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You know a Natasha David drink when you see one. David, proprietor of New York’s Nitecap, has earned a reputation for the fever dream-like quality of her bar and brand aesthetic, as well as drinks channel that same whimsy. Her menus, which change twice per year and are designed in collaboration with artist Rotem Raffe, each represent a different visual identity—1970s disco to midcentury space exploration, loosely—meant to inspire the cocktails that populate them. They’ve become collectible items in the bar community.
While on paper, her drinks might read as freeform—the cocktail equivalent of avant-garde jazz, if you will—her creative process is still rooted in history. “Any drink of mine that you see, you can relate it back to a classic cocktail,” says David. “I’ve just changed things up a little bit.”
Born in Germany to musician parents with a hectic, globe-trotting itinerary, at 18, David moved to New York to pursue a theater degree at New York University. While still a freshman, she began bartending in an Irish pub; by her senior year, she was the assistant general manager at the Corner Shop Cafe. From there, she went on to be part of the opening bartending team at Woodson & Ford, alongside Lynnette Marrero (Llama Inn, Speed Rack) and Jim Kearns (Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley).
“I never really thought about coming up with my own drinks until I started working for Lynnette and Jim,” David recalls. “They were the first people to introduce me to classic cocktail techniques and classic cocktails.” Looking back, she now sees that “the greatest thing they instilled in me is relying on classics, and infusing your own interpretation into an already-established structure.”
From there, David went on to work at numerous other bars, many of which have informed her style and favored ingredients along the way. At Danny Meyer’s Maialino, she developed an affection for aperitivo-style drinks, followed by stints at Maison Premiere and Prime Meats; at the latter, “the classics were the star,” she remembers. “People would come in for them. I saw that very small adjustments to classics were the way to go there.”
After that, David moved on to work alongside Phil Ward at his now-closed agave spirits bar, Mayahuel. In addition to learning about mezcal, David also absorbed Ward’s now-famous “Mr. Potato Head” approach to drink development: the practice of taking a drink apart and putting it back together again, often with different components swapped in for the originals.
Looking at her drinks today, that might mean a Whiskey Sour riff tinged with peach liqueur and maple; a tequila sour variation that swaps in Campari for traditional grenadine, adding a bracing touch of bitter intrigue; or Sangria that becomes a progressive with the addition of orange wine. Her Cruise Control cocktail also fits this aesthetic. It’s an effervescent, low-alcohol nod to the Tom Collins, made with a base of pommeau and enlivened with St. Germain and a hint of eucalyptus. It’s the perfect mix of savory, floral and aromatic that defines so many of David’s drinks.
In 2014, she opened Nitecap, in partnership with David Kaplan and Alex Day (of Death & Co. and Proprietors LLC). Right away, it felt like an industry clubhouse. “When we opened Nitecap, cocktail bars were really serious,” she recalls. “I wanted to lighten it up a bit and make it feel more inclusive and welcoming and not so intimidating.”
Today, David sees her drink-making style as “much more flexible” than it once was: “I used to have this set idea of what cocktails had to be,” she says. She sees this as natural evolution of working with Nitecap’s boundary-pushing bartenders. “I want their personality to shine a little bit, and it doesn’t have to confirm to what I want a drink to be,” she says. That might mean a drink that spotlights flavors that David herself doesn’t love, but she’s still willing to let go and see where the idea leads.
“Maybe that’s part of becoming a parent, seeing directions you didn’t see before,” she says. (At the time of this interview, David was imminently expecting her second child with husband Jeremy Oertel, also a well-known bartender.) “I don’t think as drink-makers we should take ourselves too seriously,” she continues. “We should be thinking about our guests more than about ourselves and our own egos. At the end of the day we’re just making drinks.”