Bartender Joaquín Simó received his first lesson in hospitality as a teenager while working as a parish secretary at his church. “The very first thing that Father Gerrardo taught me was not how to answer the phone or where the CCD registration forms were, but rather, how to prepare Cuban coffee for a parishioner if they accepted my offer to come inside,” he explains. Since then, Simó has upheld a “customer comes first” mentality in every role he has taken on — from opening shop at Death & Company to becoming a partner in both national beverage consulting group Alchemy Consulting and in East Village cocktail den Pouring Ribbons (225 Avenue B, 917-656-6788). “You can’t say, ‘I’m doing the mixology thing now, I’ll get to the customer service later,’ ” he says. Here, we spoke with Simó about the beauty of a Cartesian plane, the satisfaction that comes with serving up a proper daiquiri, and why he wants his staff to read the sports page — every darn day.
How would you describe your approach behind the bar?
My primary responsibility is to ensure that my guest is getting the service and experience that they need at that given moment. I will treat a guest differently when they’re on a first date versus a third date, with their boss versus with their colleagues, with their parents versus their college friends. If you only ever give a guest one experience, they will only return to you when they want that one experience. A great host is malleable.
Bartending has led you to many related roles, from writing and recipe-testing to consulting. What aspect of your work do you enjoy most?
I still enjoy my time behind the stick the most. While working a 12-hour shift on your feet gets pretty rough on your body, it’s my favorite thing to do. I love seeing friendly faces walk through the door and getting a chance to make a positive or memorable impression on their night. On a totally different note, I have also greatly enjoyed giving seminars and sitting on panels at cocktail conferences — it’s been remarkable how many young bartenders have reached out to me to tell me how my words affected them. That’s a really humbling moment.
What did you envision when you opened Pouring Ribbons?
Conviviality and deliciousness. We want to be accessible, we want to be fun; we don’t want to be the cocktail bar with a million rules or the cocktail bar that keeps saying no to people. We don’t want to say to people, “No, you can’t have a dirty martini, no, we don’t make cosmos, no, you can’t stand there, no, you can’t go talk to that girl.” We’re just tired of saying no to people. I started bartending at neighborhood college bars, and what you do there is you are the facilitator; you make introductions. It’s not just about the drink, it’s more about the guest, and I think we wanted to make sure that our focus was always on the guest, and that it felt less like a temple of mixology, and that hopefully people would come in here and kind of let their hair down a little more. We want to offer a sophisticated place for adults to gather together for conversation, and to fuel their interactions with thoughtful and tasty libations. Our space gives us a lot of flexibility with the sizes of parties we are able to accommodate, which is a rarity in the cocktail scene in NYC.
What inspired the flavor profile scales that appear on the menus at Pouring Ribbons?
We knew we weren’t going to start dumbing down our drinks, and we were going to continue using challenging and esoteric ingredients, and a lot of house-made ingredients, but we also knew what that can read like on a menu. If you’re just scanning a list of ingredients on a menu, and you don’t know what any of those ingredients are, now you have no clue as to what that drink is about. So we decided to do something a little more visual to help guests along, and that’s where that drink matrix came in on the menu.
We wanted a split between our original house cocktails and classics, but didn’t want it to feel like a compendium. Fifteen house and 15 classic cocktails allows us to have enough variety that a regular can come back time after time and continue to find new and interesting things to drink, without overwhelming a first-time guest. The drink matrix that greets the guest on the first page of the menu maps out all 30 cocktails on a Cartesian plane. Drinks are placed along Refreshing to Spiritous, as well as Comforting to Adventurous. This allows a guest who doesn’t know a lot of our more unusual modifiers and ingredients to narrow down their choices without stumbling over unfamiliar ingredients. If you want something light and easy, top left is the way to go. If you want something boozy and funky, that bottom right corner will be your happy place.
