When his contemporaries spent “take your kids to work day” spinning in Dad’s desk chair and meeting the third “Steve” in the office, Ward III (111 Reade Street, 212-240-9194) and Rum House (228 West 47th Street, 646-490-6924) head bartender and chief creative officer Kenneth McCoy went to a Midtown East bar and shook hands with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Meatloaf, and The Who. “My dad had five bars in the city in the ’70s and ’80s, so I grew up in this business,” McCoy says. When he decided to pursue an acting career, bartending naturally accompanied him, leading him to roles at The Bridge Café, Layla, and Hudson Hotel before he took a position at Tribeca’s Ward III when that place opened five years ago. Here, we talk with the Queens native about why the bar is like a house party, how The Clash inspires him, and why you should chat with the folks sitting next to you.
How would you define your approach behind the bar?
For me, it is about being casual and easygoing. I like to create an experience that is very personable. You want people to feel like they are coming into a nice house for a party. There seemed to be a trend for a period of time where there wasn’t a lot of talking between customers and bartenders. It became more about the trinkets and fussiness of the cocktail. The craft is important, but the cocktail is just one part of the bar experience. As bartenders, we’re in the service industry; we’re here to take care of people, so I think it’s important to have that personal element.
How do you differentiate the cocktails and overall cocktail lists between Ward III and Rum House?
There are two given facts that influence the cocktail lists at Ward III versus the list at The Rum House: bar size and location. With The Rum House, we have a smaller space — what you see is what you get. There isn’t a lot of storage space or back bar area, so we have to be more deliberate with our selections there. The Rum House is also located in the Theatre District, so the crowd is a lot more diverse. We get people from all over the world, so we try to keep a lot of variety in the cocktail list so that there is something for everyone. Overall, I’m drawn to brown spirits — rye, bourbon, aged rums — which is why I work with a team of bartenders to help round-out the menu and balance the lists.
What was it about rum, in particular, that served as inspiration for a second venue?
With our second location — The Rum House — we were actually taking over a preexisting bar space that already had the name The Rum House. It was very much run-down, but we wanted to preserve what was there in spirit. It represented what we imagined old New York bars to be — a place where people would go when they went to see a play or to see the bright lights of Times Square. In that way, our inspiration came from that idea of the old saloon. I also think of rum as being one of the original New York spirits. The Dutch brought it here, and people used to trade with it, so it made sense to incorporate rum as much as possible throughout our list.
How did you decide to open up The Rum House in the Theatre District?
It was an opportunity to bring something to the Theatre District that was really lacking: a proper cocktail bar. I’d lived in NYC all my life, and the idea of going to Times Square to meet someone for a drink was horrendous. There were some Irish Pubs, chain restaurants — but a great cocktail bar was always missing.
Which of the house rules is your favorite (or was the most important for you to establish)?
“Don’t be creepy.” It’s just my favorite. I think it encompasses a lot of things, not just dudes hitting on girls. This rule just reminds you to act right.
I also like the “Do Not Be Afraid To Engage Your Neighbor,” because it goes back to what I said above about bars being like a fun party. The great thing about a bar is you never know who you’re sitting next to, especially in New York. You could have a banker on one side or dog walker or a movie star on the other — and there’s something great about just introducing yourself. It’s something my dad did everywhere we went and it has stuck with me.
Where do you find inspiration for your cocktails?
For me, a lot of it is pop culture, film, theater, art, literary world, etc. You’ll find a lot of things on our menus that are named for songs, movies, plays or characters in movies. Film especially is something that is very inspiring to me. One example is the Bank Robber on Ward III’s cocktail list. This is inspired by a song by The Clash. It’s made with rum and rye. I came to this because I thought about what cocktails were like in the early days of New York — and if you were making cocktails then, you’d be making them with these two spirits.
You had mentioned in a previous Fork in the Road interview that you were excited to see rye making a comeback. Are there any other spirits (or otherwise) you’re excited about right now?
I’m excited about Aperol, especially with summer upon us. I love bitters and amaros, so I get excited about any new types of either.
What continues to surprise/amaze you about the bartending realm?
I’m amazed at how big bartending has become. It is a legitimate profession, which is so exciting to see. Bartenders now can be mini brands, and many are writing books, coming out with their own products, etc. It’s different than the way it was five, 10, 20 years ago. I think it’s a sign of the times. It’s not just about making billions — people are interested again in going back to the art of the craft; in using their hands. They’re becoming carpenters, tailors, and some are becoming bartenders. It’s incredible to see and a great thing.