Featured in Kanpai! magazine
I am sat on a step in Shoreditch, blissfully soaking up some unseasonal sun and waiting for someone I haven’t seen in many years, but who has influenced me immeasurably. I had contacted him searching for someone who could fill in some gaps, but I had never expected to hear back; people are emotional and guarded when talking about Milk & Honey ever since founder Sasha Petraske passed away unexpectedly in 2015, aged just 42.
In interviewing Jonathan Downey I hope to understand better what made Milk & Honey such a special space and explore its undeniable influence on the world of bartending. When I first started working at Milk & Honey London in 2005, just a young pup, I had felt pretty sure in my bartending skills but I quickly realised I had a lot to learn; the technique and standard of service eclipsed everything else out there. Sasha was a visionary and he looked at cocktails with a critical eye, ever honing the method of their making in the pursuit of perfection. In that respect he was a pioneer: at the time cocktail methodology was formed of the unquestioning adoption of often nonsensical hand-me-down techniques. Milk & Honey opened in New York on New Year’s Day 2000, fittingly enough – the city was largely full of dive bars and it rang in a momentous time for change.
A “hello!” is aimed at me in a familiar Mancunian accent, and I look up to see JD smiling down at me. Jonathan Downey needs no introduction, but for formality’s sake he is the founder of the Match Bars, The Player, Trailer Happiness, Sosho, Milk & Honey London, The East Room, Redhook, The Clubhouse in Chamonix and Street Feast, the legacy of which can be felt across the globe. He remarks during our interview that he is in his fifties, which seems impossible: he hasn’t aged at all, in spite of his gleeful pursuit of hedonism. My recollections of him when I was a young bartender were of this formidable figure, often arriving at the bar with a dozen guests in tow for a late-night impromptu party in The Games Room. His arrival put you on high alert, his reputation for demanding perfection was well known; woe betide the bartender that couldn’t keep up or fell short of expectations.
We settle at a desk in his office and without a question asked he launches into the interview, telling me he’d first been inspired at 21 by a drinks column in Arena magazine, circa 1986. “Arena was a huge influence on me,” he says. “Dick Bradsell writing things about drinks and David Eyre on food, in a way I’d never seen before, that connected with me. I was fascinated.”
His first foray into bar ownership saw Jonathan seek out Dick Bradsell, who was then in a fallow time between bars, bringing him into Match as head bartender. Match was effortlessly cool, inspired by the Gay Village in Manchester and the Rainbow Rooms in New York, bringing sophisticated cocktails to a city that was full of stuffy wine bars and stiffs. “You forget how many dickheads there were in Britain, especially in London in the 1990s,” he says. “It was full of dickheads, City twats. They still exist, but nothing like the 90s, with their shoulder pads and hair, flashing the money. I mean total tossers, literally everywhere.”
Match’s success was followed by Match Bar, Sosho and The Player. By 2001 Jonathan was writing about drinks for Esquire, and travelled to New York to interview Dale Degroff, where he met both Dale and Sasha in a single day. As he recounts: “Dale was doing ‘cocktail safaris’ in Manhattan. I’d heard of him, and I’d heard of his cocktail safari, and I thought, I’ve gotta meet this guy, he’s the King of New York! I mean he called himself King Cocktail, and we thought we were the bollocks at that time, we had great bars – we had Dick Bradsell working for us, and I remember going out with a photographer and a limousine, and we drove around doing this interview and then on the safari to seven cocktail bars. After 14 drinks it was only me and Dale who could still speak or stand up, and I was already super fucking impressed by him, this guy lived and breathed cocktail bars. At 2am he says, ‘Right, there’s one more bar I want to take you to but you can’t write about it. The guy doesn’t want any publicity. You gotta promise me that. We’ll probably be the only two people in there but I think you might like it.’ And we went down to Eldridge Street, to Milk & Honey, and I immediately loved it. I remember walking in and seeing Sasha in his full regalia, his Savile Row suit, there by himself. There was no one else in there at 2am, it was just me and Dale. And I ordered a glass of rye whiskey, and he brought out the ice.”
Sasha had been the sole bartender at Milk & Honey for the first two years, and by all accounts it had been pretty quiet on the whole. That large-format ice was to become widely copied around the world, but back then was an idea Sasha had seen in use at Angel’s Share, a bar with a Japanese bent in the East Village. He was enchanted by many things about Angel’s Share and repurposed them at Milk & Honey. The house rules, the ice. They were using ice spheres made in rubber moulds for their spirits on the rocks, but Sasha took that and extended it to the point of only using large-format ice, for shaking, for stirring; there was no cube machine at all. At Milk & Honey London we had two freezers, one of which would freeze slowly to –6C, giving the air bubbles a chance to be forced out, before being finished in a much colder freezer. Fast forward 16 years and that ice programme has been elevated to an industry norm of clear-block ice, a requirement for an excellent cocktail bar.
