The most influential bar of the current century opened 20 years ago, on December 31, 1999, inside a forbidding former mahjong parlor on a dark, dangerous block of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There was no sign, no menu, no published phone number. Its owner, creator, sole bartender and in-house visionary was Sasha Petraske. The iconoclastic offspring of a Greenwich Village Communist household and a former Army ranger with a taste for jazz, vintage clothing and etiquette, he had certain ideas about what a cocktail bar could be and should be. Those ideas—including an infamous list of behavioral rules that hung in the bathroom—were strong enough to inspire a new way of making, consuming and thinking about cocktails, much of it drawn from the old ways. That movement continues today, years after his untimely passing in 2015 at the age of 42.
To paint a portrait of Milk & Honey’s origins, early days and legacy we talked to several early figures in the bar’s history, including Petraske’s childhood friend and early supporter, TJ Siegal; Kelvin Perez, the bar’s first, and longest-serving, employee; Toby Maloney, the bar’s first additional bartender; early bartenders Joseph Schwartz, Elizabeth Sun, Christy Pope and Chad Solomon; and famed bartender Dale DeGroff, who discovered the hidden bar early on. Here’s what they had to say about the bar’s early days, how its staff and clientele slowly came together and the unique nature of the inimitable idealist that was Petraske.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Sasha Petraske was a New York–born iconoclast with a dream to open the perfect café. It took years to realize that dream; along the way, that café became a bar on a then-gritty block of New York’s Lower East Side.
Kelvin Perez (barback, 1999-2012): “I was born and raised in the building of 132 Eldridge Street. The neighborhood was known for drugs, prostitution, gangs, fights and theft. I remember looking out the window and personally seeing people get mugged, shot and stabbed.”
TJ Siegal (lifelong friend of Petraske and an early benefactor of the bar): “Sash had plans to open a café in ’89 or ’90. He wanted to build a better mousetrap. He kept updating his model for the perfect café.”
Perez: “Before Milk & Honey took over, the store at 134 Eldridge Street was first a tailor shop from the 1980s to the ’90s. Then in the early to mid-’90s it became a TV repair shop, but it only lasted about three years or so. Lastly it was taken over by the Chinese who made it an illegal gambling location.”
Dale DeGroff (famed New York bartender and figurehead in the cocktail revival): “This is a joint where old Chinese gentlemen gathered to gamble. The whole street was and still is predominantly Chinese.”
Perez: “One day I remember walking towards 134 Eldridge and seeing people walking inside with wood material and the door being open. Sasha came out to greet me—this tall guy had suspenders which made me think of my grandfather at first. Sasha had the most warming smile I could remember. He talked about wanted to own a small café, I remember him saying, but was going to make this a bar.”
THE EARLY DAYS
Petraske opened his unknown, unseen, unlisted bar a few hours before the year 2000, with one employee, a few guests and certainly no idea how much it would influence the bars of the coming decade.
Siegel: “The space looked a little unfinished, but it looked great. I had never been aware of a bar that looked like that before. The original floors were wood planks and beautiful. They didn’t last, due to flooding. I originally thought the space behind the bar was too small to work in but I was wrong. Sash’s specs on how to build the bar itself were extraordinarily exact. It turned out to be perfect. ‘Perfect’ is a word that almost never leaves my lips.”
Perez: “The first night at M&H was more about friends coming in and experiencing what this bar was going to be about. There was no sign outside. It was word of mouth. Sasha killed it behind the bar, explaining drinks and giving people some history behind each cocktail.”
Siegal: “Sash had been popular as a bartender at Von and knew a lot of people in downtown Manhattan. Before the bar had been officially open, he threw a few of what he called ‘rent parties.’ The people who then came in the first few months were his friends, his previous clientele, and people from those parties who liked the place. It was tough and there were a lot of very empty nights. Most people didn’t know there was a bar there.”
DeGroff: “My friend Joe Cifarelli lived across the street from Milk & Honey in a loft building and he walked his dog nightly along Eldridge Street. One night he saw a bunch of young white kids come out of the mahjong parlor across the street. When he asked, they said it was a bar now.”
