Though he’s only ever bartended in New York, Jon Mullen has a way of conjuring distant locales with each drink he creates. In part, this stems from the concept-rooted bars where he cut his teeth—the New Orleans–themed Maison Premiere, the French-leaning Sauvage—but it also reflects his own preference for a style of drinking that falls squarely within the European tradition of aperitivo.
“I like a late-afternoon-style drink,” says Mullen, who helms the bar at the West Village’s Bar Pisellino, Rita Sodi and Jody Williams’s property modeled in the image of a classic Torino café. “I’ve always been a daytime drinker—even in college, before it was of any sort of quality.” Over the years, this preference has informed much of his output, which tends toward a low-alcohol, bitter and refreshing profile, bolstered by a deep knowledge of European liqueurs, americanos and fortified wines of every ilk. This intense focus was gleaned from years working under the tutelage of Maison Premiere and Sauvage bar director William Elliott.
“I’m informed by Will Elliott’s palate; I definitely think that I was kind of geared toward a higher altitude profile—bitter and cooling,” says Mullen of his mentor’s love of alpine liqueurs and eaux de vie. After completing a degree in English, Mullen planned to attend Cornell’s Viticulture and Enology school, where he had been accepted. But a visit to Maison Premiere in 2014 changed all that. “Pretty much right away I was like ‘this place is different,’” Mullen recalls. “My first drink was a Rattlesnake [a Whiskey Sour variation calling on the addition of absinthe], which was unlike anything I’d ever seen.” After that initial visit, he returned three nights in a row before applying for an opening as a barback, abandoning his plans to attend Cornell. “I wanted to take bartending seriously, and it was a place that did.”
When the Maison Premiere team opened Sauvage, a Parisian café–inspired bar, in 2016, Mullen began bartending there simultaneously. After a few years, he left his post as bartender at both locations to develop his own program at Fort Greene’s Mettā, where he worked in close collaboration with chef Norberto Piattoni, incorporating byproducts from the food menu into a low-waste drinks program. His High Borghese, for example, calls on tomato brine left over from the fermentation of fresh in-season tomatoes—a technique that allows the kitchen to preserve the tomatoes at their peak. “It was a lesson in looking at your ingredients completely rather than as a single use or a single idea,” says Mullen of his progressive menu.
Still, it was the European-inspired backbar at Sauvage that left a lasting impression. “I think Sauvage was the drinks program I latched on to the most,” he says. It’s not difficult to see the influence of that place on Mullen’s original creations at Bar Pisellino, where he serves as bar manager. The standing-room-only space offers a tight menu of refined aperitivo cocktails—an Aperol Spritz, Americano and Negroni Sbagliato, among others. But it’s the Anisette Frappé that perhaps best encapsulates what Mullen accomplishes so well across his entire repertoire: creating drinks evocative of a particular time and place.
“Thinking about where you are and what you want to drink at that time is a big part of my approach,” says Mullen. Channeling the post-dinner sambuca and espresso tradition into an afternoon pick-me-up, the frappé arrives on a silver platter alongside a shot of espresso and a short glass of sparkling water, instantly transporting the drinker al banco in Torino’s Piazza Castello. It’s one of the most visually appealing cocktails on a menu of striking refreshments, the sort of cocktail that wouldn’t be out of place in Wes Anderson’s highly stylized, romantic vision of Europe as captured in The Grand Budapest Hotel. It is, in other words, the aesthete’s aperitivo.
“It’s a Bitters and Soda, basically,” says Mullen of his BB Highball, a drink that he created during his time helming the bar program at Mettā. To a Braulio base, he adds a full teaspoon of Angostura bitters as well as dehydrated citrus juice—what he calls “citrus caramel”—for acidity in place of fresh lemon. It’s a prime example of the ways in which Mullen collaborates with the kitchen to repurpose ingredients that would otherwise be wasted. A soda water topper adds carbonation to the highball, which channels all the complexity and flavors of the Italian Alps.
“It’s a late-afternoon pick-me-up rather than a wind-down after dinner,” explains Mullen of his Anisette Frappé, which is served alongside a shot of espresso and a glass of sparkling water at Bar Pisellino. As such, it clocks in at a lower ABV than a traditional Absinthe Frappé, and, though minimally garnished (“I don’t fall into tiki, it’s not overly done”), it conveys meticulous attention to detail in its presentation—a signature of Mullen’s entire output.
Named for the eponymous park in Rome, Mullen likens his High Borghese to “a refreshing smash.” Gin, lemon cordial and lemon juice are shaken with Suze, a French gentian liqueur and fermented tomato brine—the byproduct of the kitchen’s fermentation process. The result is, in Mullen’s words, “an elevated vegetal and herbal drink.”
The Luli Collins is a riff on Mullen’s favorite shift drink, the Tom Collins. Rather than the expected gin base, Mullen opts for Luli Moscato Chinato and Villa de Varda Amarone Riserva grappa for this version he serves at Bar Pisellino. “It’s built around different applications of grapes,” he explains of his split base, which marries both fermented and distilled grape components for a layered Collins by way of Italy.