Last summer, shortly after being named the American Bartender of the Year at Tales of the Cocktail?the seminal convention for the world's mixology community?Joaquín Simó left his post behind the stick at Death & Co. to join his partners at Alchemy Consulting in opening Pouring Ribbons. At the second-floor cocktail den on Avenue B, Simó and his team of mixologists are concentrating on making cocktails for a variety of tastes (communicated through a much-discussed matrix menu, more on which later) while, as he puts it, removing "the inefficiencies that are inherent in the craft cocktail bar world."
In the following interview, Simó talks about his introduction to the bartending world, the philosophies behind that menu, and his favorite things in the cocktail culture today.
Let's talk about the beginning of your career. How'd you get into bartending?
I was just a really good regular at a little neighborhood spot in Allston, which is kind of the student ghetto of Boston. I was going to BU at the time and I became a regular at this place called the White Horse Tavern. No relation to the one in the Village. I was in so tight, that I'd end up invited to staff holiday parties. I missed my Calc final because I didn't get home until 7 in the morning from their holiday party. I was that kind of regular ? I could stay late, and drink on the managers tab, so after having seen their breakdown so many times, I could talk the new door guys through how to break down the bar at the end of the night.
After a couple of years of this, essentially I had a standing job offer. And so at a staff Halloween party, I went to the guy who was in charge of the door, and said, "Hey, you can go ahead and put me on the schedule for next week." I worked the door for about a year and a half, maybe a little more than that, [then] started barbacking. This was a place that had almost no movement among the bar staff, so there were bartenders that were there for years and years and just getting a shift there was really tricky. That was my first bar job. It was like a 250 person capacity bar, kind of busy.
How long ago was this?
Oh god, it must have been fourteen years ago. Twelve maybe?
If you didn't end up in the cocktail world, what do you think you'd be doing?
I think originally the thought was when I went to school and studied English and Religion?which of course there are such high demands for?I think the goal there obviously was to become an academic, it was to get some writing done, do those things. So what ended up happening was, some of my kindly professors sat me down and said "Why exactly do you want to go into academia?" and I outlined my rosy-eyed vision of what academia was, and they patted me gently on the head, and said "that doesn't exist anymore."
So it was time to make the change, and so there were a lot of directions I thought I could go in. I was curious about working in development. I was thinking about working in Urban Planning, there's a few things that really caught my interest, but I'd always worked in Customer Service in some facet. Tech support put me through college. So like I'd always done that sort of thing, but being so comfortable in the bar world, it just made so much sense to continue to do that.
How'd you get connected with your partners at Alchemy?
Toby [Maloney] and Jason [Cott] founded Alchemy seven or eight years ago now. Toby is, of course, a legendary figure in New York City mixology. If there was a good drink to be had in Lower Manhattan, Toby was probably serving it. Jason, on the other hand, his business acumen is really his greatest strength so he very quickly moved from behind the bar to management. They decided to pair up and take Toby's flair for creativity and Jason's business sense and form this cocktail consulting company. They ended up opening Violet Hour in Chicago, they opened Patterson House in Nashville, they partnered up on The Rusty Knot. All these projects kept getting bigger, along with all the work they were doing with liquor companies, so after a while the two-man operation was starting to reach its capacity.
At this point they had been coming into Death & Co for a while. Toby knew all the old bartenders from there and then they got to know me pretty well. They liked my attitude behind the bar, they liked my drinks. I got along with each of them very well for different reasons. I think the first thing I worked with them on was a bitters seminar for Star Chefs and that went really well. Toby and I had a great rapport and we just worked together well. We started to do a few more projects together and I was eventually invited to be a part of it.
So not long after that, Troy Sidle, who'd been bartending with them at the Violet Hour, came up and decided to give notice to the Violet Hour and Jason said, "You should move to New York, we have something for you to do." So he ended up coming aboard to be opening the coffee program that we were doing at the Randolph, opened the bar at the Hyatt Andaz down on Water and Wall.
For better or worse, when people talk about Pouring Ribbons they always mention the matrix menu. Talk to me about the logic behind that menu design.
It's more or a less a means of communicating what the drinks are about without supposing that the guest knows as much as the server. When you open it up and you see our signature cocktails, you're looking at a lot of brands that don't advertise on the back of the magazines. You have a lot of modifiers that are obscure French fortified wines and bittered Italian liquors and a lot of people don't know what to make of these things because they don't know what any of the ingredients are. We figured we need to find a way to help communicate that in a different way other than just listing ingredients and thinking that was going to be transparent.
This was borne out of the questions that we always ask a guest when they sit down. Do you want something citrusy or do you want something boozy? So "refreshing" to "spiritous," right off the back you've already eliminated half of your options. Do you want flavors that you're comfortable with? Do you want to be pushed out of your comfort zone? Now you're down to one quadrant.
This is of course most useful at the tables, which is where we thought it would be most efficient. The tables have little cut outs in them and the menus can slot right there, so we can always leave a menu at the table. If someone at the table is drinking a little faster, they don't have to flag down the server in order to get a menu, they can look at it and have a few things in mind already, but it's not "oh my god, there's 80 drinks on this menu, I don't know how to navigate it." They can focus it, they can narrow it.
Do you think that that logic or kind of philosophy behind that is going to catch on elsewhere? Do you hope it's going to catch on?
