Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Sam Ross Has Some Frank Opinions About Classic Cocktails

Few living bartenders can be credited with the creation of as many iconic, widely known cocktails as Sam Ross. A veteran of the industry, Ross was front-and-center during the earliest days of the cocktail renaissance, spending seven years as head bartender at Sasha Petraske’s Milk & Honey in New York City. We sat down with Ross to discuss modern classics, the state of the old-guard’s future and what makes him madder than hell.

What defines a classic drink to you?

Historic, or modern? They tie into each other, obviously. I think a classic cocktail is more of an idea, actually. When we’re training new bartenders, we always preach the core cocktail families. Once we have those set, we start riffing around, which really comes down to substitutions. I never set out to create “classics.” Timing-wise, when I was coming up, it was such a new bar scene. That helped make things stand out. But in general, I think a classic cocktail has to be a drink that’s easily replicated; no difficult or wacky ingredients, no infusions or house-made bitters. Simple, approachable, foolproof and, above all, it has to be good. Honestly, knowing that people have been making drinks for the better part of two centuries, chances are that it’s been done before—and documented.

Many of your drinks have been replicated on cocktail lists across the country—the Penicillin, the Paper Plane, the Gordon’s Breakfast. How do you feel about it?

I’m shocked about it! Even after 10, 15 years, it’s incredibly humbling. And for the most part, what I’ve seen out there have been very good representations of the drinks. But what I really love and have lots of pride about is when I see other bartenders using those drinks as platforms to create new things—when those drinks are treated as one of those core cocktails I was talking about. I think that’s great. As long as they’re not butchering the shit out of it, I’m nothing but genuinely pleased and shocked to see those drinks out in the world. The chain of information now is so long, it’s amazing.

What really pisses me off, though, is when brands start to do it. I’ve had it happen quite frequently that brands use my drinks and my name without my permission. There’s not a real precedent in the food-and-drink world for this type of scenario. I wouldn’t want to patent anything necessarily. After all, we make drinks for the people and there’s something so amazing about having all the access that we have. But when it becomes a marketing strategy for a brand, and is driving revenue for them, that’s not OK. They also have legal departments that are so much bigger than the average hospitality worker could go up against, so they act the bully. I’d love to see the bartending community come together to take action and protect ourselves and our work a bit more from these types of situations, to make sure we’re paid for our work.

Your bar, Attaboy, is in the original Milk & Honey space—hallowed ground for many cocktail lovers. How do you deal with that history?

Myself and Michael [McIlroy], we’d been running Milk & Honey for the last eight years prior to its moving. That room meant so much to so many people, but perhaps nobody more than us. Part of the reason we created Attaboy was to protect the space from becoming a Starbucks or something. And while we wanted to give it a fresh identity, there’s only so much you can change in 500 square feet. I think it still maintains a lot of the old bar’s character. There’s still the effect of the entrance: coming off of grimy Eldridge Street into this vibe-y room. It also still has the original etchings on the front wall and the exposed brick behind the bar. We wanted to pay our respects to the old place while creating a new, fresh environment.

Lots of the original bars that resurrected the craft cocktail movement in New York are getting, well, old, by food-world standards. Many have reached (or are approaching) the ten-year mark. What role do you see these bars playing in the current cocktail scene?

Well, I’ll start by saying that good taste never goes out of fashion. These places that helped spur this movement still have a ton of relevance. As a culture, we’re moving a little bit away from the stuffiness, the pre-Prohibition–era theme that was so prevalent. With all that information out there, the level of drink-making and service has been elevated everywhere. You can’t open a new restaurant without considering your cocktail program, for example. So these places that used to be cocktail destinations have loosened up a bit. I was a huge part of the whole suspenders and waxed mustache movement—and I loved every second of it. But we don’t need to do that now. We won the battle over the vodka drinks. After years and years of saying “no” to people, we’ve had the impact we wanted. Now it’s time to keep making delicious drinks but have a little more fun with it. Maybe be a bit more loud, listen to more rock-and-roll.

Will historic cocktails continue to have relevance?

Absolutely. Historic classics are everything. Nothing new can come without them. You have to walk before you can run. Only once you have an understanding of the classics—which are formulas of balance—can you start making new things. All of the new products in the world count for nothing if you don’t know how to use them.

Kaitlyn Goalen is a writer, editor and cook based in Brooklyn and Raleigh, N.C. She is the editor and co-founder of Short Stack Editions, a series of single-subject, digest-size cookbooks, and has contributed to a variety of national publications.