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It was his post-chain-bookstore-shift ritual that led The Ship’s (158 Lafayette Street, 212-219-8496) bartender Cervantes Ramirez to the bar industry when he moved to New York from Santo Domingo. “I was a regular at Von, and the staff invited me to join as a bar back,” he explains. “From there, I worked my way up to be a bartender.” Ramirez quickly climbed the ranks at a handful of the city’s top cocktail joints, including Milk & Honey, Little Branch, Freeman’s, PDT, Silver Lining, and Cafe Select. In June, he helped open The Ship, a neighborhood bar in Soho that offers approachable takes on classics with a subtle nod to nautical components (think Island Old Fashioned with aged rum, velvet falernum, and cane syrup). Here, we chatted with Ramirez about why glassware matters, why ego doesn’t, and why you’ll see him smiling behind the bar — a lot.
How would you define your approach behind the bar?
Service with a smile. While knowledge of a large selection of drinks is important to the craft cocktail service, we can’t forget that it’s a hospitality business, and making the guest comfortable and happy is the heart of it. Too many cocktail places take themselves or what they’re doing too seriously. Pride in what you do — no matter what it is — is a good thing, but it should never be the dominant dynamic across a bar. We are not here to impress you with our knowledge or wow you with our latest cocktail. As Sasha [Petraske] always said, the guest is the star of the show. Staff and drinks should play a supporting role in their evening out.
What is the underlying connection between all the drinks on offer at The Ship?
Simple, classic, and tasty. We have always focused on classic cocktails, fresh ingredients, and a core list of drinks with fewer than four ingredients. There is a reason these drinks have survived decades of changing trends and preferences, 100 years or more in many cases: They are good. There’s little point in reinventing that wheel. Most “new” drinks are just variations on the true classics: martini, Manhattan, old fashioned, daiquiri, Collins, etc. That being said, we freely play with new combinations, ingredients, and tweaks, but we are always recognizing the tradition we come from.
Your menu states not only the cocktail’s name and ingredients, but details on how it’s served, as well — right down to the glassware. Why is it important to share these details with guests?
Every ingredient is important. Every drink is measured to ensure that it always meets our standards and is served properly every time, no matter who is working. We want the customer to know that we care. Additionally, there are customers with a broad variation in their drinks knowledge. To some, an ingredient or principal spirit may help them choose a cocktail, while to another who may be looking for a tall drink; that may help them make their selection. We have hundreds of drinks in our arsenal — the short list is designed to make people comfortable finding something fitting or trying something new that we stand behind, while also giving them enough information so that they have a fair idea of what to expect when it arrives. If they see we serve something in a coupe that they like on the rocks, they can call out that substitution right off the bat. For those familiar with us or our general cocktail culture, they can always order what they like.
You’ve been involved in the cocktail scene since before it was so buzzy. What has surprised you most about those early days versus now?
I was surprised to see how many people were more interested in quantity and speed over quality. Early on, there was a very big learning curve for customers experiencing where cocktails and bar culture were going. It was about finding out what they did and didn’t like and learning to slow down and allow the time for a drink made with care. This was a huge leap from Long Island iced teas with sour mix out of a gun and no name rail spirits that were the accepted status quo. Most surprising, maybe, was how some customers clung to that status quo even though it was born out of interest in profit margins and not a quality product or experience.
When you’re not working, where and what do you like to drink?
I like rye or rum — just neat.
How do you stay on top of what’s happening in this rapidly moving industry?
I just keep making cocktails — it makes me happy. Only time will tell what important drinks are happening now. Will something we are doing now hold up like the classics? Probably not, but even if it does, we’ll be old and retired before we know for sure.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned through working in the NYC bar
You have to be a social worker. You have to love people. Loving cocktails is great, but it can’t bridge the gap if you don’t honestly enjoy taking care of people first and foremost.
How do you put your stamp on a cocktail?
With a smile. Service is the best thing you can add, as a general rule. Sometimes trying too hard to make a drink “yours” can be an ego issue. If we make a tweak or variation it is generally in an attempt to make the drink “theirs” (the customer’s), rather than mine.
What spirit are you most inclined to work with, and why?
I like them all. There are no limitations, but we have always leaned towards honest, simple, traditional spirits whose focus has been the quality of their product and not hype or PR. In that way, we support like-minded producers, and our portfolio is a reflection of our values as well as our tastes.