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Phil Ward Just Wants to Bartend

One of the most idiosyncratic players in the modern drinks movement has never been one to follow trend.

On the final night of service at Mayahuel—the trail-blazing tequila and mezcal bar in New York’s East Village, which closed in August after eight years in business—there were, expectedly, some booze-universe celebrity sightings. Ron Cooper, the founder of Del Maguey, the acclaimed line of artisanal mezcals, was circulating, pouring out drams from a private stash. David Suro, the agave evangelist and educator who produces the Siembra Valles line of tequilas, was chatting up people by the door.

But perhaps the most surprising appearance during that night’s long liquid farewell was Phil Ward, the bar’s tall, rangy co-founder. Fans knew well that if you wanted to catch Ward in action, Mayahuel was the last place to look. He much preferred bartending a borough away, at Long Island Bar in Cobble Hill, a bar where he holds no stake whatsoever.

“It’s not really that fun to bartend in your own bar,” Ward explains with his typical, unvarnished bluntness. “You can’t really just bartend.”

But Ward doesn’t have to bartend. Given the weight of his name within cocktail circles—his resumé reads like a history of New York’s cocktail revival—he could have just hung up his apron for good and channeled his energies into the back office. But that, apparently, wasn’t an option.

“I really like bartending,” he says.

Strange as it may sound, that passion makes Phil Ward an oddity in his industry. Well-known bartenders are rarely found behind a bar these days. They are busy traveling the world, touring distilleries, entering cocktail competitions, judging cocktail competitions, consulting at bars not their own, writing books, collaborating on spirits and hosting pop-up bars in exotic locales—anything but bartending.

Ward does little of any of this. Mayahuel, unlike other famous cocktail bars, did not put out a book. (“Now it’s assumed that any good bar should do a bar book,” says Ward. “I don’t want to do what everyone else does.”) He’s not interested in being a brand ambassador. (“The only brand I would work for is Del Maguey.”) He hasn’t been to Tales of the Cocktail, the annual New Orleans drinks convention, in years. (“I’d rather just go to New Orleans another time.”) And, though he has won a Spirited Award—the so-called “Oscars of the bar world,” handed out annually at Tales—he doesn’t think much of the honor. (“The Spirited Awards are really disturbing. It’s like a cult.”)

This is not normal behavior in the context of the brave new world of modern bartending. But Ward’s OK with that. “I’ve never considered myself normal,” he says.

The cocktail renaissance has served to assign purpose to the lives of many a wastrel and rebel. But perhaps none are as odd as Ward. Tall and angular in an El Greco way, a cap typically pulled down tight around his head, his shambling appearance and taciturn manner does not immediately communicate barman. His first employer, Julie Reiner, was, in fact, hesitant to put him behind a bar, where he would be forced to communicate with the public. But he rose in the industry through sheer talent, like the cocktail equivalent of the Matt Damon character in Good Will Hunting, the mop yanked out of his hand when it was discovered he can make a flawless Martinez by instinct.

“He wasn’t looking to impress anybody. He looked raw. Raw is really the best word for it. I found that so refreshing. There are very few people in the world who are so unfiltered and can still be so endearing.”

Though smart and infectiously funny (once you get to know him), he was not known for his easy charm during the early years of his career. It is, in fact, a surprise even to himself that he is still employed as a bartender. “It’s pretty amazing how far I’ve come,” he admits. “Regulars pretend to like me.”

“Phil is certainly cut a bit in the cloth of a Murray Stenson or Paul Gustings,” says Toby Cecchini, an owner of Long Island Bar, naming two legendary bartending lifers. “These are guys you will find day in and day out behind the bar, who brook no foolishness. Like them, he eschews the accepted spotlight of industry media and self-promotion, often with frown-tinged invective.”

Cecchini doesn’t actually remember hiring Ward. He just showed up in 2014, when Long Island Bar opened. “Cabell Tomlinson was our GM,” he says. “She brought her friend Katie Stipe aboard, who was Phil’s girlfriend at the time, and Phil just came along as part of the deal.” Since then, he’s “dug in like a sand crab.”

Ward has no intention of leaving: He has picked up extra shifts when he could get them, even while Mayahuel was still in business. Nor is he a slacker, coasting on reputation. If he runs out of things to do on any given shift, says fellow bartender Timothy Miner, he starts doing Miner’s work. “Phil doesn’t like downtime,” he says.

Ward was almost 30, with no particular ambition in life, when, in 2003, he chanced upon the nascent world of craft cocktails. Born in Pittsburgh, he made a pit stop in New York on the way back from a tour of Europe. Looking for work, he answered an open call at a new bar in the Flatiron District. It turned out to be Flatiron Lounge, one of the first modern cocktails bars in the city. He was hired as a bar back.

Watching the bartenders painstakingly assemble ornate, multi-ingredient drinks he had never heard of, his attitude quickly progressed from, “What the hell?” to, “I want to do that.”

He taught himself everything about cocktail construction and spirits and wormed his way into a bartending position. When Pegu Club opened, in 2005, he was hired as part of that bar’s all-star opening bartending team, eventually becoming head bartender. Two years later, he was calling all the shots as head bartender at Death & Co., where owners David Kaplan and Ravi DeRossi generally gave him free rein. By then, he had carved out a reputation as a savant with spirits, effortlessly turning out simple, well-balanced modern classics like the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, Final Ward and Joy Division.

It was at Death & Co. that he schooled himself on tequila and mezcal, then underused liquors in cocktails. He took what he had learned and, in 2009, opened Mayahuel, which did much to advance the cause of agave spirits as something more than the stuff of shots and regrets.

Justin Shapiro, an investor in Mayahuel who later became a managing partner, remembered his initial meeting with Ward. “Phil, walking off the street—he looked homeless,” says Shapiro. “He didn’t care much about his appearance. He wasn’t looking to impress anybody. He looked raw. Raw is really the best word for it. I found that so refreshing. There are very few people in the world who are so unfiltered and can still be so endearing.”

Mayahuel made waves and earned a profit all of its eight years. But it also brought headaches. Ward’s less-than-congenial relationship with co-owner DeRossi was common knowledge within industry circles. And the partners’ dealings with the building’s landlord were rife with construction woes and court battles. Even if the landlord had offered a new lease—which he didn’t—Ward’s not sure he would have continued the bar in that space. And while he’s entertained the idea of opening another agave bar, he wouldn’t call it Mayahuel.

“I don’t really believe in reproduction,” he says.

In the meantime, Ward is happy sitting on his hands. He is not collaborating on a mezcal brand, not consulting at any bars, not writing his memoir. He’s just bartending.

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