On the Enduring Influence of Sasha Petraske

In early January, a collection of bartenders who all worked with the late Sasha Petraske gathered to remember this man of outsized influence on the craft cocktail movement. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation, moderated by Robert Simonson.

sasha petraske shaking a cocktail

On January 14, 2016, several former colleagues of the late cocktail pioneer Sasha Petraske gathered to discuss his legacy at Bohanan’s, a bar in San Antonio, TX, where Petraske had consulted. The talk was part of the San Antonio Cocktail Conference, an annual event that Petraske co-founded. The panelists were Eric Alperin, who founded The Varnish in Los Angeles with Petraske; Chris Bostick, who created Half Step in Austin with him; Timothy Bryand and Jordan Corney, bartenders who were both trained by him at Bohanan’s; Chad Solomon, who worked at the original Milk & Honey in its early days; Simon Ford, former Pernod Ricard brand ambassador and co-owner of The 86 Co.; and Georgette Moger, Petraske’s widow. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our discussion.

Simon, early in the ‘00s when you were in New York trying to get bartenders and bar owners to listen to you about Plymouth gin, do you remember encountering Milk & Honey for the first time? 

Simon Ford: That’s exactly how I met Sasha. He was behind the bar. Dale DeGroff was taking me there on one of his “cocktail safaris.” He had taken me to Bemelmans Bar—fancy as hell. He took me upstairs to the Rainbow Room. All this glamour. Then, he said, he saved the best for last, and took me to this cupboard. It was the first time someone hasn’t handed me a cocktail menu. I thought, “What are you doing?” Now, that doesn’t seem weird to anybody. The thing I want to say about Sasha is Sasha was always the most awkward man in the room. He’d come to a party and even though he might be the most popular person in the place, he’d sit quietly. He’d want one-on-one interaction with people. He was one of the most genuine people you’d want to know. The importance of that body language of his was the ultimate in hospitality. [Walks to a table and crouches to meet the eye level of two people at the table.] As opposed to looking down on you and saying, “What are you having?”

Eric Alperin: You’re so right. How many of us remember Sasha doing this? [Holds a glass by its foot.] [Audience applauds.] You want to get a drink out to a guest as cold as possible. You want to keep the warmth of your 98-degree heater away from any part of the glass that would warm the drink.

Chris Bostick: He sought a simplicity in his bars, a focus on simple drinks and honoring the ingredients and the “less is more” philosophy. The care and process is what gives us the ability to achieve something memorable.

I think one of the misconceptions that people took away from Sasha’s bars was that they mistook that simplicity and attention to detail—which is really just elegance—for fussiness and pretention.

SF: You can always tell a bar that was inspired by Sasha’s work but had nothing to do with him or anyone who worked with him. They get everything completely wrong. A Martini, they’ll stir for 17 hours.

Chad, your first experience with Milk & Honey was as a customer, and later you became a bartender. 

Chad Solomon: Walking into that bar—even in New York, there was not a comparable experience. On Eldridge Street, there were no streetlights; it was very dystopian. You ring the doorbell, you get buzzed in, you go through a series of two very heavy curtains into this low-lit, but gorgeous, candlelit room, with jazz playing. There would be one bartender. It was a very immersive experience. Part of the early Milk & Honey experience was you had to have a reservation. If you didn’t have a reservation, you’d likely be turned away. And then there were the famous rules: “no namedropping,” etc.

CB: As the number of bars grew in the Milk & Honey family—and it’s really one of the only families of bars out there—there is an exceptional continuity. Each bar has its own personality, but the attention to detail and the process are the same.

Jordan, can you talk about being trained by Sasha at Bohanan’s?

Jordan Corney: He got to it right away. I was super nervous, and he put me at ease right away. It was clear to me he meant business. He was so strict, but he was never mean to me. Measuring cocktails in graduated cylinders, I’d never heard of that. People didn’t do that.

Simon, you said before that you know when you’re in a bar that’s been influenced by Sasha’s work, but has no actual connection to him. How do you know when you’re in a bar that does have a connection to him? What are the telltale signs? 

SF: There are a lot of answers to that, actually. Something like the bar set-up. Everything is kept in front of you. The things on the bar, everything there is in reach of the bartender. It’s not about having $2,000 and having all the correct bottles. With Sasha, it was personal. There was nothing on Sasha’s bar that he wouldn’t have approved of or personally drink. You can walk into a bar and see one or two shitty products and know it’s not Sasha.

CB: There’s a phrase that’s stayed with me a long time: “A statue of Buddha without a soul is just a statue of Buddha.” You can have a statue of Buddha, but you’ve got to have some soul and thoughtfulness behind it. Sometimes you’ll go to a place and the service is good, but underneath the service they didn’t really think it all through.

