Bartender Pamela Wiznitzer is always up for a challenge (just check her college cred: She earned two bachelor degrees simultaneously while also enrolled in the Columbia Bartending Academy). So when the recession pushed her out of her tech start-up marketing position in 2009 and her friends landed her a sports bar gig in Murray Hill, she was determined to fill seats — regardless of the undesirable daytime hours. “They told me it was going to be a really tough shift and that it wasn’t easy to get people in there during lunch,” she says. “So I said, ‘Watch me. I guarantee you guests there at lunch.’ Within a few weeks, I had the whole place packed.”
Her love for fast-paced bartending took her to The Dead Rabbit (30 Water Street, 646-422-7906), where she splits her time and experience between the quick-to-turn first floor Taproom and the elevated, cocktail-focused Parlor. Here, the Queens native shares the ingredient that makes its way into each of her drinks, what she’s really waiting for after she delivers a cocktail, and why a successful night is painful.
How would you define your approach behind the bar?
I think if you sit down with me, you’ll notice my approach is about a fun, whimsical experience. I want you to feel like you’ve been transported to another place, like you can check your cares and worries at the door and not have to think about anything that happened earlier in the day. As Ben and Jerry once said, “If it’s not fun, why do it?”
Which floor of Dead Rabbit would you most likely find yourself hanging out on, off duty?
If I’m in the mood to have a fancier cocktail, I go upstairs, and if I just want a Guinness and to hang out with some friends, I go downstairs. I’m an equal opportunist; I really love both the floors and what they have to offer.
Which floor do you enjoy working on the most?
The big reason I work on both floors is because I couldn’t choose one style over the other. My roots are in fast, packed-house bartending at sports bars with highballs and beers, and then I got more into craft cocktailing. And the nice thing is that I’m able to do both under one roof. When I came on board here, they wanted me originally just upstairs, and I told them I wouldn’t do it unless I could have a shift downstairs. I love the differences between the spaces, and they both present challenges that I’m able to work with.
You guys serve 72 cocktails in the Parlor. What was the process like of mastering all of them?
I cannot learn a cocktail simply by looking at it on paper. It’s impossible for me. I can understand it conceptually, but until I actually physically touch the bottles and make the drink, it’ll never stay in my mind. In high school and college, there were a lot of classes that were really difficult for me because I don’t just listen and learn; I need to experience things in order to really understand them. So for me, once I make a drink, I pretty much remember it. When I make it twice, it’s engrained in my head. I always just make sure I know conceptually what the drink is about, so that once I make it, it all clicks. So it didn’t take too long — maybe a week or two — to get all the drinks down. It’s about practice, repetition, and wanting to know what’s in the drink.
Of the 72, which five cocktails come to mind immediately?
I always think of the Combatant, which is a really interesting cocktail because it uses peated Irish whiskey as the base and pineapple and citrus and yeast and allspice. It’s a really interesting flavor combination, and it’s so fun on the palate. A big classic at our place is called the Dad Cunningham. It’s a great cocktail that fuses together rum, whiskey, and port. It’s boozy and unassuming, but it hits you hard. I think of one of mine called Head of Steam, which is a Manhattan variation — it’s delicious. The Cross Punch is one of my favorite things on the menu. It’s made of Pisco Porton that is infused with pineapple for a whole day, and it has tea and lemon. It’s absolutely divine. And then I think of our Irish coffee — it’s called the Benicia Boy, and it’s such a staple here. I think it’s one of the finest ones outside of the Buena Vista Café that you can get in the whole country.
When someone sits down at the bar and has one of your own cocktails, what’s the giveaway that it’s one of your own creations?
This is cheesy, but when people say, “Your drinks are so great,” I’ll say, “Yeah — because I made them with love.” I always say love is a really important ingredient that I put into my drinks, and it really is. I want every drink to look perfect, to taste perfect, and to just be the embodiment of what a guest wants to eat or drink.
Punch bowls are a big thing there, too. What qualifies a concoction to be better served as a punch as opposed to a single cocktail?
Punch is a very specific recipe of five components. It needs to have a spirit, a sugar, a spice, a citrus, and water or tea. Punch doesn’t have as much citrus as people think, so when there’s a drink with less citrus and more water in it, and if the taste can really linger, that’s a good indication of a punch. Anything can really be made into a punch because punches are just large sized cocktails — and cocktails were originally crafted because people wanted smaller portions of punch. I think it just depends on challenging yourself to make a drink and understanding how to make it large format.
What does a successful night at work look like?
To me a successful night at work is one where my body hurts — it means that I was shaking, moving around, bending and lifting, running up and down the bar, and dancing so much that I’ve worn myself out. It’s the nights that I don’t feel exhausted that I get upset or think that I could’ve pushed myself harder or been a little busier. A successful night is also indicated by the times people leave and say to me that they’ve had a great time.
What’s a perfect cocktail in your book?
The perfect cocktail to me is the one that makes the guest put on this really big, goofy grin after they take the first sip. It’s awesome; you always wait for that. When you put a drink down in front of someone, you wait a second for them to take their sip, and while it looks like you’re doing something else you’re actually waiting to look at their face. And when they have that look of amazement and awe, and their mouth is so wide with a smile, that’s when you know you nailed it.