When you work for some of New York City’s biggest hospitality hit-makers, there’s a ton of pressure to outdo yourself with every new restaurant and bar. But if there were ever a bartender for the job, it would be Major Food Group drinks master Thomas Waugh.
Endlessly creative and always up for a challenge, Waugh is the mind behind the group’s most beloved cocktail programs, from the fancy, vodka-centric menu at Sadelle’s to the nautically inspired cocktails served in photogenic vessels at ZZ’s Clam Bar.
In 2017, when Major Food Group made headlines by acquiring prime restaurant real estate in New York City’s Seagram building, co-owner Jeff Zalaznick tapped Waugh to launch cocktail programs for the three new venues that would be housed within the landmark space: The Lobster Club (in the former Brasserie space), The Grill and The Pool Lounge (together taking over the Four Seasons space). While the first two are fine-dining restaurants with more classic drink formats, the latter is a creative, high-end cocktail experience that pushes the envelope while still catering to the power lunch set.
Waugh began his career as a barista, where a working knowledge of coffee helped sharpen his palate and understanding of flavors and aromas. The Santa Rosa, Calif., native had been saving up for culinary school with jobs at several local bars, but he truly fell for craft cocktails while working under Jacques Bezuidenhout and Marcovaldo Dionysos at Harry Denton’s Starlight Room in San Francisco. After spending two weeks in a bartender exchange program at Death & Co, he was convinced to uproot and move to New York City, where he would serve as Death & Co’s head bartender and work stints at the likes of Clover Club, Prime Meats and Maison Premiere.
Now director of bar operations for Major Food Group’s Seagram building properties, Waugh has developed The Pool Lounge’s cocktail menu as a sort of encore to the one at ZZ’s Clam Bar, with drinks taking their names from their principal ingredient or flavor profile. The many dedicated fans of ZZ’s bar program may remember such iconic cocktails the Coconut, served in an actual coconut with a blend of rums, lime, honey and smoked cinnamon. At The Pool Lounge, you’ll find similarly titled creations like the absinthe-lime Cucumber or the Orange, fusing gin, Mandarine Napoléon liqueur, Aperol and passion fruit. But you won’t find hollowed-out coconuts here.
“A lot of what we do at The Pool Lounge was an extension of what we initially came up with for ZZ’s,” says Waugh. “ZZ’s sort of has a nautical theme, and so does The Pool Lounge, so it made sense to continue with that direction. But instead of being so whimsical with the vessels, we executed the same ideas and flavors with higher-end ingredients and glassware.”
Housed in the former Four Seasons private dining room, The Pool Lounge’s space was designed by William Georgis with help from abstract painter Nancy Lorenz. Georgis designed the bar’s custom onyx and nickel cocktail tables and blue, woven wall textiles, along with a brilliantly lit mother-of-pearl bar. Here, Waugh’s cocktails take center stage, served in luxury hand-crafted glassware from Japanese purveyor Sugahara and Czech crystal makers Moser.
While creating fun cocktails in Manhattan’s most corporate neighborhood has its challenges, Waugh spotted some immediate advantages—namely, bigger bucks. “The buying power is so much more intense,” says Waugh. “It was so much easier for me to play off the ZZ’s idea but have more freedom to buy what I wanted.”
And then there was the bounty of ingredients found in chef Rich Torrisi’s kitchen, which Waugh says helps him to keep everything “fresh and seasonal, using fresh purées, juices and syrups with herbs and spices that would normally be hard to afford in other cocktail bars.”
Beyond ingredients, Waugh spotlights the manpower behind the restaurant group as a powerful asset behind the bar. Bouncing around from concept to concept, Waugh says being able to strategically place team members allows him a peace of mind when he’s not physically present at one bar.
“It’s like chess,” he says. “When you have such a large group, you can place pieces where you want them. I love my team at The Grill, but not everyone at The Grill would be a fit at The Pool Lounge. I need to be able to have the trust in everyone else.”
Whatever the formula, it’s working for The Pool Lounge, which has become as much of a destination as the storied dining room it overlooks. Waugh says he’s not totally surprised by the bar’s best-selling drink, the Jalapeño, although it’s not one he would necessarily order himself. “I don’t like drinking spicy cocktails, but I did this very strategically,” he says. “The drink was going to be a take on a Dirty Martini, which is perfect for Midtown, while also implementing spice. There are two things people really go for in the general public: Spicy Margaritas and Dirty Martini. When you’re dealing with spirits-forward cocktails, spice can quickly become overpowering. This drink isn’t that spicy, but for some reason, it just works.”
And if you’re wondering about Waugh’s personal favorite, it’s naturally the underdog of the menu: the Gooseberry, which plays on a gin sour with gin, gooseberry-infused vodka, grapefruit and muddled gooseberries.
“I worked on this drink the longest out of the menu, and it wasn’t falling into place the way I wanted to,” he says. “I love gooseberry, but not everyone loves how it’s both savory and sweet. It’s too weird for some. In the end, the ingredient list looks almost like a Tiki drink, but it turned out to be a very clean and simple-tasting drink that lets the gooseberry come through.”
For bartenders leading cocktail programs, Waugh says it all comes back to the people making them. “It’s really about finding and training people who want to punish themselves with this kind of work,” he says jokingly. “There’s a lot of turnover at the beginning, but after a while, you find people who are really into it and really care about what they’re doing. I have one guy who cares more than I do, and I’m like, ‘You gotta calm down!’”
He also advises a level of humility, no matter how successful you are. “One thing I’ve learned over time working with Major Food Group is that you’re also not always right,” says Waugh. “You have to surrender to what your guests want, and it might not be what you first envisioned. There’s an aspect of letting things go.”