Anyone who builds a career around a craft can likely recall the exact moment when basic encounters turned into hopeless appreciation, and for Donna (27 Broadway, Brooklyn; 646-568-6622) bartender Jeremy Oertel, it was a properly made Manhattan. “It was eye-opening,” he remembers. “I hadn’t realized how amazing a properly made cocktail could be until then.”
Oertel’s first classic cocktail done right was handed to him while he was working at Greenwich Village’s now-shuttered Corner Shop, which served as the stage for a handful of other pivotal moments for Oertel: his speedy progression from food runner to bartender, the industry assistance he gained in landing a job at Dram, and the introduction to his wife, Natasha David, who currently heads up the bar at Nitecap.
Since then, Oertel has stepped behind the bars of some of the city’s most frequented cocktail hangouts, including Dram and Mayahuel. Most recently, you can find him splitting his time between Death and Company and Donna, where he spearheads a rum-heavy list of cocktails with a flair for accessibility — not short of punch bowls and on-tap creations. Here, we chatted with the Wisconsin native to learn more about what drink he wishes he could make all night long, his favorite moment of a shift, and what it’s like to work alongside the love of your life.
Of the places you’ve worked, which has most defined your outlook on the bartending realm?
Dram was great because I got to see so many different people’s approaches to making a good drink. I was exposed to cocktail recipes from so many different bars. We’d also have guest bartenders from all over the country come through and do shifts. It was just great to be exposed to so many different backgrounds at one place, and there was never any set way to do things there. As long as you were doing it the best way you thought you could, that was fine.
What do you wish you knew about bartending in NYC before you got into it — and what are you happy to have discovered on your own?
I wish I’d known about cocktails earlier. I bartended at Corner Shop for a long time, just making vodka lemonades and crappy mojitos before I knew how good cocktails could be, if taken seriously. I used to have a regular that would bring in a recipe for a Negroni on a piece of paper every time she came in and have me make it. I thought it was a joke, or really old- fashioned. I didn’t realize how good that cocktail was until much later, and now it’s one of my go-to drinks if I’m making something for myself.
Rum seems to play a big role on your menu. What led to that decision?
Mainly because it’s delicious, it’s also easy to work with, and economically, it makes sense. You can get amazing, high-quality rums for under $30. Using rum helps me keep my beverage costs low, while allowing me to continue to serve great cocktails that I’m proud of. It’s also an incredibly versatile spirit, and there is a lot of variety in flavors. Donna also just feels very Latin or Caribbean, so it fits the vibe of the space.
What inspired the idea behind You & Me cocktails, the beverage consulting company that you own with your wife, Natasha David?
Natasha and I met while working together at Corner Shop, where we worked together for about five years. We work really well together and are both into craft cocktails, so it only made sense that when we were offered consulting jobs, to do them together. I feel like we really complement each other on these projects. She brings a lot of things to the projects that I would never even think of, and it helps to work with another person when coming up with menus. I feel like it makes them more diverse and well-rounded.
What projects do you have lined up currently?
Both of us are currently really involved in the bars we’re in charge of, me at Donna, and her at Nitecap. I’m also trying to keep up with all of the new things I’m learning at Death and Co. We are currently finalizing a contract for a job in Bogota, Colombia, and Natasha is revamping the cocktails at the Club Room bar at the Soho Grand Hotel. We also competed on Iron Chef against each other, and the episode just aired a couple of weeks ago. It was a lot of fun to watch.
How do you two collaborate on consulting projects?
Most of the collaboration happens when we design the menus. We just sit around and bounce ideas off of each other, and then we get to try the good ones. We each bring different things to the menus that complement each other. She has a really nuanced, delicate approach to drink-making and is really good at lighter-style cocktails and aperitifs, which is a whole under-appreciated category of cocktails. We both really enjoy the whole process, but I’m always in charge of naming most of the drinks, and she really loves doing the staff trainings.
Everyone loves a good taco, on-tap cocktail, and happy hour, and you decided to combine the three at Donna. What’s your go-to taco/draft cocktail combination?
My favorite combo would be the paloma and the shrimp taco. I love refreshing tequila cocktails with Mexican food. I always felt the cocktails at Mayahuel went really well with the food they serve there, and that was one of my favorite aspects of the bar. Jessie, the owner of Brooklyn Taco, marinates the shrimp in Coco Lopez and then toasts shaved coconut and sprinkles it on top. It’s one of the best tacos I’ve ever had.
If you could work with only one spirit, one tool, and one type of glassware all night, what would they be?
I’d work with rum, a shaker, and a coupe and just make daiquiris all night, because even if you don’t know it, it’s really the drink you always want.
What is your favorite moment during a shift?
I love the “Staff Meeting” in the middle of the shift. It usually comes at the high point, and it’s a way to get together with the rest of your co-workers and feel that camaraderie that occurs when you’re powering through a busy shift.