Siegal: “I remember a story Sash told where a group of six thick-necked men came up to the door. They turned out to be police who had come straight from the precinct after work to settle a bet. One cop said there was a bar at 134 Eldridge and nobody else at the station would believe him.”
Perez: “In the early days Sasha was behind the bar making drinks that were new to many. Sasha was perfect in measurements with his jiggers, his pours, tasted all his cocktails with straws to perfect them and held the glass as far away from the top as possible, so no fingerprints were seen. He told stories and always had people learning. He made Old-Fashioneds, Manhattans, Queen’s Park Swizzles, Bee’s Knees, Tom Collinses, Fitzgeralds, Negronis, Sazeracs, Mojitos.”
Joseph Schwartz (Milk & Honey barback and bartender, 2000-05): “In the early days, the bar, though not swamped, enjoyed a steady business: mostly friends, friends of friends, and a great deal of the service industry.”
Toby Maloney (Milk & Honey bartender, 2000-05): “I loved those early days, before I worked there and was still a patron, when Sasha and I would talk theory, run experiments, and try to figure out better and better ways of making cocktails. The way that he was able to think laterally, but also with rigid structure, was fascinating.”
Milk & Honey was not an immediate success. Creative advances were countered by empty nights and unruly patrons. But those who encountered the bar knew they were witnessing something special.
Elizabeth Sun (Milk & Honey bartender, 2001-03): “I still remember the first time walking through those heavy velvet curtains and walking into a whole different dimension. I always equated it to the feeling of going through the wardrobe and ending up in Narnia.”
Christy Pope (Milk & Honey server and bartender, 2001-07): “My first impression was exciting and enthralling. The calling, waiting, secretive entrance. Sasha in his vintage attire, shepherding the experience. It was otherworldly and charming. The drinks themselves were a revelation. Cold glassware, big ice, silver straws, attention to detail and care of service.”
Chad Solomon (Milk & Honey customer from 2002; bartender, 2005-07): “Christy took me to Milk & Honey for the first time in early 2002. There really wasn’t anything else like it at the time. Sasha may have been influenced by Angel’s Share, but stepping into Milk & Honey was far more immersive and transportive.”
THE STAFF & CLIENTELE
Petraske chose his initial hires carefully, looking for people he could mold in Milk & Honey’s image. In so doing, he produced many future leaders of the craft cocktail movement.
Perez: “I was Sasha’s first hired employee [in 1999]. It was Sasha at the bar and I was the barback. A few months after we opened, Sasha asked if I wanted to bartend. I said no. I was happy where I was. So he got the first hired bartender, Toby Maloney.”
Pope: “He mentioned that he was going to need some additional help and I said I’d love to work there. He liked my style (vintage) and asked if I had any experience and I said not really. He said, ‘Perfect.’”
Perez: “He wanted someone with little to no experience because this way he can shape them to work the way he wanted them to be.”
Pope: “We’d be fully booked for our initial seating with a huge wait list, and then people would keep showing up without calling. It could get quite mad trying to handle all the pop-ins and explaining the policy, while managing the ringing phone, and taking elaborate orders at tables because everything was by suggestion. I remember a few times having a quick cry in the bathroom over how stressful it could be.”
Perez: “At one point [during the first year] a man got drunk and went over to sit down on a table that two ladies were seated. Sasha didn’t like what was going on and escorted the man out. He apologized to the ladies and bought them their drinks. He then began to write down eight rules for this bar.”
Maloney: “People would become very amorous. We had issues with the table right below the window up front. It had a nickname.”
Perez: “If you looked in the direction of the bar, there were Tables 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6—later on to be changed by me as Tables 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, Sex.”
Pope: “Everyone would say, ‘I know Sasha.’ That became such a thing that Toby made a T-shirt that said, ‘I know Sasha’ as a gag.”
Perez: “A man walked in with no reservations, went up to Sasha and said that he was a friend of Sasha’s and that he was coming in for a drink. Sasha kept in character, asking the man ‘How is Sasha doing?’ They both had a drink, which Sasha bought for him, never revealing who he was.”