Back in his office, Jonathan continues his story: “I’d just been offered the space that is now Milk & Honey London, but I was used to big bars. Four awesome bartenders banging out drinks with a big soundsystem, and I didn’t really know what to do with this site. It was a strip club called Fantasy Bar, it had lap dancing poles in it and all kinds of shit. And so I said to Sasha, ‘I don’t want to sound like a dick, but have you ever thought about opening one of these in London?’ The first words out of his mouth were, ‘I would love to open one of these in London. I love London. I’ve never been but everything about London I really love.’ I was like, ‘Well let’s fucking do it then!’”
In April 2002, within a year of their meeting, Milk & Honey London had Sasha on site, training the bartenders for a two-week soft launch before opening proper. “Sasha was living here for about six months out of the year,” says Jonathan. “And he’d go and come back and go and come back. He lived in the building, upstairs in this little room. He insisted on it, he wanted to live above the shop. I said, ‘You’re joking, I’ll get you a hotel or a flat or something!’ He said, ‘Nah, I want to be here, I want to be here.’”
Acquiring a job at Milk & Honey was no mean feat. You had to pass an exam and two consecutive trial shifts. Before me, more than 30 bartenders had been trialled for the role of junior, and I couldn’t believe my luck when I landed the job. And it was a job that quickly became all-consuming. I would arrive at work in the late afternoon and leave in the very early hours of the morning, sleep until lunchtime and repeat. The pressure got to me – I’d come home and weep all too often, frustrated at being unable to hit the expected (and nearly unreachable) standard. It took a year to feel more at ease, slowly mastering the circular round- building technique, picking up the meticulous attention to detail.
As pretentious as I dare say it sounds, at Milk & Honey we were teaching customers how to enjoy cocktails civilly (though they’d have to endure the occasional ticking off if they raised their voices with too much cheer), and as such the guests came to entrust you with their entire experience, opening themselves up to explore these lost and forgotten classics. As a bartender, the level of deference the guest gave you was freeing, they would put their experience entirely in your hands. In the upstairs Red Room in London we had a humidor of cigars that the senior bartenders would care for, and cocktails were often matched with or contrasted against the fragrant beginning, middle and powerful finish of a cigar. It was a level of creative autonomy that I couldn’t find after Milk & Honey and I didn’t want to work as a bartender anywhere else, I had been spoiled by the experience. When I left the bar in 2009, outside of the Milk & Honey bubble London’s drinkers were a disheartening bunch, and the re-emergence of the cocktail industry was yet to begin. This was before The American Bar reopened, before The Connaught. Artesian was newly built but hotel bars hadn’t yet shrugged off their stuffy image and were lagging behind the cocktail curve.
If it was Sasha that first created this incredible bar, it was bridging the Atlantic divide with Jonathan Downey that brought it international recognition, but the spotlight it put on Sasha and his private, secretive bar in New York never sat that well with him. He declined to appear in photos and railed against doing interviews for press. These two bars, connected by ethos and name, were riven in many ways as Sasha shied away from success. Unlike Milk & Honey NY, Milk & Honey London had a membership policy, and the London members would pitch up to the door of Milk & Honey in NY without reservation, expecting to be let in. Sasha couldn’t bear the wider recognition and always took steps to conceal the bar. Vincenzo Errico, or Enzo as he’s known, is one of the few people to work at both New York and London for significant time, and tells me, “If the number appeared in the papers he would change it, I don’t know how many times we changed the number. He would have changed the address if he could!”
Sasha may have wanted the bar to remain secret but the influence and reputation spread regardless. His ideas were hungrily adopted by an industry on the cusp of real progression; Sasha’s cocktail methods were the very vanguard of that movement. Those house rules were often imitated, showing up in bars from Brisbane to Beijing, but they frequently missed the point. Jonathan explained their purpose: “Sasha didn’t want anyone around harshing the vibe. Which in London wasn’t so much of a problem at the time, but it was for a long time in the States, that kind of frat-boy idiocy.” The rules that mimicked Milk & Honey’s are often didactic and inhospitable, but that was never the point. It was Sasha’s belief that drinkers should keep their decorum for the equilibrium of the atmosphere. He didn’t want ladies being hit on, and he did everything he could to deter bullish behaviour, requesting softened voices, or the removal of hats, in the most charming way. There was a sudden ubiquity of pre-war jazz, darkened rooms and large-format ice, to the point of straight-up copycats. I recall being in Copenhagen for a job and heading out into the city for cocktails, and finding a ‘secret’ bar, with a buzzer, tin-tile ceiling, frozen glasses, coupettes, 19th-century cocktails, short shakers, pre-war jazz, house rules. A shameless copy of Milk & Honey from top to toe. I was annoyed that they could lift the concept without the right or reference.
The decor, rules, ice and atmosphere were not just the only thing that impacted the cocktail world. We’re yet to touch on the most important factor – the drinks menu. Enzo will forever be etched into cocktail history for his creation, the Red Hook, a Brooklyn variant named after the area, and one that begat a dozen more. I asked him about the success of his cocktail, now a modern classic, and he replied with the modesty common among so many of the ex-Milk & Honey employees. “I am so, so happy Hannah,” he says. “I am so happy it happened that way. Imagine! Audrey Saunders making a cocktail after mine, her Little Italy, Michael McIlroy with the Greenpoint, I’m so proud that it happened by itself. I didn’t do anything to promote that cocktail, it happened by itself.”
