The Bar Heard Round the World

Since the minuscule Lower East Side bar opened its doors in 1999, Milk & Honey's influence on today's cocktail scene has been immeasurable. From its diaspora of bartenders to enigmatic owner Sasha Petraske's shunning of the limelight, Alia Akkam reflects on institution's golden era.

Impatiently we wait for the hum of a buzzer, which will grant us entry beyond the graffiti-scribbled door that took us 10 minutes to locate on a dingy Lower East Side Street. Inside, anticipation rises as the heavy velvet curtain brushes my arm and I step into a scene out of a reverse Wizard of Oz, Technicolor slowly bleeding out to subdued black and white. It’s 2003, and it’s my first visit to Milk & Honey.

This, I think, cannot be a bar. This is not the Knock Knock Club, where on Thursday nights during college I begrudgingly sipped Midori Sours in tight black pants. This is not one of the forgettable dive bars friends drag me to for watery gin & tonics served amid Top-40 tunes.

No, this is a dark, romantic room where a man in suspenders is fiercely shaking egg whites, jazz flows from speakers and an amorous couple treats a booth as their bedroom. Sleek metal straws peek out of the tall cocktails gracing each table. I cannot name them. There are no menus here, but my older, worldly friend—a pastry chef with a penchant for dramatic jewelry and trips to Asia—does not hesitate to answer for me when the waitress asks what I would like. “A Dark and Stormy,” she says matter-of-factly.

Now, 11 years later, most of us are familiar with what happens in a speakeasy. But there was nothing more novel then.

Enigmatic proprietor Sasha Petraske, a veteran of Von Bar, unveiled Milk & Honey on New Year’s Eve in 1999 with a little inspiration from Angel’s Share, a tiny bar past an unsuspecting door in a hectic East Village Japanese restaurant. At Von Bar he poured pints and opened bottles of wine, here he would give classic cocktails the spotlight, the tried and true recipes that had been forgotten in the 1990s’ swirl of maligned Long Island Teas and Sex on the Beaches.

Petraske’s presence—or more appropriately, lack thereof—further heightened Milk & Honey’s allure. Today, a bartender’s Facebook newsfeed may be filled with videos of their morning television appearances and photos from global cocktail competitions. Yet Petraske continues to hide from the limelight, shunning most interviews and changing his email address with what seems like as much frequency as Milk & Honey’s phone number.

Milk & Honey was a tiny lair shrouded in secrecy that made no apologies for its exclusivity. Craft cocktails were slowly becoming an eye-opening delight, and the crowds drank up 134 Eldridge Street’s bounty of rules and glamour. A mysterious entrance, reservations-only tables and the shunning of credit cards were heady hallmarks of Milk & Honey. Hand-tallied receipts and warnings that actions like hollering and star-fucking were verboten on the premises felt otherworldly—a civilized, nostalgic departure far from the bar’s gritty surroundings. Everyone there was bound together by the knowledge of an unpublished phone number. But the next time they craved a proper daiquiri, dreams would be dashed when they realized those hard-to-find digits had changed.

Petraske’s presence—or more appropriately, lack thereof—further heightened Milk & Honey’s allure. Today, a bartender’s Facebook newsfeed may be filled with videos of their morning television appearances and photos from global cocktail competitions. Yet Petraske continues to hide from the limelight (co-founding the San Antonio Cocktail Conference in 2012 was a shocking, out-of-character move) shunning most interviews and changing his email address with what seems like as much frequency as Milk & Honey’s phone number.

He quietly ran his bars—which, by 2005, included East Side Company Bar, Little Branch and an outpost in London’s Soho neighborhood—ensured all the cocktails churned out were exemplary and hired staff who were equally skilled and focused drink makers who shrugged their shoulders at the industry’s glitzy confabs. As such, the descendants of Petraske are a tight-knit bunch, a family of sorts bound by loyalty and devotion to craft.

