“With zero knowledge and zero experience, I was using a centrifuge on my first day,” says Jack Schramm, remembering his start six years ago as a barback at Dave Arnold’s science-minded cocktail bar, Booker and Dax.
Now the head bartender at Existing Conditions, Schramm’s learning curve ran in reverse; before mastering the foundational classics like Martinis and Manhattans, he became acquainted with convention-defying formulas, like stirred citrus cocktails. Yet he never felt intimidated by his lack of experience: “I fell in love with it when I started. I didn’t want to think about anything else, didn’t want to do anything else,” he says.
By the time Booker and Dax closed in 2016, he had worked his way up to head bartender, and he and owner Arnold promised to work together again when the opportunity arose. In the interim, Schramm barbacked and quickly moved up to a bartender position at the high-volume NoMad bar, where he refined his speed and precision. “The standards were too high to produce anything else than perfect,” says Schramm.
Soon after, he got a call from Arnold saying he had a lead on a new space. Schramm put in his notice at The NoMad the next day, and together, with partner Don Lee and bartender Bobby Murphy, the team hashed out their opening menu. “Aside from the few that were instant home runs, there was a lot of fighting back and forth,” says Schramm.
Even within Existing Conditions’ particular, high-concept approach to cocktails, Schramm has developed his own style and preferences. The Helicopter, a mixture of acid-adjusted grapefruit juice, Aperol, Cynar and milk-washed aquavit, is representative of all of his favorite things. “I like drinks that tell a clear story from a flavor perspective,” he says. “The drink ends up being an amplified representation of grapefruit: There’s subtle caraway from the aquavit, toned down from the milk-washing; Cynar amplifies grapefruit’s bitterness, while Aperol’s sweetness plays off of grapefruit’s sweetness.”
So what does Schramm do when he’s not pouring science experiments cum cocktails at Existing Conditions? Here, he tackles our Lookbook Questionnaire to share his hidden talent of creative problem solving, an experiment with corn-infused vodka and the best meal he’s ever had. —Tatiana Bautista
Head Bartender at Existing Conditions, Bartender and Events Coordinator at Pernod Ricard’s New York HQ.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Best thing you ever drank:
’76 Philipponnat Clos des Goisses out of magnum. A solo diner in a suit sat down in front of me at the Elephant Bar at NoMad … I presented a wine list. He didn’t open it but locked eyes with me and said one of the best sentences I have ever heard spoken out loud: “What’s your most expensive Champagne?”
Worst thing you ever drank:
Blended Naga Jolokia peppers distilled in a RotoVap yield this incredible light, grassy, elixir that tastes like red bell peppers and fresh strawberries. It leaves behind flavorless pure heat murder extract. When we made the delicious product at Booker and Dax, we also considered serving the byproduct (lovingly referred to as “Death Bucket”) as a sort of dare shot.
First time you ever got drunk:
My freshman year at NYU. My roommate Mike—who was “Brooklyn Mike” for the whole year because he’s from Bay Ridge—had an in at a bar because he was a local. The entire floor of my freshman dorm ended up packed into the upstairs area at a certain literary/theatre/horror-themed bar by Washington Square Park. I was pounding White Russians, Jack and Cokes and syringe shots from the server who was dressed like a zombie nurse all night.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Voulez-Vous by Abba, but the version of it where “Chiquitita” is mysteriously missing and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” is sprinkled throughout three times. So happy Abba released that version for me.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
I am a five-time world finalist in a team-based creative problem-solving competition called Odyssey of the Mind.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
Not knowing things made me try ridiculous flavor combinations, taste constantly and stay motivated. I think an early look behind the curtain of what a career in this industry would turn out to be would have spoiled my childlike sense of wonder at everything happening around me.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
In my Booker and Dax barback days, I tried to make a drink with corn-infused vodka, miso-butter syrup, scallion tincture and lemon in the style of Dave Chang’s miso butter corn. I got some looks but I felt vindicated that one Ssäm Bar sous chef liked it.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Walking the Williamsburg Bridge on a beautiful day is one of New York’s best free activities, and there is so much stuff to do on both sides of it immediately off the bridge. I almost feel like this response is cheating because it inevitably leads to both eating and drinking.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Very loudly and confidently from an older gentleman: “VODKA-BAILEYS.”
Your favorite bar, and why:
In Situ in Oaxaca City. It’s a tiny temple to agave spirits, hundreds and hundreds of bottles labeled with producer, village, variety and vintage.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
I’m a big proponent of the concept of a “Bang Bang,” wherein one full-sized meal is consumed directly after an additional full-sized meal. It was years ago, during that golden period in New York dining when Wylie Dusfresne wasn’t yet a donut master and still had two full service restaurants within walking distance of one another. I had made a reservation at wd~50 for my partner’s birthday….they were running two menus, current and retrospective, and they were kind enough to let us do one of each with pairings to match. The single course that I can still taste in my mind’s mouth was the Shrimp Grits—an unassuming bowl of grits arrived at the table, but upon first bite it became immediately apparent that every minuscule grain was actually perfectly cooked shrimp meat scented with saffron and chilis. We stumbled out onto Clinton Street after the meal, wide-eyed and bursting with vigor, so energized by this legendary meal when I came across a delicious, awful idea. “Babe…let’s go to Alder.” The last four courses of the night at the bar at Alder are a little fuzzy (did we get the rye pasta? Pigs in a blanket?), but I know there was an impeccable king oyster mushroom and cocktails and mezcal.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
50/50 Tanqueray 10 Martini with a lemon twist and a dash of orange bitters.
I try to keep this at least relatively close to the chest, but if a set of circumstances arose in which the only alcohol I could drink for the rest of my life was Champagne I would be content. And if that Champagne was Selosse and someone else was paying I would be ecstatic.
Do they have a sneaky bottle of mezcal? That and a Tecate. If not, Bud Heavy and a Powers, neat.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime:
Pounding black coffee until I am practically vibrating. This also helps cure not having a hangover.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
The word “House.” Make it or don’t. If the drink is delicious and there is a cool ingredient, I’ll ask about it. If you bought it, great! I can use it. If you made it, sweet! It tastes good.
The last text message you sent:
“Where is the zippy? Not finding it just the vacced stuff.”