How did you get into bartending?
To make the story quick, I grew up in a family that owned restaurants since the 19th century. The reason why I started bartending is because when you grow up in the restaurant, your dad wants you to go to culinary school and the education in Europe is called hotel school and it takes years. My dad wanted me to run the family business. We have chefs in the family and my mom was a cook. Anyway, I decided not to take that opportunity for our home restaurants growing up in Austria. I went to the United States instead to explore myself and test my talents.
People looked at me like I was coming from outer space.
I met David Bouley and instead of staying a year like I thought, I'm still here [he laughs]. That was my frist part of traveling the world. I finally found New York City as my destination. I decided when I came in 1999, that chefs were doing really amazing things. I met Daniel Boulud and David Bouley and later in my career Geoffrey Zakarian and I thought wow, what chefs are doing in the kitchen, why isn't anybody doing this in a bar? I thought to myself and spoke to Daniel and David and Geoffrey, they were great supporters, and they were like "we want to support what you do in the bar," so my first job was as creative director at Bouley's restaurant. I basically used a lot of kitchen ingredients.
I didn't reinvent anything, I just used better ingredients.
Then, I thought I should call myself different than "bartender." I have culinary experience, I grew up in restaurants, so I called myself the "bar chef." People looked at me like I was coming from outer space. Really, my kickoff was Town restaurant with Geoffrey Zakarian. We really focused on the culinary aspect of the bar, bringing fresh fruits and botanicals into the bar and I was like, wow. I didn't reinvent anything, I just used better ingredients. In NYC, everybody's using the glucose corn syrup and the industry used a lot of fake flavors, so in the early stages I created my own vanilla flavors, I created house-infused flavors that made the cocktail better. I had my own vermouth and I started playing a little with bitters. When I make a drink, and everybody likes a Negroni or a Manhattan, I can do it a little better without changing too much just adding my own elixirs.
Later I decided I need to find something a little bit more old fashioned. So eventually I found a space and opened Apotheke in China Town by reflecting a concept of an old opium den. This was the early stage and what I did over the past 10 years.
Why do you call yourself an apotheker?
I have a bit of knowledge related to botanicals and medicinal alcohol.
Well I reflected on the bar chef, in my early story I went out and said, "I'm the bar chef." I thought it was kind of coined for me to reflect the techniques I'm using to bring the kitchen to the bar. Over the years I got a bit tired of that and people were kind of following it, which is a good thing. But then, I called myself the apotheker, like the guy who works with herbs and botanicals in Europe. In Europe there are still apothecaries, where you talk to the guy behind the counter... So I'm not like a house doctor doing a gimmick, I'm trying to do a reflection of that term where you get a really good prescription. That guy behind the counter tells you what your ails are and what I'm doing is if you're tired, we know special remedies. I have a bit of knowledge related to botanicals and medicinal alcohol.
I read that you collected some of your recipes from monks. Can you tell me about that?
When I grew up in Austria, outside of Vienna — in Vienna in the 16th, 17th century there was a whole residence of monks that came from Italy — we spent a lot of our holidays by this little lake, almost on the border of Italy, and it's like an old monastery and they still produce this old liquor with like 25 herbs. It's like a Jagermeister, but Jagermeister is 100% artificial. I was very inspired then so I collected recipes for my herbal liquor. It's very close to a Benedictine with the soaking process and everything. Growing up around this area, I was always very interested in monk recipes.
How did you come up with the concept for Drawing Room?
In New York, my bar was tiny in a hidden street, it was like an opium den slash old Chinese theater and when I saw this it reminds me of an old secret street in Europe, could be in England or could be in Southern France or even Austrian and I thought the Apothecary concept would work perfectly. In Miami, I was very into the art deco, the beautiful buildings, the design and the architect at this time, Morris Lapidus. His signature, "too much is never enough," it's his saying and he was designing the building and history says he used one of his rooms as his "drawing room." It reflects for me perfectly, drawing room also means I am always drawing new cocktail concepts and trying always in the industry to be a leader.
Are there any ingredients or spirits that you're especially excited about?
Since I've been in Miami and doing all the research on the market, I'm using for example sugarcane. In a lot of parts they're using simple syrup or brown sugar. I'm using exactly only sugarcane. There's no sweetener in the cocktail. Also, I use daily-squeezed lime juice. I'm doing also a lot of infusions now. I'm using vanilla from Madagascar, local hibiscus ... the hibiscus flowers, I'm making infusions like a tea. Also, my original elderflower extract; it's a very healthy and good additive to use in the cocktail. I'm also working with a lot of mezcal.
Are there any drinks that you absolutely hate making?
sometimes people want a simple scotch or a simple beer and you cannot be upset if the customer asked for that
You hear this sometimes in the bar, but I try to teach my staff and all my bartenders that even if somebody wants just a gin and tonic or vodka cranberry, we can advise them and say, "hey you can have something different or better." But sometimes people want a simple scotch or a simple beer and you cannot be upset if the customer asked for that. We're a regular bar too and it's a part of hospitality. You have to have everything. When the customer asks for a gin and tonic, I say, "yeah I'll give you a gin and tonic, and I'll also give you a taste of the gin and tonic with house herbs and house elixirs."
How do you cut someone off when they've had too much?
At the end of the night I serve my customers a sip of sangria and it makes them calm down.
We have a house remedy for that too. I have a red-wine based, homemade sangria ... we know studying liquor for years what happens with various liquors, that's why my menu is broken up into pain killers, health and beauty, pharmaceuticals ... we know when you have a lot of tequila drinks, even high quality, we know that it makes you a little crazy. A couple of margaritas get you drunk easily. At the end of the night I serve my customers a sip of sangria and it makes them calm down. Instead of saying, "you've had enough," you say, "hey I have something cool for you to try." When you tell a drunk person, "you're drunk," he gets even more drunk. Maybe in the gin and tonic you give, you put less gin and the house tonic keeps you digesting the alcohol. So we have all kinds of tricks. Also, we have a special prescription pack. I can write you a prescription saying, "oh you look tired" and give you something to help. We don't want to be called doctors, but we know based on the effect of the alcohol that we can blend herbs and fruits into it so it makes you not have a hangover the next days. Customers call me and they're like, "I feel really good and I had seven cocktails, normally I drink two or three."
As a bartender, what's your favorite tool?
We have state of the art equipment like I have a sugarcane press to press the sugarcane, I have an ice machine that freezes the ice and takes the oxygen out of the ice and makes it a really, really strong ice cube and I have special juicers, but my favorite are these special syringes that I put my elixirs in. It's part of the show too. The bar should be a little bit fun too. The quality is so important, but the theatrical component should not miss in any bar. Some bars are too stiff and there's too many rules. A bar should have the highest quality, but there should be a show too and characters behind the bar.
If it's my first time at Drawing Room, what should I order.
Champagne is good for the mood
I would start off with a champagne cocktail. Champagne is good for the mood, it cleanses even if you've had a stressful day. I add a special elderflower elixir I created a long time ago. It's healthy and it always puts you in a good mood.
When you're not at Drawing Room, but you are here in Miami, where do you go for drinks?
I like Casa Tua, they have a very good bar program. We all know each other from the industry. I like the Shaker, I know Elad for many years since he was still in New York. Shaker is fantastic. Then there's The Corner, the Regent Cocktail Club. I like to bring a little bit of a different concept. I really respect my colleagues and what the Regent does in the Prohibition-style and classic cocktail, what Elad does with the creativity ... I want to be a little bit more on the pharmaceutical side of the cocktails, more on the herbs and the selection of the elixirs.