It wasn’t only the Red Hook cocktail that found global renown. From the London stable came Chris Jepson’s London Calling, the only drink to have featured on every Milk & Honey menu since its inception: it’s an ethereal balance of gin, lemon, sugar and Tio Pepe – fino sherry had become something of an obsession among the team at the time. The cocktail stormed Australia, perhaps hitching a ride with the Milk & Honey bartenders such as Tim Phillips, who returned home to open Dead Ringer in Sydney; it’s now on cocktail cards around the world. Ginger syrup was a defining ingredient of both bars: then it was an unusual and potent mixture of juiced ginger and caster sugar, originally used to make a house ginger beer but adopted in several of the house cocktails. It was employed to best effect in Sam Ross’s Penicillin, a bourbon sour with ginger syrup in place of sugar and a float of Ardbeg. Enzo was one of the first bartenders at Milk & Honey London, having been working at Match Bar, starting as bar back then dispense bartender while he honed his English, rocking the dispense station with the late and great Dick Bradsell. He was plucked and put into the new opening. Sasha was a great enabler of bartenders. He trained them, he nurtured them, frequently offering to open a bar with those he saw the light in, which resulted in some fantastic bars like Little Branch, Dutch Kills and The Everleigh. Enzo’s story is indicative of Sasha’s great spirit of generosity. He invited Enzo to move to New York from Milk & Honey London, he found him an apartment, got him a phone, and gave him the keys to his bar. To know Sasha was to know the reassuring weight of someone who put all their trust in you, with confidence that you wouldn’t let him down. He was inspirational, and if he put his trust in you there was no way you’d let him down. Once Sasha stepped back from the bar he did so with trust, letting the bartenders run the place from top to bottom, with not even a manager. Sasha would only come in for a drink and to offer his support.
Enzo tells me, “I love that man, I respect that man, everything I did, I did as he wanted it to be. We were very strict with the rules, because we wanted to make it as Sasha wanted it to be, I even had to shush Lionel Richie many times! It was a secret bar, not a speakeasy. Maybe speakeasy meaning to ‘speak easy’, never to bring anyone you wouldn’t leave in your home, but Milk & Honey never pretended to be a speakeasy, it wasn’t pretend.” Milk & Honey worked because there was nothing contrived about it. It came from one man so genuine, trusting, patient and kind, that he was able to influence myriad bartenders.
Mighty oaks from little acorns grown, and the staff of these two bars have founded some of the most important cocktail bars worldwide. In the US, Attaboy, Dead Rabbit, Midnight Rambler; in Malaysia, Junglebird; in Australia, Bulletin Place, Peg Leg, Dead Ringer; and in the UK, Swift, Happiness Forgets, Original Sin, Sager & Wilde, High Water, Ceremony, Satan’s Whiskers. All are influencing and training hundreds of new bartenders to the immaculate standards placed in them.
I ask Enzo about Sasha’s dress sense, his taste in early jazz and where it came from. “Sasha was an old-style guy. He loved the good things, good music, good books, good manners, good champagne. He was the sum of the parts of the things that he loved.” He looked like a 1920s throwback with his ever-present braces, seersucker suit and fedora. The clothes, the jazz, that was really who he was. “Sasha wore suspenders with his pyjamas,” Enzo joked.
Sasha had a meticulous attention for developing the methods of making drinks, constantly questioning the goal and how to get there. The drink-making techniques were progressive for the time: every round had to have every drink finished within 30 seconds of each other, in sequence of durability. Irina Mirinoff, from the early London team, told me, “There was a continuous drive to make things better. There were always conversations and suggestions and trials to make things colder, tastier, faster, better, and I think that excitement of striving forward always stayed with the Milk & Honey team.” The more I spoke with ex-colleagues about Sasha, the more I felt strongly just how incredible this moment was in drinks history was. People like Sasha are so rare, the whole business is riddled with the exploitative and the uninspiring but when that magic occurs of having a truly inspiring visionary, pulling the best out of people, the ripples of effect are felt the world over. Jonathan adds, “I tell you what though, we got Dale to come over four times a year to teach and train our bartenders. He was just fucking inspirational. If you added what Dale was saying to the Sasha, Milk & Honey approach, you ended up creating the world’s best bartenders. No question. There was no one else getting that level of support and training.”
As I get up to leave Jonathan’s office I ask him if he did it all again would he change anything at all. “I’d maybe take a more svengali approach with Sasha, help him make the most of his talent,” he says. “He’d never made any real money and he had just got married, I wanted him to have a new life with his wife. I thought we were going to get a second chance of working together.” Speaking of the final time he saw Sasha before his death in August 2015, he says: “He came to London and we’d just made a plan to open another bar in east London, then more around the world in cities famous for their art deco style, to make a real success out of it. But a few weeks later he was gone. It’s devastating that it will never happen.”