If ever there were a bartender’s bartender, it would be Norman Bukofzer. He’s the epitome of what the craft is about. “Tending bar,” he says, “is all about tending to people, tending to their needs and making them feel at home.” He fixes a mean drink, too. Want the best Manhattan in Manhattan? Go see Norman.
He has been in the business for around four decades. He started out by opening a bar with a couple friends on the Upper East Side, and when that venture ended—“we didn’t have a clue what we were doing,” he confesses—he worked on Fire Island before he found his home at the Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South. He’s been there for more than 30 years.
I became a fan in the early 1990s when Anita Cotter, a New York marketing maven, invited me to the Ritz for a cocktail or two. It was love at first sight. Watching Norman interact with his patrons can be pretty mesmerizing. How does he do it? I could be wrong, but I think that he relies on his intuition. He follows his nose.
I have more than a few stories about Norman, about his incredible memory—meet him once and he’ll remember you forever—and about the famous folks drinking at his establishment (he was a guest at Liam Neeson’s wedding). But one of my favorites involves just the master and me.
One night in the mid-’90s, I walked in and saw half a dozen customers clustered at the end of the bar. I always count on Norman to tell me where to sit because he knows I enjoy meeting people, and he always picks exactly the right sort of person to introduce me to.
“Mr. Regan, great to see you,” he said. “Come down here and take a seat.” He gestured to a barstool at least four places away from everyone else.
“Why did you seat me down here, Norman?” I asked after he made me a drink.
“Every single one of the people at the other end is a complete bore,” he grinned at me. His intuition has served me well on many occasions.
I asked Norman if he’d share a recipe with us, and as is his wont, he didn’t list ingredients and methodology in the traditional form. He talked me through it. Here’s how it went down:
“I muddle a slice of blood orange in the glass with a tablespoon of honey and a few drops of vanilla extract and some of your Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6.”
“How many dashes?”
“Oh, a few.”
“Ice and Woodford Reserve Bourbon.”
“Oh, quite a lot.”
“What’s the name of the drink, Norman?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
Welcome to Norman’s world. It’s a beautiful place.
Gary Regan is the author of numerous books about spirits and cocktails, including The Joy of Mixology and The Bartender’s Gin Compendium. He is also co-host of ArdentSpirits.com and a Liquor.com advisor.