Among them is Christy Pope of the cocktail consultancy Cuffs & Buttons, and Mickey McIlroy, the Belfast native who moved to New York in 2004 and hasn’t left the brood since. Eric Alperin of The Varnish worked here, and to walk into his current-day downtown Los Angeles lair, concealed behind a French dip joint, Milk & Honey’s imprint (Petraske is also a partner) immediately becomes apparent. Likewise, one glimpse at the handmade booths and the cocktail menu at the Long Island City bar, Dutch Kills, and it’s not surprising to learn that owner Richie Boccato also did time at Milk & Honey and Little Branch. The list goes on.

In 2004, a young Australian bartender by the name of Sam Ross moved to New York. He cut his teeth at Ginger, the Melbourne bar he opened with his mother and sister. “I had come from a pretty happening bar scene, and it shocked me there was such a dearth of cocktail bars here,” he recalls. But after a few months he found his way to Milk & Honey, and sitting at the bar, “knew this is exactly where I needed to be.” He finagled a meeting with Petraske and convinced him to give him a shot.

Although Ross was accustomed to creative cocktails back home, at Milk & Honey he learned something more valuable: how to refine and make the best drinks possible by paying careful attention to every element, from temperature to ice. “I just kept my mouth shut, listened and observed,” he says.

Ross eventually became a celebrity in his own right, thanks, in large part, to one drink: the Penicillin. Revered bars all over the globe will not only know how to make this concoction with Scotch, fresh lemon juice, honey-ginger syrup, a float of Islay Scotch and a candied ginger garnish, but they will proudly serve it with a story that goes something like: “This was created by a man named Sam Ross at a very important bar in New York called Milk & Honey.” That reimagined whiskey sour, with a layer of smoke, instantly became a Milk  & Honey calling card.

While the Penicillin gave Milk & Honey yet another reason to be on everyone’s lips, something even more profound was happening. Bartenders all across the country were now plunking jumbo ice spears into cocktails, fresh-pressing juices and playing Etta James in their own speakeasies. From the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company in Philadelphia to Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco to the Violet Hour in Chicago to Jim Meehan’s famed PDT in New York, impressive bars with speakeasy spins were gaining a foothold.

Is it all because of Petraske? Indirectly, yes. I wasn’t the only one who placed a silver straw between my lips and wanted more. Milk & Honey was a tiny establishment that wasn’t easy to access, but those who persevered were rewarded with sexy surroundings and drinks they’d never had before. Bartenders tweaked the formula and made it their own, and thanks to pioneers like Petraske, people clamored for Manhattans and Old Fashioneds night after night.

In 2012, Petraske thought it was finally time to expand Milk & Honey and move the bar into more spacious digs. And so, on New Year’s Eve—exactly 13 years after Milk & Honey opened—the bar served its last Sidecars and Gordon Cups at 134 Eldridge before heading uptown and across the street from Madison Square Park. Its new look still oozes old-timey sophistication, and the drinks are just as carefully wrought, but I do not feel like I did when I went to Milk & Honey on the Lower East Side. That moment in the cocktail space-time continuum has vanished.

The masses have since gorged on the speakeasy’s tucked-away entries and three-hour waits, eliciting impostors who capitalized on gimmicks. Legitimate speakeasy bars provide escape, much like the real ones of the 1920s offered refuge for the unjustly parched. Milk & Honey always did a glorious job of this. But the overall saturation of cocktail bars poignantly altered the drinking landscape; thoughtful cocktails are the norm, but guests don’t always want to slip past a clandestine entrance to enjoy them.

Ross and McIlroy, Milk & Honey mainstays, had long floated the idea of opening a bar of their own, and when Petraske decided to relocate, the opportunity dropped in their laps. “We hated the idea of losing the original Milk & Honey space,” says Ross. “It holds cultural significance for classic cocktails and we wanted an updated version.” So the two—along with silent partner Petraske—transformed 134 Eldridge into Attaboy. The music is louder, the bar is bigger and the vibe is looser. “The modern cocktail drinker wants a good drink, but they also want to have fun,” says Ross. “We’re still trying to put out the best drinks, but there are also cans of Coors Banquet. It’s a place you could happily be at every night.”

Petraske’s legacy is perhaps felt most intensely at Attaboy. And when I go, I often order a Dark and Stormy, and when I close my eyes I can still see that business card bearing the coveted number that felt like a talisman, heavy in my hands, and a couple canoodling in a booth that no longer exists.