In this interview, Eleven Madison Park and NoMad beverage director Leo Robitschek discusses what the term “classic cocktail” means to him, the shots he serves patrons if given the choice, and the spirit we should all be drinking right this second.
What is your background, and how did you enter the hospitality industry?
I worked in hospitality throughout college but never took it seriously. It was during what I call my quarter life crisis when I returned to hospitality. I left the finance world and decided to return to school in hopes of becoming a doctor, and I started bartending at nights.
What was it about the beverage industry that piqued your curiosity?
In my first hospitality job in NYC, they made us take mandatory beverage classes that were taught in house. This opened my eyes to spirits and cocktails. I started reading old cocktail books and fell in love with the history.
What drink will always be on your cocktail lists (in some form)?
All of our cocktail lists change seasonally. There isn’t one particular drink that will always be on a list, but there are categories and styles of drinks that will always be featured. We will always have variations on sours, tiki-style cocktails, classic martinis — Manhattans and such. We do these variations within most types of spirit categories. For instance, we have a refreshing sour drink with gin, one with rum, one with tequila, one with bourbon, and one with apple brandy.
Visitors and locals alike make it a point to try your cocktails. What do you hope to offer them with your creations?
I try to create cocktails that are balanced and delicious, but also tell a story. When creating a list, we try to have most cocktails evoke seasonality. I love when a cocktail allows you to escape to a specific place and time through its flavors and ingredients.
What drink do you reach for during shifts (and post-shift, if different)?
During shifts: Water. Post-shift: anything close — usually a whiskey.
If a dealer’s choice request comes your way, what’s your go-to solution (provided the patron is open to any and everything)?
We usually ask a few basic questions that allow us to cater a cocktail to a guest’s needs. We always ask if there is a spirit preference, if they would like a cocktail that is shaken and citrus-based or stirred and spirit-forward. We also ask if there are any flavors or ingredients that they do not enjoy. If a guest wants absolutely anything, I usually make a cocktail that I would like to drink at that moment.
If a group orders shots and leaves the choice to you, what’ll it be?
Mezcal — I enjoy sipping on it and introducing it to others.
When you think “classic cocktail,” what is the first drink that comes to mind — and how have you put your spin on it?
The Manhattan — The Grandfather of modern fancy drinks. I love playing with varying bitters and vermouths. I also love splitting the base with rye and rum.
What should everyone be trying right now?
I think people should explore the aperitif wine category more. There are so many vermouths and other aromatized wines on the market that are delicious and fun to play with in cocktails.