CS: I think one of the most misunderstood and misapplied things about Sasha and Milk & Honey was the application of the rules and the intent of the rules. Several bars would open and they’d have their version of the rules, but they were very punitive and rigid. When Milk & Honey opened, Sasha just wanted a room—he wanted good drinks, yes, but it was a place for civilized conversation at a time when bottle service and status and wealth were everywhere, as well as a lot of the more unsavory human behaviors. He just wanted place were people could have conversation in this agreed-upon decorum from this more civilized time.

A few of you have opened bars with Sasha. Of course, Sasha always had many projects going and after he would open bars, he would go away for a while. Is it difficult to keep up that standard of drink, standard of service, standard of atmosphere in his absence? 

JC: Yes, it is difficult. He never did anything because it was easy. It’s much, much harder than free-pouring Jack and soda out of a gun. He paid attention to every little detail, and it is very hard to pay attention to every little detail every single day. It’s almost impossible. I remember once he was talking to my brother Jake and he said “I want you to put candles on every tray when you serve a drink.” And Jake said, in frustration, we have a flow problem and 150 people can just walk in the door and it’s really difficult. And Sasha just looked at him. He didn’t say anything.

“Just put the candles on the trays.”

JC: Yes. No substitutes. Do the right thing. And pay attention.

Eric, your bar, The Varnish, has been open the longest. You’ve kept up the standard for years. How do you do that? Is it a daily battle?

EA: Absolutely. I don’t think anything too easy is worth doing. The hardest thing is not being able to reach out to him and get back one of those epically long emails. That’s, to me, the hardest thing. Anyone who knew Sasha knows he was obsessive-compulsive. I definitely share those qualities myself. It’s every day. We sit and we talk about it. I say, “I’m not asking you to get it right all the time. I don’t get it right all the time. What I’m asking is for you to not let it just pass you by.” If you don’t take responsibility, then you suck. You have to say, “You know, I could have been nicer to those people”; “I could have stirred that drink a little longer.” If you do that, you’re never going to have a perfect shift, but at least you tried.

Timothy Bryand: It’s the striving and striving. He told me bartending isn’t an art, it’s a craft. You have to have the character to do it. If you reach into the cooler and the glass isn’t as cold as it should be, do you have the character, no matter how busy you are, no matter the situation, to reach in and get the better, proper glass? I always think that way, and it kind of bugs me sometimes, when I’m so busy. It’s like, this lime juice isn’t quite right; I can’t do it.

EA: This is where Sasha’s ears are getting hot. He would be really happy to hear this.

Georgette Moger: If I may, the compulsion was real. And it was endearing. The first time he was in my kitchen, in my freezer was nothing but glasses and my “ice program.” My friends would laugh and say, “It’s not an ice program. It’s your freezer.” Sasha opened my freezer and he hand[ed] me a glass and said, “Ms. Moger, I’m very impressed with your freezer. However, I need to ask you how much you like chicken stock.” I said, “Well, it’s wonderful. It’s organized by packets and dates.” He said, “Yes, but it’s not quite wonderful in a cocktail.” He wanted me to have a separate freezer for my chicken stock.

TB: It wasn’t like your boss telling you to do it better next time. It was: If you don’t have the character to reach for that better glass, you’re an asshole. If you put a bottle of liquor on the bar and the label is not facing the guest, you’re still an asshole.

CB: I think this is a very important topic. At this point, it’s our duty to continue to teach and share his culture—not just what we’re doing, but why we do it. That was something that he really instilled in me. If you don’t have a motivation, why are you doing this?

And the motivation, as you say, wasn’t, “Let’s make the best Daiquiri in town because we’ll make a little extra money or we’ll get that write-up in Time Out and become famous or we’ll get that brand deal.” It was, “Are you a good person or not?” 

SF: He was a person who helped change this industry more than anyone else. And he [wasn’t] on social media. If you tried to email him, you might find he had changed his email. He wasn’t shouting about what he was doing or bragging. He was doing something with his heart. He was sharing it. Before the mobile phone was invented, having friendships was like having a friendship with Sasha.

At the end of the talk, Moger shared with the crowd one of Petraske’s daily to-do lists. It read as follows:

  1. Just because something isn’t on your mind, doesn’t mean you are not stressing about it.
  2. This checklist habit works.
  3. Large meal always = unhappy.
  4. Remember rush hours when calculating travel time.
  5. Eat before you’re starving.
  6. Remember things always take longer than you think they will.
  7. Handkerchief, comb, ID, cards, keys.
  8. Always put these in the same place.
  9. Remember cycling posture.
  10. Haircut every 14 days.
  11. Turn ringer off in restaurants.
  12. Remember you only dislike exercise if you’re not warmed up.
  13. Being early is not a waste of time.
  14. Assume things go late.
  15. Speech is for communication.
  16. Remember reading posture.
  17. Listen, don’t interrupt people.
  18. When you meet someone new, write down his or her name as soon as possible.
  19. Don’t let this checklist habit go.