Every time the sports fan caught a game at a bar, he was forced to contend with “Bud Lite and shitty chicken wings.” So Cooper opened Sweetwater Social a few months ago in New York’s Noho neighborhood with fellow bartender Justin Noel of 1534, creating “something I didn’t think existed.”
Cooper’s underground bar flaunts the low-key comforts of foosball and shuffleboard, as only a sports bar worth its oversized flat-screen TVs should. Unlike so many of its brethren, Sweetwater Social also has an extensive spirits collection and craft cocktail program that rivals those at the best bars.
The cocktail menu changes regularly, but the current menu is a cheeky nod to New York City’s subway map. So drinkers can take in the hockey game while sipping on a Chinatown-inspired Big Trouble, Little China (toasted sesame-infused bourbon, simple syrup, fresh lemon juice, cucumber, salt tincture, club soda), or The Symphony (apple brandy, mezcal, Pedro Ximénez sherry), which channels the city’s Midtown arts hub Lincoln Center.
That the highbrow and lowbrow mingle so successfully at Sweetwater Social isn’t all that surprising. Cooper once held court at the Little Italy hotspot Goldbar and instead of just churning out utilitarian vodkas and sodas for revelers, he created a nuanced cocktail menu around ingredients like house-made shrubs. “Most nightclubs are short-lived, but Gold Bar is a special place,” says Cooper. “It looked beautiful, the DJs were great and I wanted the drinks to match.”
The New Jersey native, whose stepmother was a bartender in Florida, cut his teeth working at an Upper West Side coffee bar before heading to the then brand-new Soho Grand Hotel to work as a waiter. “It was the late 90s, and beyond Dale DeGroff, the cocktail scene hadn’t flourished yet. Sour mix came flying out of a gun,” Cooper remembers.
Still, the ambitious waiter was intrigued by what was happening at the packed bar, “watching bartenders crank out drinks and count money. I’d pester the bar manager to let me help when the other guys didn’t show up.” That diligence paid cocktail-slinging dividends: When a bartender called out sick one night, Cooper stepped in. He never went back to waiting tables.
The Soho Grand years made Cooper a high-volume pro, but subsequent stints sharpened his craft skills. At Odea, where he worked with chef Einat Admony of the celebrated Middle Eastern restaurant Balaboosta, Cooper took an interest in the connection between food and drink, asking Admony for orange blossom and rose waters to experiment with in his cocktails. At the nightclub B.E.D. he tinkered with an expansive backbar and worked with a “solid crew” of bar folks like Willy Shine, Aisha Sharpe and Leo DeGroff. But the Flatiron Lounge, under Julie Reiner’s tutelage, popped his eyes wide-open. “The Flatiron Lounge taught me how to be a consistent, streamlined bartender,” he says. “The experience was like boot camp.”
Lucky for cocktail drinkers and sports obsessives, Cooper survived.