail, are you usually drawing on a repertoire of drinks you already know, or will you make something up on the spot?
It depends a lot on who's doing it. I almost always make something up. Every once in a while, I will stumble on a drink that I happen to like. If I get a lot of Scotch cocktail requests and just happened to make one that I really like, then I'll make that a couple of times over the course of the night. Even when we're really busy, the whole point to me is to be able to say we're not the kind of place that is just pointing you to classic cocktails. We're literally doing new stuff and it's a very exciting and interesting way for us to work. People have responded very well to it. If you say, "I like cloves, but I like tequila. I don't know if they go together," then I'll be like, "I don't know either, but let's find out."
Can you really come up with a drink based on someone liking Wonder Woman? I do it every day. It usually starts out more concrete. The last question is usually something that's thrown out there to give me more of an idea of what kind of personality you have. I don't have, like, a Wonder Woman ingredient. But I might wrap it in gold and shoot a bullet at it.
How did you get into bartending?
I realized I didn't like to sleep at night. I like to sleep in the daytime. I was in Seattle, Washington, at the time, which was about 16 years ago now, and I decided I was either going to be a bike messenger or a bartender and I got a bartending job first. I was lucky to work in Seattle because I had no experience at all. I totally lied my ass off to get this job. I had a guy there who was very good at making cocktails at the time. It was the beginning of the whole fresh-juice revolution, especially in the Northwest. This guy taught me how to do his craft, and, as far as I knew, high-end cocktail making was with fresh ingredients, seasonal stuff. That's just how I learned how to do it. So I didn't know there was any other way until I watched other people do it. And I said, "Wait, that's not right."
Did you bartend anywhere in New York before opening your own place? I met my partner, Ken McCoy, in 2000 when he and I were on the opening team of the Hudson Hotel. And then I've been pretty much in Tribeca ever since. Most recently, I was at Macao Trading Co. on Church. And my partner, Abdul, worked at the Odeon for 14 years. So, between the three of us, we have probably more than 35 years in the neighborhood. What do you like about the vibe in Tribeca?
Tribeca is great, especially as a restaurant worker. I've always liked working down here. It's a really tight community of restaurant people. We all know each other and I feel like if I needed a job I could call somebody. It still feels like one of the great neighborhoods in New York. People know each other and they make it a point to get to know guys like me. They come see me maybe two or three times a week. And they have for years. And now I've known people who are my regular customers for more than a decade. I've watched them get married. I've watched their kids grow up. I've worked in the East Village, I've worked in other places, but they don't have that sense of connection Tribeca always has.
Doesn't seem like Tribeca has the whole NIMBY attitude. I don't know if I would go that far. It's a block-by-block thing. But again, we're neighborhood guys, so regardless of what other things we get attention for, if it's cocktails or whatever else, first and foremost we're a neighborhood bar. We had to state that very clearly to the community board when we first came. We had to find that balance of being this anti-cocktail lounge and a place for the neighbors. We work really hard to strike that balance.
What are some of your favorite bars you go to when you're not at your own bar? Some of my favorite bars ... For cocktails, I go to Raines Law Room a lot. I think it's very well done, even though it's not somewhere I'd go every day. I go to Employees Only probably more often than I should. I love Clover Club. I don't want to keep everything in Tribeca, but bars like Sal's, bars like Walker's, or even the old Town Tavern are these pub-type institutions I'm a total sucker for.
What kind of ingredients are you working with right now? Well, it's getting on to peach season, so I'm looking at that a lot. We're using a lot of fresh melon right now. We found these Szechuan peppercorns from Tangier that we liked a lot. As far as spirits go, I've been doing a lot of blending of whiskies. So blended Irish at the base and maybe throw in a little Scotch and bourbon of some sort. We're not blending a new product, but blending Scotch is very much like making cocktails. If you have a Manhattan that's traditionally made with rye and you do a rye-bourbon-split Manhattan, you have the best of both worlds.
What do you think is going to be the next big trend in drinks?
I hope that the next big trend in bartending is that people start doing it again. We're an old craft that's traditionally passed down by word of mouth, like the guy who taught me. If you look at the dark ages of making cocktails, which was the '60s through the '80s, it became this thing that people did as a stopover between going to school and going off and doing what they considered a real job. And they could do that because everything was easy to make. It either came out of a gun or people didn't have cocktails. Now, as we're starting to get back into the craft of making cocktails, it's just an amazing time to be in this business. Even better than when I first started. All kinds of spirits are out that weren't available since Prohibition. My favorite places, like Employees Only, are places where you can go and expect a high-quality cocktail, but you can still have that experience of being in a bar. You're there to have fun. You're there to hang out. You're there to meet people. You're there to talk and you're there to enjoy a cocktail. If you want to talk about Scotch, great. If you want to talk about sports, that's great, too. I see things going more toward that direction. Are there any trends you're sick of seeing in bars? Besides speakeasies? [Laughs.] Yeah, there's probably too many. Everybody does it different. I'm tired of seeing St. Germain cocktails. But that's what you get when you have those owner goggles and bartender goggles. You end up with a lot more compassion for choices that the other places make because you can look at it and say, "I might not have done that, but I know why you did."
You mentioned your Facebook page. Do you guys tweet?
I'm getting a lot of outside pressure to start a Twitter account. We do have a Facebook page and 90 percent of what we announce goes through there. A lot of people participate in the events that we do. They look on the Facebook. A lot of people repost it on other websites, so it's easy for me. People in bars do this Twitter thing all the time because there's constantly some new launch of a product or some new place opening ... and they're saying, "I'm here and this is what I think of it." But it's an easy way to pick a fight, too, so you have to be very careful. Everything is public now. It's not just saying to your friends, "Oh, I really didn't like this place." All of a sudden, the whole world is involved and everybody's watching you argue back and forth.
Have you noticed any cocktail bloggers in your place taking pictures?
We get a fair amount of that. Honestly, any kind of attention, good or bad, is good. When you open your own place, any time someone walks through the door, you feel honored. Like, gee, you came to my place and you could have come anywhere in the city. So if someone wants to come write about my drinks, fantastic. It's great. The fact that we were able to make a place that anyone would even care to comment on, good or bad, honestly humbles us. That's the whole idea of service, to say, "I'm putting myself out there, so use me to the best of your abilities while I'm working at the best of my abilities, as well."
So you celebrate one year at the end of June. Any plans for expansion?
That's the million-dollar question, isn't it? There's always plans. We have an empire in mind.
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