Natalie Jacob never knew that cocktails would become such a big part of her life. The New Jersey native studied interior design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. After graduating, she moved to South Florida, where she tended bar in nightclubs. There, the menu mainly consisted of basic, mixed drinks. She returned to the city, but her experience in high-volume venues landed Jacob her first job in a formal cocktail program. Now, Jacob works at PKNY and Dutch Kills, and has recently won a national mixology competition. Here, she talks tiki and cats.
(Disclosure: I met Natalie when we worked together for a very brief period almost a year ago. At any rate, if I didn’t think I could be fair, I wouldn’t have interviewed her.)
How did you get into bartending?
I’m from Jersey City. I started working in a restaurant when I was 16, as a hostess, and I worked my way through the ranks. I started bartending when I was 18, and did it throughout college — I studied interior and exhibition design at FIT, right here in New York City. After, I moved to Fort Lauderdale, bartended in numerous clubs there, and eventually moved back.
How did you transition from more routine bartending to classic cocktails? What are some of the challenges?
I had applied for a job at a bar in the city. The hiring manager had actually bartended at the same restaurant where I once worked in New Jersey. We had never met before that, having worked there at different times. But he said that if I could do high-volume work for five years, that I could work anywhere. So he hired me, and that was the first proper cocktail program I worked under. The challenges were definitely technique and spirit knowledge. Back then, I couldn’t even make a Manhattan to save my life. But I was willing to learn, and it’s been a progression ever since.
What are some of the cocktails you’re making now?
I work at two bars with very different drink styles. PKNY (49 Essex Street) is a tiki bar. It has a Polynesian-meets-Lower East Side theme. We serve very elaborate beverages, mostly rum-based drinks, such as the Mai Tai and the Zombie. We also serve Piña Coladas in hollowed out pineapple shells, and we set Scorpion Bowls on fire. It’s a lot of fun.
I also work at Dutch Kills in Long Island City (27-24 Jackson Avenue) — it’s a cocktail bar with the feel of a 19th-century saloon, or a speakeasy. There, we serve more classically influenced drinks, in the vein of Milk & Honey and Little Branch.
So what’s big behind the bar these days?
Ice. It’s one of the most important tools in making a cocktail, and people should treat it that way. We have our own ice house next to Dutch Kills, Hundredweight, where we make all of it and also distribute to other cocktail bars.
What are your ideas for new cocktails?
Something delicious, I hope. I recently came up with one at PKNY called the African Queen. It calls for light rum, calvados, lime, orgeat, and cinnamon, and is influenced by fall flavors.
So you’ve won several competitions recently?
Yes! The greatest one was definitely Appleton Reserve Remixology. Basically, you have to come up with cocktails inspired from songs and then make them in front of a panel of judges. Usually competitions are stuffy and stressful, but this one really challenged my creativity — and I had a blast doing it. I dressed up as Lady Gaga — and then I may or may not have dressed up as a man. I won the semifinals for New York, and then I went up against bartenders from Boston, San Francisco, and Miami. I won nationals as well, and I won a trip to Jamaica!
Is it hard transitioning from working in tiki cocktails one day and classic cocktails the next?
I don’t find it difficult. I love both styles and I enjoy them very much. At this point, I wouldn’t want to do one or the other; I need both. In my opinion, tiki shouldn’t be this weird other drink category — all bars should have the ingredients needed to produce these cocktails.
So you studied design — do you work with this anymore, as a side project?
I actually collect and restore antiques. That’s my biggest hobby. Right now, I mostly buy silver flatware. I love history — I love knowing that things had a life before me. Other than that, I hang out with my cats Phil and Erik. I know, exciting.
So what do you drink?
The Jack Rose — it’s a simple yet delicious drink: Laird’s Applejack Brandy, grenadine, and lime.