The press loved to write about Petraske’s secretive, idiosyncratic bar; its love was not reciprocated.
Pope: “Sasha was not a fan of media. He framed the bad review of the bar given to him as a badge of honor.”
Solomon: “He was press-shy as he felt that the bar was misunderstood and he had been misrepresented when he’d dealt with press in the early days of Milk & Honey, so he preferred to keep a safe distance. He was also cautious not to encourage any coverage that would create more popular demand on M&H that could be disruptive to the neighbors.”
Schwartz: “He did not seem the least concerned with whether coverage was negative or positive, but rather the accuracy of the coverage and his general displeasure with the focus of coverage being on himself, the bar or its mystique, rather than the cocktails, which he fervently believed was the only thing deserving discussion.”
Maloney: “Some reporter had once told him that the general public had a ‘right to know’ about the bar. He almost lost his mind with that.”
WORKING WITH SASHA
Idealists are not always the easiest people to work with, but they are usually inspiring. Petraske was no exception.
Siegal: “A person who thinks and acts and talks like Sash isn’t quite like other people in the world. He worked himself to the bone in the first year. More hours per week than I’ve seen most people ever do. Daytime and night. Then he released most of the bartending itself to a growing staff and spent his ongoing time training them.”
Pope: “Sasha’s ideas were always thoughtful and of the purest intentions. He thought a lot about process, was obsessed with how to do it better. It was great to see this in action on a cerebral level, but on a practical level, when M&H was cranking, it was hard to have him in service. He would stop everything to get one thing right, even if it meant delaying everything else.”
Solomon: “There was a constant dialogue and a drive to continue to do things better. There was always a running debate on a manner of drinks-related issues up until our last conversation.”
Perez: “Sasha taught me how to toast mixed nuts, shuck oysters, make strawberry and mascarpone plates with honey, and make pancakes for when we stayed open way past the closing time.”
Schwartz: “I admired his conscientious belief in treating everyone exceedingly fair—staff and clientele alike. That included a $15-an-hour wage for bartenders and barbacks in 2000.” [Minimum wage in New York State was $5.15 at the time.]
Solomon: “There were tough nights. There [were] times that bills weren’t paid to the liquor distributor and we’d have to go to the liquor store to get product, or wait for Sasha to come drop off bottles.”
Siegal: “He was the most naturally generous person I had ever met. Most material things didn’t matter too much to him—easy come, easy go.”
Solomon: “Sasha set a Champagne policy that if we had an open bottle at the end of the night, to call him and he’d come and finish it.”
Milk & Honey is gone, but the revolution it helped ignite lives on.
Pope: “We would not have the modern craft cocktail movement, or bars, as we know it, if M&H had not existed. Many of the modern philosophies and techniques that define the craft movement were born out of Milk & Honey: the use of jiggers, economy of motion and building by the round techniques, ice-last bartending, the entire big-ice movement, the standards of chilled glassware, stainless steel straws, fresh juices and ingredients.”
Solomon: “For me, Milk & Honey’s legacy is the power and influence of a bartender-owned bar. Sasha had the freedom to create an establishment that was holistically consistent with his philosophies of service, product, hospitality and aesthetic. He would never have been able to have been as influential working for someone else.”
DeGroff: “I believe that his imitators took things way too far down the road in controlling the ambiance and the flow of guests, in some cases taking a lot of the fun and spontaneity out of the bar experience for the guests. But it was a new movement and that awkwardness slowly has disappeared for the most part.”
Maloney: “Ultimately it will always be Sasha who made Milk & Honey what it was, and the last thing he wanted was attention. But I’d like to think he’d be proud of what he helped start, in NYC and all over the world.”
Siegal: “Some time ago, Jack Nicholson did a string of mushy, flimsy movies in which he played a grouchy old man who eventually comes to terms with the world around him. In the commercial for one of them is the quote, ‘You make me want to be a better man.’ Milk & Honey’s legacy is of the bar that made everyone want to be better.”
Maloney: “And keep your goddamned shirt tucked in.”