Dave Arnold was on slow burn. He stared at the yellowish, quasi-tiki drink on pebble ice before him, his face a mask of chagrined resignation.
“Don,” he began calmly, like a graduate of anger-management counseling, “is trying slowly—and succeeding—in getting me to be able to accept drinks with acid that dilute on crushed ice; drinks that come too sweet and dilute over the course of their life. Because people apparently like that.”
The Don in question is Don Lee, Arnold’s partner in Existing Conditions, a highly anticipated bar due to open in New York’s Greenwich Village in late May or early June. It’s Arnold’s first bar since his beloved lab of science-perfected cocktails, Booker and Dax, closed in fall of 2016. And it’s Lee’s first bar program since he left his post in David Chang’s empire way back in 2010.
“There was a long, contracted battle about whether it should go on ice,” said Lee about the contested cocktail, which is called The Remedy. “We’re still fighting about whether we’ll use a tiki mug. These are the kinds of things Dave and I argue about.”
“He’s pro-tiki in general,” said Arnold, whose upper lip wasn’t curled, but might as well have been. “And crushed ice and pebble ice and highballs on ice,” added Lee. “I don’t love carbonation so much that I’m unwilling to make a highball over ice. Whereas Dave loves the bubbles so much that any bubble wasted because of ice is…” He didn’t finish the sentence.
“I’ve accepted defeat,” said Arnold. “They ganged up on me.”
When it comes to the nexus where science meets cocktails, few drink-makers could go toe-to-toe and be so evenly matched as Arnold and Lee. At Booker and Dax, Arnold brought all the gizmos (rotary evaporator, centrifuge, liquid nitrogen) he had been playing with at the French Culinary Institute, where he was director of the Culinary Technology department.
At PDT, his first bartending gig, Lee popularized the fat-washing method of infusing spirits with the flavors of solids through his madly popular, bacon-tinged Benton’s Old-Fashioned. He regularly fills his time spinning out wonky, hyper-focused experiments, such as designing custom Hawthorne strainers at Cocktail Kingdom, measuring the dashes that come out of a bitters bottle or pressure cooking forty cans of sweetened, condensed milk over three days—different brands, different times, different temperatures. And, as the head of the CAP apprentice program at Tales of the Cocktail, he has schooled literally hundreds of young bartenders.
When Arnold knew he would be losing Booker and Dax, Lee was his first call.
“Who else would I open a bar with?” he asked. “I feel I’m always better when I’m working with someone. And we’ve worked together a lot.” (Greg Boehm, the owner of barware purveyor Cocktail Kingdom, and the bars Mace and Boilermaker, is the third partner in Existing Conditions.)
Temperamentally, the two men are very different. In their endless tennis match of cocktail communiqué, Lee is Bjorn “Ice-Borg” Borg, his debate-team reasonableness never boiling over, while Arnold is closer to a sputtering John McEnroe, forever arguing the bad calls being made by others. With two independent, strong-willed spirits, how does a collaboration work?
“I answer emails and respond to phone calls, and he doesn’t,” joked Lee. “We yell at each other a lot,” said Arnold. Lee agreed: “If you live and die based on what people think of your work, you’ll never be happy, you’ll never be successful,” he said. “You want people to love your work? Show it to your mother. She’ll put in on the refrigerator. You want people to criticize your work. You can only get better by being critical of your work.”
One could sense this air of kinetic discourse during a recent menu tasting, which included head bartender Jack Schramm and bartender Bobby Murphy. Drink after drink was brought out and greeted by the gathered crew as a “problem” play by Shakespeare, the virtues of which no one could completely agree on. The Edessa, a boozy rye-sherry-Benedictine cocktail, came about when Murphy brought in Urfa biber, a Turkish chili pepper, as a potential cocktail ingredient. A week and a half of dispute followed.
“Dave was like, ‘It’s a good product, but we’ve got to find the way to make it work,’” said Murphy. “We both settled on rapid-infusing the pepper into the cream sherry.”
Inside Existing Conditions
Arnold and Lee have not run out of tricks to widen the eyes of the jaded cocktail crowd. Everything will be done differently, the Lee and Arnold way. Or, as Lee asked rhetorically, “How can we take this and then repurpose it for our own evil ends?” If you look for the tricks, you’ll find them in great numbers. But if you don’t—if you’re just looking for a good bar—that’s fine with them.
At Existing Conditions, they show a particular talent for finding obscure ingredients that push a drink into a new dimension. For Stingless, a non-alcoholic drink, they are using honey made by the Melipona bee, a stingless insect native to Mexico and the only bee capable of pollinating the vanilla orchid. They have it smuggled over the border. It is, gram for gram, one of the more expensive ingredients in the bar. (Arnold said it can go for upwards of $100 per kilo.)
For the Saratoga Paloma, they drove to Saratoga Springs and drew water from a natural water source called Hathorne No. 3. The water is a third as salty as the ocean and comes out of the ground cold and naturally carbonated. When cut with tap water and combined with tequila, clarified grapefruit juice and clarified lime juice, it gives the drink a saline snap with no addition of salt.
This unique approach to bartending extends to every operational detail. The fizzy water served to guests is not just carbonated, but nitrogenated, which, according to Arnold, makes the bubbles softer and adds a bit of sweetness. And the bottled cocktails that were a staple at Booker and Dax will now be dispensed through two old, 1960s soda machines. Each can hold 70 bottled Manhattans or Martinis. Pay the hostess and you’ll be handed a token that will open the glass door of the vending machine.
The final touches on the opening menu will likely continue until opening night. An experiment in the works, a sort of a waffle Old-Fashioned is made by soaking waffles in Wild Turkey 101 bourbon, separating the fat and adding syrup. It tastes exactly like liquid waffles. When I suggested they should come up with a fried chicken-flavored cocktail to go along with it, the staff collectively flinched and erupted into a loud “Ooooooohhhhhhhh!”
“Don’t you worry,” said Arnold, intimating that something of the kind was up. He then trained his eyes on his colleagues and pointed a finger. “No talking! No talking! Or everyone dies.”