The fate of Phil Ward’s life came down to a measly $900.
In 2002, he spent four months wandering around Europe and Africa. When he decided to fly home from Athens, he found that a ticket to New York was $900 less than a flight back to his native Pittsburgh. Not having any set plans, he headed to the Big Apple and then elected to stay.
In the spring of 2003, he scored a job as a barback at Flatiron Lounge, Liquor.com advisory board member Julie Reiner’s pioneering establishment that had opened just six weeks before.
Ward admits that making drinks wasn’t his original goal. But when he saw the Flatiron Lounge staff’s “crazy-good cocktails,” he had a change of heart. He watched, he learned, he pored over recipes and then one Sunday, when somebody didn’t show for a shift, Ward got behind the stick for the first time. It wasn’t long before he became Reiner’s head bartender.
Two years later, he left for legendary mixologist Audrey Saunders’ famed Pegu Club a few blocks south, where he was eventually named head bartender, too. But Ward yearned to work in a smaller bar, where the drinks would be his own creations.
Fortuitously, he stumbled upon a Craigslist ad for an open call at the soon-to-launch Death & Company in the East Village in late 2005. After being hired, he joined an all-star team of top bartenders that would include Brian Miller, Joaquín Simó and Alex Day.
“I was frustrated creatively and ready to go beyond reading cocktail books,” Ward recalls. “Death & Company was the first time I got to design a menu and make my own drinks.”
Some of those concoctions include the oft-imitated Oaxaca Old Fashioned (tequila, mezcal, Angostura Bitters, agave nectar, orange peel), an agave-based take on the classic, as well as the Final Ward (rye whiskey, Green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, lemon juice), Ward’s whiskey spin on the Last Word. “The reason they are often replicated,” he explains, is that “everyone has these ingredients. I’m most impressed by people who do original things with bottles that are always on the back bar.”
Ward gravitated towards tequila in particular, and when he started drinking its sister spirit, mezcal, “it was like, ‘game over.’” In 2009 this twofold passion pushed him to open his own joint devoted to agave-spirits based cocktails, Mayahuel, which is a block from Death & Company. A year later, Mayahuel won the Spirited Award for the best new bar in the world at the Tales of the Cocktail conference.
These days, Ward splits his time between New York and Los Angeles, where he has designed the drinks menu for new downtown bar Ebanos Crossing. It takes its name from the last remaining hand-pulled ferry that shuttles back and forth between Mexico and the US. It features both whiskey and, naturally, agave spirits—often using both types of alcohol in one tipple, like the Bear Flag Revolt (rye whiskey, Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Galliano Ristretto, Bénédictine, mole bitters).
But on Friday evenings, you can now find Ward slinging drinks at Toby Cecchini’s recently opened Long Island Bar in Brooklyn. “I miss bartending,” Ward says. “Owning a bar isn’t as fun as working in one.”
Alia Akkam is a New York-based writer and editor of Edible Queens.