This Is What Creativity Means to Mark Tubridy

The New York bartender on taking a musician’s approach to cocktails, the one album he’d listen to forever and the recipe for his Songbird cocktail.

Mark Tubridy was raised in a household filled with music, absorbing principles of harmony and balance that would prove invaluable in his bartending career. Now in his 11th year of mixing drinks, currently at one of New York’s oldest dining institutions, Tubridy approaches cocktails like a veteran jazz player heading into a jam session: Start with the standards and spin off from there. “It’s important to be open to happy accidents,” says Tubridy.

Tubridy grew up in Connecticut as the son of a Juilliard-trained opera singer and a classically trained musician; by the time he was graduating from high school, he had joined a band with his brother, and the two decided to move to New York City to pursue a future in music.

“We gave it the good college try,” Tubridy says, but their act never took off in a major way. Meanwhile, through a gig at a high-volume Midtown Manhattan restaurant, he found himself enchanted with the intricacies and discipline of bar work. After four years, he worked his way up to head bartender, then took a role at a stalwart Manhattan restaurant—a former Prohibition-era speakeasy where he received a real education in classic cocktails and executing solid technique.

Drinks like the Last Word and Ramos Gin Fizz opened his eyes to the potential of mixology as an art form, with parallels to music composition. The touch of orange blossom water in a Ramos Gin Fizz, for example, reminded him of the role of reverb in a song. “When you listen to a vocal track, you don’t necessarily want to hear the reverb, but you would notice that it was taken out,” he says. “In a sense, that opened my eyes to the idea that… things in measured doses create something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.”

Now, he challenges himself to play with a new ingredient or technique with each menu, having created around 70 drinks over the course of his tenure. As an added challenge, because it’s a traditional place with an older clientele, he’s had to learn how to pair innovation with the familiar for guests.

“They’re adventurous, but they want to be able to grasp onto something,” says Tubridy. Moscow Mule variations have provided a platform to get creative while remaining tethered to a classic formula. Inspired by Salvatore Calabrese’s breakfast Martini with orange marmalade, Tubridy created a Mule that employed raspberry–red pepper jam.

This is where he’s found his musical background to be most helpful, in walking the line between structure and improvisation, making sure every ingredient and addition is in proportion. “There are so many elements of a great song, and there are a lot of elements of a great cocktail,” he says. “It’s about knowing that you want something in a cocktail or song, but also knowing to what degree it should be prevalent.”

What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
Composing, playing and recording music.

How does it inspire you?
I’ve found that my brain is sort of hard-wired to draw comparisons between music and the other creative outlets in my life. The anatomy of a song has become a framework for how I view many aspects of my life, and my approach to mixology is no different.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
My mom is a classically trained vocalist and pianist, and she taught me never to reveal to the audience that you’ve made a mistake—just keep performing and stay in the moment. I think that’s actually a great metaphor for life—mistakes will happen, and that’s OK… It’s when we start doubting ourselves that we really go off-track.

Describe your creative process in one sentence.
I think it’s important to have a well-thought-out concept when you begin any creative project, and I think it’s equally important to know when to go off-script—experiment for the sake of experimentation and see what sticks!

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far?
MIB has given me a reason to resurrect my passion for playing music. I often feel like the dream that brought my older brother Sean and [me] to NYC back in 2004 has been lost in limbo: not abandoned, but not realized either. This competition has brought me hope … that we can still bring that dream to life. It doesn’t get more rewarding than that.

What do you want to be when you grow up?
A kid!!! Anyone that really knows me knows that I’m a goofball. Maybe I’ll own my own bar… Maybe I’ll become a published musician… The main thing is that I want to keep learning, growing and having fun.

Best thing you ever drank:
A huge part of this is sentimental, but the best thing I ever drank was a hot toddy with my Dad after a bone-chilling excursion to Inis Mór, one of the Aran Islands off the western coast of Ireland.

Worst thing you ever drank:
When I was a kid, my best friend Kenny and I combined three different kinds of soda, orange juice, milk, Hi-C Ecto Cooler and crumbled-up Oreos.

Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
When I first started playing around with spherification, I made these funky little spiced rum and stout beer pearls to be served alongside a hop-infused cachaça Mai Tai. I called it the Tai-PA. That drink had a cool concept, but it needed some major editing.

What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
I actually love cooking. I only recently started to get good at it, but regardless of the outcome I find it really relaxing.

If you had to listen to one album on loop for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Well, my favorite album of all time is Neon Ballroom by Silverchair, but that would probably depress me if it were the only thing I could listen to. I’m gonna cheat here and say the 1996 Grammy nominee compilation album… Take a look at that track list and tell me I’m wrong.

What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
Building LEGO kits. It used to be a fun activity I could do with my kids, but I think sometimes they only played along because they knew I loved it. It’s funny because when I was a kid, I hated following the instructions, but now as an adult I take comfort in the fact that it’s one thing in my life that’s already planned out for me. That’s also why I really enjoy building IKEA furniture.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
That I don’t have to be perfect. Now, I’m thankful for my mistakes, knowing that they are steppingstones to something bigger and better.

Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
A Golden Cindy. The request was from a woman named Cindy… who carried edible gold flakes in her purse… Long story short, all she needed from me was a Gin and Tonic—she took care of the rest.

What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
I’m a big Manhattan drinker, so if I know the establishment is going to make it with love, I’ll either order that or whatever seasonal variation on that classic they’re currently featuring.

Dive bar?
Either an IPA by the bottle or something simple like a bourbon and ginger ale.

The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
I don’t like it when drink descriptions are overly cryptic. If multiple obscure ingredients are being used, I think there should be some sort of explanation as to what the overall flavor profile is. As bartenders and customer service professionals, we should never talk down to our customers through our menus.

The last text message you sent:
“It’s not that I don’t want to help… I just think it’ll be embarrassing if I try.”