That John Bush’s name is stamped on cocktail menus around the city–his credits include Vig Bar and Mario Batali’s Otto–is a testament to the time he’s put in behind the bar here: After barbacking and photographing bands all over the globe, Bush landed on this scene 20 years ago, and he spent 12 of those mixing and pouring at Johnny T and Jesse Malin’s bar, Niagara, in the heart of the East Village. Today, he is the co-owner of Talde, Pork Slope, and Thistle Hill Tavern, all acclaimed eateries in Park Slope, where he works alongside David Massoni and Dale Talde. I chatted with Bush to learn more about his love for mixology and his crazy, worldwide journey to where he is today.
How did you first become interested in the world of spirits?
Well, first off, I’m an Irish drunk, so it kind of runs in the family. I grew up in a really small town with a group of people who all banded together around alcohol. None of us delved into drugs much, but we were let’s-get-drunk rowdy kids.
Where did you grow up?
Santa Cruz, California. And then when I got out of high school, I went and lived abroad for a bit, and when I came back I just needed a job, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. A buddy of mine got me a job barbacking. That’s how it all started.
I was a photographer for a little while. I did a lot of music stuff. I’d go on tour with bands and then come back and make money bartending. I have a pretty good gift of gab, and someone gave me advice to read the front page and the sports page every day before work, so I’d always have something to talk about. For me, bartending is more about being a controlling party in a room: I get to talk, to entertain. I decide who has had enough to drink, and who needs another drink. I get to make somebody feel good.
Who creates the cocktail menu at Talde?
Every cocktail at every one of my places is my invention. With Talde, I gravitated toward old-school tiki drinks and then twisted them around a bit. I see what other people are doing and get inspired. I go somewhere and say, “This is great drink, but it would be better if they did this,” and then all of a sudden it becomes my cocktail.
I went somewhere in Chestertown, Maryland, and someone was making Bloody Marys with scotch and I was like, “That’s incredible!” And it works, and it tastes great. Now, I’m making Bloody Marys with tequila. I started fiddling around with different stuff, I went a little crazy, and now people are like, “Your Bloody Marys are great.” I like getting an idea, putting a twist on it, and making it my own.
Do you have a favorite cocktail on the menu at Talde?
The Chinatown. That was literally me, my bartender, and Dale sitting at the bar one day, and I was like, “You know what I want to do? I want to do something like a San Francisco,” which is basically an Old Fashioned, but made with rum. I started by making the traditional drink and then kept tweaking it, and tweaking it, and tweaking it. I was like, it’s almost there, and then I went to Apotheke and saw them use a pepper grinder to put pepper in a cocktail. I went home, put pepper on my rum Old Fashioned, and I had my perfect cocktail.
How did you build your spirits knowledge?
On the job. The hardest thing about bartending is knowing what all that [alcohol] is and what it tastes like. There are a lot of slow nights, and you end up experimenting–that’s probably how I come up with 90 percent of my drinks.
Are you the guy that gets wrangled into making drinks wherever you go?
Oh, it’s the worst. Even if I go to my friends’ bars, the next thing I know, I’m behind the bar. If I go to a house party, I’m the guy making cocktails for everybody. At the barbecue, I’m the dude who’s like, “I’m gonna bring something special.” Everyone’s drinking beers, and I bring watermelon margarita pitchers, ice, and glasses.
Are you also a brewer or distiller?
I’m not. But right now I have two bourbon barrels in my apartment that I’m using to make Manhattans. I’m basically barrel-aging a Manhattan for six months to a year. You get a little more of a peaty wood flavor, a stronger bourbon flavor out of it. I’m essentially aging cocktails. My goal is to have ice cold, barrel-aged Manhattans on draft, which will be available at Pork Slope around October 1.
Hit the next page for Bush’s recipe for his favorite cocktail, the Chinatown.
By John Bush
1 brown sugar cube
2 or 3 dashes maple bitters
3 brandy-marinated cherries
3 lime wedges
2 oz Diplomatico rum
Freshly ground black pepper
Muddle the sugar cube, bitters, cherries and lime. Fill with rum, shake, strain, and pour. Grind fresh peppercorn right on top. Garnish with a wedge of lime.