In this interview, Milk & Honey’s (30 East 23rd Street) Gil Bouhana discusses his appreciation for rum, why shortcuts will fail you, and why he’s old-school at heart.
What are your thoughts on the new space?
I loved the old space because it was smaller, very intimate, very dark. It was definitely like stepping into another era, another place in time. But I love the larger size of the new space because we can accommodate more people. And being in this area, it has a neighborhood feel. I get to see a lot of regulars who live and work around here, and I get to be involved in their lives. I have a lot of folks coming in who will tell me they just got engaged, or let me know about promotions they have coming up. I feel like I’ve gotten a good sense of the community.
What’s the biggest takeaway from being trained by Sasha Petraske?
I’m sure I’m not going to be the only person to say this, but if I could sum it up in maybe four words or less? Don’t cut any corners. It’s something that I definitely observe every day I see him and every day through the people who work with him, and it’s something that has definitely stayed with me in the sense of being the best that you can be, all of the time. It’s easy to be good once or twice, it’s easy to be good half of the time, it’s kind of easy to be good most of the time, but can you be good all of the time?
What approach do you take behind the bar?
Having been trained by Sasha and getting to work with him and the other people here has showcased that the emphasis is on the details. My approach has always obviously been to make the best quality drinks with the best possible products, but at the same time, to be aware that it is a bar and to be aware that people are here for a social purpose. It’s important to remember the community and, most importantly, the people — making sure that everyone is comfortable.
What’s your outlook on Milk & Honey’s house rules?
I’ve been told many times before that I have an old soul and that I’m nostalgic for the days of yesteryear. I love the present and where things are going, but I respect history and how things were before. Enforcing house rules won’t always makes sense; it depends on what kind of bar it is. Some of the rules at first might seem a tad restrictive, but the overall picture for the greater good makes a lot of sense. All I see it as, is trying to create an environment where everyone can come in, enjoy a few drinks, and be away from some of the hassles of everyday life.
What has it been like to step into a bartending role where no set cocktail menu is in play?
It has been a very steep, great learning curve, and it definitely broadens my horizons. It’s a collaborative process, but at the end of the day, it gives me the freedom to do what I do. I wouldn’t want to create something that we, as a group, wouldn’t all agree upon. It’s really about emphasis on the classics and making them in the best possible way — ultimately, nothing is better than a daiquiri, a Manhattan, an old fashioned.
Describe the drink ordering process you encounter when someone sits at your bar.
The most important thing for me — and I’m sure for any bartender — is to listen to what they’re telling me. And not just what they’re saying, but what they’re really telling me. So all I try to focus on is listening to what they want, and then thinking, “they might say this, but do they really want that?” So I’ll make them what I think it is they’re really telling me. Most of the time it works out, but at the end of the day, it’s about meeting someone more than halfway and being humble enough to say, “Hey, if this doesn’t work, we’ll find something that does.”
If you could choose anyone in the world to make a drink for, who would it be — and what drink would you make?
There are two people who I’d love to make drinks for and have drinks with — Teddy Roosevelt and Hemingway, and they’re both going to get daiquiris. If not them, it’d be my friends — people whom I know and could enjoy a cocktail with.
You’ve mentioned the daiquiri a couple of times — any reason?
It is close to my heart. I’m a big fan of rum. Also, part of my upbringing happened in the Dominican Republic, where rum is a huge thing. We’re big on rum and cigars. But the daiquiri is simple, it’s the Holy Trinity: lime, sugar, and rum. You can measure how good a drink is by taking something simple that seems fairly easy to make and making it great.
What’s the perfect cocktail in your book?
Something you’re in the mood for, something cold, and something fast.
What do you hope to see more of behind the bar?
I love ice — all different kinds of it — and I love personalities.