A few years ago, T.J. Siegal, a lifelong restaurant worker, was hunting for a job. It occurred to him that any future employer might first do a quick Google search of his name before calling him in for an interview. So, he did a search himself to see what might pop up.
“All the results were about this drink,” he says. “I was very surprised.”
The drink in question is the Gold Rush, a simple Whiskey Sour variation that uses honey syrup instead of simple syrup. The cocktail was one of the early breakout successes at Milk & Honey, which was opened in 1999 by Siegal’s childhood friend, Sasha Petraske. Now served and enjoyed around the world, the Gold Rush is Siegal’s main claim to fame.
It’s an achievement made all the more remarkable considering that Siegal is not primarily a bartender. In fact, he came up with the idea for the Gold Rush not while standing behind the bar at Milk & Honey, but while sitting at it, sometime in 2000.
“I had finished a long shift at work in Midtown,” recalls Siegal, “and I sat down for a Bourbon Sour as I had many nights previous—on the rocks, without egg or garnish.” Petraske told him about a honey syrup he had put together in order to make an old drink called the Honeysuckle Cocktail (basically a Daiquiri made with honey). Siegal asked him to make his usual Bourbon Sour with that new honey syrup instead of the typical simple syrup. For the recipe, Petraske employed his usual sour formula of two ounces of spirit, one ounce of juice and three-quarters of an ounce of sweetener. The bourbon used that night was Knob Creek, but soon after, it was replaced by Elijah Craig 12-year-old, which was then plentiful and cheap, and became the house bourbon at Milk & Honey.
“It was right the first time,” recalls Siegal of the drink. He christened it the Gold Rush. “I like names that bring a feeling or a thought or a chuckle, not names that have a hidden meaning or connection to the origin of the drink.”
Since Milk & Honey famously didn’t have a menu, drink orders were arrived at through a conversation between server and customer. Soon, the Gold Rush was being suggested to whiskey lovers as a “bartender’s choice.” By early 2002, it was a staple at the bar.
“It’s hard to say that the Gold Rush was the first hit drink at Milk & Honey,” recalls Kelvin Perez, an early barback at the bar and the first person Petraske hired. “I remember the Mojito and the Queen’s Park Swizzle and the Bee’s Knees being the ones that customers asked for the most. But, when T.J. created the Gold Rush, it took off running.”
The drink got a critical assist from Toby Maloney, the first bartender Petraske hired. Maloney had a hand in fashioning the house honey syrup, which was not a simple equal-parts affair; instead, it was a rich syrup, made of three parts honey to one part water. “My idea was to add as little water as possible to make it pourable while retaining the most honeylike qualities,” explains Maloney.
The result, as far as the Gold Rush was concerned, was a Whiskey Sour so silky and deeply flavored it amounted to an “aha!” drink for many people, including bar owner Jim Meehan. When he drank one during his first visit to Milk & Honey in 2003, he was bowled over. It was “a perfectly balanced Bourbon Sour,” he recalls.
Meehan would go on to make the Gold Rush at every subsequent bar he worked at. He also included the recipe in the widely distributed, annually issued Mr. Boston cocktail guide, which he was editing at the time, and The PDT Cocktail Book, a bestselling recipe collection published in 2011.
Petraske, meanwhile, brought the Gold Rush to a number of bars he went on to open, according to Perez, including landmark taverns like Little Branch in Manhattan, Dutch Kills in Queens and The Varnish in Los Angeles. Given such a wide platform, the popularity of the Gold Rush, likeable and easy to replicate, ballooned rapidly.
Siegal mostly heard about the drink’s success secondhand, through Petraske. But one day, around 2012, while sitting at Danny Meyer’s famed Union Square Cafe, he looked up at the chalkboard above the bar. Under a “Classic Cocktails” heading, the board listed the Old-Fashioned, Manhattan, Sazerac, Martini and, finally, the Gold Rush.
“I was a little bit shocked, a little bit suspicious, and a little bit giddy,” says Siegal.
The Gold Rush would eventually be surpassed as Milk & Honey’s most famous creation by the Penicillin, another Whiskey Sour variation. But Siegal can take a little credit there as well, because the Penicillin (made of blended Scotch, lemon juice, honey-ginger syrup, and a float of peated Scotch), created by Sam Ross in 2005, was partly inspired by the Gold Rush. Siegal, in turn, looked at what Ross had done and spun off his own twist, the Ginger Gold Rush that became popular in its own right.
At Attaboy, the cultural successor to Milk & Honey co-owned by Ross, the Gold Rush is still popular. Sometimes, the drink is prepared using the regal shake, a technique invented by bartender Theo Lieberman, who found it worked exceptionally well for drinks featuring honey. Other times, it’s modified with allspice dram or seasonal fruit.
Such innovations, however, are not for Meehan, who remains devoted to the original cocktail that opened his eyes so many years ago.
“I feel like honoring this drink to its fullest is to leave it alone,” he says. “For me, [any change] would be like spiking the communion wine… This one, as it is, is sacred for me.”