By Henrik Steen Petersen
With the opening of Milk & Honey in a dreary side street in the Lower East Side in New York in 1999, Sasha Petraske came to play a major (and perhaps decisive role) role in the cocktail culture we are a part of today.
Petraske died aged just 42 in 2015. Although outwardly he was unselfish, he left a strong and distinctive heritage about how we treat each other: With hospitality, dedication, precision and by never cutting corners.
Only three months before his death, Petraske married journalist Georgette Moger who we can now thank for preserving his legacy in book form.
‘Regarding Cocktails’ is dedicated to the home bartender and includes recipes for a good part of the classically inspired cocktails Petraske was known for: simple (most with only a few ingredients) and balanced to the last drop.
Unlike many other cocktail books for home bartenders the book also includes advice and tips for creating a good and well thought out cocktail party at home: Never invite more guests than you actually have room for; think about your guests’ safety when the alcohol is flowing; about music, mood or atmosphere. And last but not least, prepare a cocktail menu which it is possible to work through while leaving you time and energy to spend time with your guests: 4-6 cocktails, beer, wine, and mixers that will quickly produce a Gin & Tonic or Whiskey Soda.
The last section of the book is a large number of testimonies from former employees about the legendary ‘House Rules’ for guests, style, attitude, etiquette, behavior of regulars, and not least parts of the manual, which was the common basis for everyone who worked for Petraske, whether it was Milk & Honey in New York, London or some of the other bars under the tutelage of Petraske.
Among former employees is also Mikael Nilsson from the Strøm Bar. Mikael lived and worked in London when Petraske opened his London edition of Milk & Honey.
“The bars I worked in at the beginning of my time in London, were all characterized by free-pour cocktails filled to the brim with fruit juices. Bar training was often purely concentrated on free-pour tests. The shift to Milk & Honey in late 2003 opened a new world: classically inspired cocktails with few but carefully selected ingredients in the right balance,” says Mikael.
“The use of jiggers was also new, and not least the attitude towards the bar’s guests. We should know our guests’ names, greet them at the door with a gentleman’s approach and we should, of course, know their favorites among cocktails and ingredients,” continues Mikael.
Milk & Honey was operated on the basis of a manual that not only contained recipes, but also the right place to keep everything, and the order in which the bartender had to prepare a comprehensive ordering from a table. Responsibility for the serving of the finished cocktails lay just as much with the bartender as with the waiter. It was thus the bartender’s responsibility to ensure that the waiter served the finished cocktails to the guests within a minute. If not, the cocktails would end up at the bottom of the sink and the order remade. The responsibility for that debacle lay with the bartender.
The servers also had their rules and responsibilities to live up to, Mikael continues: “After one serving, I was held aside by the bar manager who asked me what went wrong with the serving? It turned out that a mint leaf had dropped from the garnish onto the napkin. I had not noticed, and was told that, in that case, I had not been attentive enough. For the mistake I got my first strike. Three strikes and you were history.”
About the book, Mikael says: “In a time marked by obscure cocktails that require a large machine setup in the kitchen, it is liberating to relive Sasha’s mentality and spirit: Keep it simple and you’ll be able to go a long way with just a few ingredients. Go low on the acid ratio, as it will ruin your stomach. Today we take hospitality and good cocktails as a given, but only a few know that it comes from Petraske. And finally I find my favorite cocktail ‘Hayes Fizz’ in print.”