Each month, as part of an ongoing portrait of rising talent in the bartending community, PUNCH hosts a resident bartender who has demonstrated a strong sense of personal style. In this installment, New York’s Nathan McCarley-O’Neill is taking over our bar, and debuting a custom menu of four original cocktails that we’ll serve throughout his month-long residency.
Since he started bartending more than a decade ago, Nathan McCarley-O’Neill has studied alongside the the most forward-thinking figures in the industry.
When he began working at The Merchant Hotel in his native Belfast, McCarley-O’Neill overlapped with Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry just before they set off for New York to open The Dead Rabbit. Not long after, he moved to London where he worked under Ryan Chetiyawardana at the White Lyan, and then Dandelyan, where he held the position of head bartender for a year and a half before moving to New York to work for Leo Robitscheck, bar director at The NoMad. While McCarley-O’Neill surely has the resume to open his own bar, he’s chosen a path of mentorship for now—a route that feels all-too-rare in today’s bartending world.
O’Neill’s work with Robitschek and Pietro Collina, bar director for NoMad Europe, has helped further refine his approach to layering flavors—something for which The NoMad team has looked to the back of house to help master. “We all enjoy drinking pretty much the same style of drinks,” he says, citing their shared love for vermouth, sherry and bitter aperitif wines. McCarley-O’Neill also notes the open dialogue with the kitchen as a huge source of inspiration for him. “Being able to be influenced by the likes of Chef Humm is a huge factor for me,” he says. “Being able to see… how they balance characteristics in the food, which might look one way, but within each of those dishes you have so much complexity—it’s a surprising factor.”
The same element of surprise is a recurring motif in McCarley-O’Neill’s drinks. Take his Kingdom of Savoy, for example. The drink’s use of pineapple, lime and coconut signals tiki, but where one might expect to find rum, a few unorthodox ingredients—absinthe, Branca Menta, amaro—come into play instead. Likewise, his Longfellow, a savory, Collins-style drink that incorporates horseradish-infused gin and cardamom, is served in an opaque black highball glass garnished with a daikon ribbon that further obscures the drink from above. “The idea is you don’t really see the drink,” he explains, “and then whenever the flavor actually comes around, it’s completely different than you expected it to be.”
It’s McCarley-O’Neill‘s instinct for building clear flavor profiles from seemingly disparate ingredients, often presented in ways that defy the drinker’s expectations, that defines his style. Yet while his drinks are often cerebral and technically advanced, they stop short of demanding anything more than enjoyment from the drinker. “I’m driven by flavor and complexity,” he says, “but also making sure that whenever I’m making drinks that they’re fun.”
Here, get to know Nathan McCarley-O’Neill in four drinks.
The Kingdom of Savoy takes McCarley-O’Neill’s signature tack of defying expectations by looking one way and tasting another. “When people order this off the menu, nobody really knows what to expect,” he says. “It doesn’t really read like a drink that you’re going to like straight away.” A combination of absinthe, Nardini Amaro, Branca Menta, pineapple, lime and coconut syrup, it reads like a tiki drink by way of Europe. “The idea was to kind of not necessarily go down the route of rum, but to try and build off a multitude of different flavors.”
McCarley-O’Neill cites the Absinthe Colada at Maison Premiere as a key inspiration for this drink. “Maison [Premiere] really opened my eyes to the use of absinthe as a driving force behind a drink,” he says. “I tasted the Absinthe Colada when those guys first created it and it’s still one of the most outstanding drinks ever. I’d always wanted to kind of look at that as a perspective but then also play on the fact of how delicious some amaros are.”
Created when Eleven Madison Park, where McCarley-O’Neill also oversees the bar, re-opened after an extensive renovation, the Longfellow takes direct inspiration from Chef Daniel Humm, particularly the notion that one dish, or in this case one drink, can use multiple elements to reinforce a single idea. “The idea was to do a savory-style Collins,” explains McCarley-O’Neill. To this end, horseradish-infused gin serves as the base, offering a slight heat that pairs with cardamom and complements small amounts of pear and apple brandy, all amplified with a few drops of saline solution. “The idea of using horseradish in it was to add something that paired very well with cardamom, to carry the length of the drink as long as possible,” he explains.
“Pretty much every drink that we do will contain some form of vermouth or sherry, or a low-ABV ingredient,” says McCarley-O’Neill, “It’s kind of like a calling card.” The Eight States contains three: equal parts blanc vermouth and Cocchi Americano, a measure of aloe vera liqueur and, to round things out, a hefty dose of mezcal. “I wanted to create something a bit lower in ABV, a little more approachable, but still similar to what a Negroni is, but more so like a white Negroni,” he says.
“This one is just fun,” says McCarley-O’Neill. “When myself and Leo were in Miami a couple of years ago we fell in love with fresh coconuts with rum in them.” He channels the refreshing spirit of the simple mixture, but puts a decidedly high-brow spin on it. Fino sherry replaces rum and is paired with tarragon-infused blanc vermouth, Cocchi Americano, falernum and un-pasteurized coconut water, which adds a richer mouthfeel. “It’s super easy drinking,” he says.