Devin Kennedy Makes Drinks With Purpose

Pouring Ribbons’ head bartender is approaching the future of cocktails with a renewed focus on sustainability.

At Manhattan’s Pouring Ribbons, Devin Kennedy has become known for his streamlined approach to making cocktails. The Washington, D.C., native started on the wine side of the hospitality business, earning his sommelier certification in 2015. He credits a stint at Brooklyn’s Grand Army (and its minimal bar footprint) for instilling his interest in finding ways to maximize existing ingredients, rather than trying to engineer fussy new tinctures and syrups. Kennedy went on to become part of the team at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe when it reopened in 2016, then helped open Korean steakhouse Cote before landing at Pouring Ribbons in 2018.

Although he describes his drink-making style as “very simple,” perhaps a more apt descriptor would be “deliberate”: He’s extremely thoughtful about what goes into his cocktails.

In the wake of the pandemic—and the razor-thin margins that bars will need to navigate in the “new normal”—that approach has manifested in an emphasis on sustainability, such as an Old-Fashioned that uses peels from already-juiced citrus. “We need to be more purposeful with ingredients,” Kennedy says. “It’s not just to be cool, the latest thing. Sustainability can be very helpful for your bottom line.” Fortunately, it can also yield a delicious, nuanced drink.

 The impact of the pandemic

Prior to COVID-19, Pouring Ribbons was noted for its frequently changing themed menus, high-end spirits like vintage Chartreuse, and precisely made cocktails with playful touches. As other New York bars began to resume service, Pouring Ribbons kept doors closed: The second-floor bar doesn’t serve food, and there’s no street space to facilitate outdoor tables, putting the cocktail bar at a disadvantage.

Devin Kennedy: [The pandemic] has been a rug-pull for a lot of people in the industry. I’ve been doing a lot of freelance work and consulting and other ventures that sprung from bartending, so I had a little buffer when the bar closed. If it had happened a year ago, it might have been a different situation, closer to living check to check. Having your main source of income closing indefinitely was a rug-pull no one could have predicted.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is the importance of financial literacy. I know some conferences and other outlets have been teaching about it, but it needs to be more of an emphasis in the hospitality industry. The way we make money is so different. We’re like contracted workers, almost. The influx of money we get is usually more cash-heavy and we need to be prepared to distribute it, compared to a 9-to-5 job with an IRA. An emergency savings plan and a three-month plan is something everyone should have.

The first thing I did after COVID is start putting money into a new emergency fund, just in case something happens. I’ve seen a lot of GoFundMes … because a lot of people don’t have health insurance or a backup plan if they’re not able to work. That’s the downfall of the job.

How sustainability plays into reopening plans

Over the past couple of years, Pouring Ribbons had already begun to implement sustainable practices as a way to minimize waste. Looking ahead, sustainability will be a renewed focus for the bar because it also will help lower costs, potentially increasing profitability. Bonus: “We can also create some new cocktail ideas out of this,” Kennedy says. “I’m excited to use my brain in a different way.” 

Kennedy: I think that the style of cocktail bars is going to change. The look on our bar might be shifting to something more streamlined and simple.

Our team will put our heads together collectively to come up with new cocktail strategies. Our biannual themed menus with adventurous ingredients and heavy prep might not make sense in this climate. Being adaptable is key. Making things delicious is the constant that we will always strive for.

Looking ahead, sustainability will be even more important from a business standpoint. Thin margins will be even thinner as we reopen bars to limited capacity. All ingredients must be purposeful, and if possible, [we need to] find a double use [for them] in our drinks.

Another reason sustainability is important is shelf life. The to-go cocktail is here to stay for a while. It was the lifeline of some bars before Phase One happened, and there’s enough support to have it stay around as bars open with limited capacity. To be able to do a bottled cocktail program and not have a high labor cost, you need to have things a bit more shelf-stable.

We will also need to be more purposeful with ingredients—that lemon, using the pith, the peel, and the juice will make it stretch out longer. The pour costs will be lower, the bar will make more money. … The environment will be better. It’s a win-win. When we open up again, I’ll be advocating for that, to be less wasteful. Sustainability can be very helpful for your bottom line.

The appeal of the Old-Fashioned

As a successful bar hit hard by the widespread closures, supporting the hospitality community is of special importance to Pouring Ribbons. During this year’s Old-Fashioned Week (October 16-25), Elijah Craig Bourbon will donate up to $100,000 to the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation. Funds raised through Old-Fashioned Week’s upcoming promotions will go toward direct financial assistance, grants to nonprofit partners working to address the needs of restaurant workers during this crisis, and to a zero-interest loan program for small businesses starting back up.

Kennedy’s take on the classic cocktail layers in cream sherry to echo the fruit notes found in Elijah Craig Bourbon, plus a spiced citrus syrup made with the peels fruit that has been juiced for other drinks.

Kennedy: I’m glad to participate in Old-Fashioned Week because it’s an opportunity to connect with the bar community and encourage others to home in on sustainable techniques for their bar programs.

We’re looking into educational opportunities to show bars how we do sustainable practices to affect our bottom line. Pour cost is going to be paramount, so [it’s important to] share ideas about how to lower that and add creative ideas to cocktails while wasting a lot less.

I’m a simple man. Old-Fashioneds are simple on paper but can be very complex with just the tiniest tinkering of ingredients—a teaspoon of a different sweetener, switch up your bitters, the customizations are endless. Yet even with modification, the drink is an unfussy glass of adulterated booze.

Devin Kennedy's Old-Fashioned