It’s born out of the questions you’d ask a guest to help ascertain what drink you’d recommend for them. You’re more or less blocking things off to whether they’d prefer it shaken, which would be more refreshing, or if you want something stirred, it’d be spiritous, or if they want something familiar and comforting, or something more challenging or esoteric. So little things like that; we knew that’d benefit the floor service more than at the bar, where obviously you’re still going to have that verbal interaction with the bartender as your primary experience.
Which cocktail at Pouring Ribbons most accurately resembles your style of bartending or imbibing?
I’d actually say one of our classics sums up my imbibing style pretty well: the Chrysanthemum. It’s a lovely drink from Hugo Ensslin’s 1916 Guide to Mixed Drinks that I simply don’t see on enough menus. It takes two ingredients, which are often only thought of as modifiers — dry vermouth and Benedictine — and elevates them to a starring role. It’s relatively low-ABV, which is great for when you want to have a couple of drinks but aren’t looking to get tanked. Even though it’s not terribly boozy and only consists of three ingredients, it remains a beautifully balanced cocktail that has tons of depth and complexity.
Your role with Alchemy Consulting has led you to create cocktail lists for a handful of destination-worthy bars across the country. How do you put your stamp on these cocktails while still ensuring that the venue’s original concept and philosophy shines through?
As a consultant, your job isn’t to shoehorn your own tastes into a concept. It’s to take the concept that exists, and find a way to express their philosophy on the cocktail menu and the spirits selection. You wouldn’t put a bunch of Scotch drinks on a menu in a Mexican restaurant, no matter how delicious. It’s up to us to look at the physical setup of the bar — if already existing — the size and capacity of the space, the clientele and staff, and find the right mix of menu depth and complexity to suit the specific needs and concept of the space.
Which establishment has been the most challenging?
Death & Company challenged me so much, right from the start. It was so much more complex and rigorous than any other program I had ever worked, and the dedication and professionalism of the staff was so high, that it really forced me to step up my game considerably. I spent most of that first year taking notes, reading books, and tasting constantly. I needed to immerse myself in classic cocktails and ingredients just so I could be on the same page as my co-workers and be able to confidently handle any guest who sat at that bar. People used to love playing Stump the Bartender with obscure classics, and I was determined to be as prepared as possible for those occasions.
What aspect of consulting do you enjoy most?
I truly love training staff. I am so excited to share what I know about spirits, cocktails, and technique that I can only hope to pass that enthusiasm along to a staff. It’s a really wonderful feeling to put a proper daiquiri in front of someone whose only experience with that drink was some 32-ounce frozen monstrosity on Bourbon Street, and watch their eyes light up as they realize how good rum, lime, and sugar can be. It’s a paradigm shift you can actually see happening, and I never get tired of seeing it.
What three pieces of advice would you give a newcomer to your team?
1. Read every day. Doesn’t matter what you read, but you should be reading every day. You can read the newspaper, a weekly local publication, the sports page, a classic cocktail book, a food blog, a novel, whatever you want. Just make sure you’re always feeding your brain and keeping interesting tidbits handy for your guests.
2. Ask lots of questions. We have thought a lot about our ergonomics and our systems, and are always happy to talk about the rationale behind those things. Sometimes, the right question makes you realize you don’t have a good answer for it and forces you to rethink a prior assumption.
3. Concentrate on the details during a shift, but think bigger-picture outside of it. We always ask our staff how we can help them grow or learn, and knowing what you’re most curious about can help us find the best way to help. We have purchased home-brew kits and The Oxford Companion to Beer for one staffer, and helped another one pay for classes for her master somm studies. We can use our networks to set up introductions, internships, and stages. I really want bartenders to think about how else they can work in this industry and what they’re truly passionate about.
Where do you find inspiration?
My creative process is sparked by so many things. It could be a dish I have at a new restaurant, a new bottle that someone dropped off at the bar, or simply perusing a classic cocktail book. Any one of those things can inspire me to riff on an established formula, or to think about how to create liquid forms of ingredients (or combinations of them) that excite me.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 19, 2014