I'm seeing so many cool and interesting new menu layouts anyway, and I'm always impressed. The Dead Rabbit's menu is this magnificent leather-bound volume. You look at Trick Dog in San Francisco, and they're writing their menus on Pantone color things and you're looking at it as though it's color swatches. And you look at Callooh Callay in London, and there were times when they'd give you a deck of cards or a newspaper as a menu, or a comic book as a menu. So how you choose to present your drinks to the public is still an ongoing conversation, the more that information design and display really start to merge with what we're doing, I think we're gonna see more interesting visual aspects to menus besides just ingredients.
For outsiders, how important is that Tales of the Cocktail award?
Well, one of the misconceptions was that it was somehow a competition, and it wasn't. It was a series of voting that started off with the general public nominating, 10 finalists got nominated from that, and from there that it got winnowed to, I think, four last year and five the year before. Then it goes to a panel of judges, people who have been around and seen enough of this.
And honestly, when I looked at the lineup the last couple of years, it's a dart board. You can't say that any one of us is objectively a better bartender than the others. So to hear your name called out from that is?obviously it feels great to win, but I don't think that that means that I am somehow better than Misty [Kalkofen]. These are magnificent hosts who create beautiful drinks and provide a wonderful environment for their guests, and that's all that I have ever striven to do. [But] yeah, I think it was a validation of the hard work that I've put in over the last decade-plus that I've been behind the stick, and it felt great that my peers thought that highly of me, but more than anything else it just made me think, "Well now you have to get better" because at this point the expectations are so high you have to continue.
Yeah, and then right after that you're opening a new place.
I was actually able to announce the name of Pouring Ribbons on stage at Tales in my thank you speech, and that was great because I was able to say, "By the way I have 3 shifts left at Death & Co so come see me next week. After that I'm out for a couple months while we're trying to get this bar off the ground." So it was a great stage to be able to make that announcement on. But yeah, it was pretty much hit the ground running.
If you were to step behind the bar right now, what's the first ingredient you're reaching for?
The funny thing is we're working on new menu items, so I actually have a bunch of new ingredients that I'm working with right now, some of which are closer to game time than others, so I guess the question would be, would I be more interested in working with something that I haven't quite got right yet? Or with something that I feel more confident about? There's actually been a couple of really cool fortified wines that we just got in, a really beautiful fino sherry and a couple of new rosso Americano-style vermouths, so I think those. My general inclination is to go for stirred drinks, I think as much fun as it is to come up with fun shaken drinks, I think those are probably the ones that I'm probably gonna grab first.
What's the busiest day and time here?
I think Friday, you know 10, 11 o'clock. We're pretty crammed at that point. That's been our busiest night of the week, in general.
And related, what's your favorite shift to work?
Oh, favorite time? I like early in the week. It tends to be a little more chill, you get more industry people that come through, you get enthusiasts that come through, who know it'll be a little slower and they get to engage a little more, so I'd have to say probably early to mid-point in the night, early in the week. Tuesday is a really lovely time. My Tuesday crew is all from the Bay Area, so it's really fun because I have a really great relationship with San Francisco and the bar community out there, so having all my staff be from there makes it really easy for whenever folks are coming from San Francisco, they always end up showing up on a Tuesday in this giant reunion.
How did you swing that, where you have all of your Bay Area People working on one night?
I think it was a fluke of scheduling and availability, but it ended up being that way and it's been a really fun night.
We brought in staff from all over the country: Portland, Minneapolis, Chicago. We didn't really hire a lot of New Yorkers, and actually one of the few New Yorkers we hired had been bar-tending at a pub in Queens for the last decade, so it was just kind of the way it worked.
Talk a little bit about building the team here.
We put out ads, we put out feelers, I'd done some networking at Tales and met people that I was interested in bringing on board, and we had a very standardized hiring procedure. We knew we didn't need to have like 8 amazing cocktail bartenders, we needed to have a team, because you don't win a world series with 5 third basemen. So we wanted to have a complementary crew of skills, so we actually had to turn down and turn away a lot of bartenders that I had for years dreamed of getting a chance to work alongside, because we simply didn't have enough room for that many people with that specific skill set.
So again, our service model here being everyone being fully cross-trained and everyone working all positions. So I work the floor, I work behind the bar, all of my staff does the same thing, so we needed people who were stronger on that in order to help those of us who haven't carried a tray for 7 and a half years, you know, and look terrified when there's five drinks on it, and it's like "I have to walk 15 ft." Meanwhile, some of the other floor staff are all but doing pirouettes with, like, trays on their head.
What are your favorite spots to go for a cocktail right now?
I went to see The Dead Rabbit, and was pretty blown away by the job that Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry have done there. I found the downstairs bar, which is a little more beer and highballs, to be just pitch perfect in execution. Watching Jack make cocktails is just an exercise in humility, he is so, so good at what he does, and the drinks that were coming out upstairs I thought were really magnificent. After work, in particular, going to The Wayland is always a great thing. They've got oysters they can serve until late, they've got some really beautiful drinks.
The boys at Evelyn are doing a great job and they always just have such a great attitude. Experimental Cocktail Club, I've only had great experiences at, I think what Niko de Soto and Xavier Padovani and their crew over there has been pulling off is great, turning it into a really sexy space, and I love the flexibility of being able to show up on a date, or show up with a larger party and still be able to be accommodated. And of course i'm dying to get to the new Milk and Honey, I'm dying for Attaboy, they're places that I'm quite anxious for.
· All Coverage of Pouring Ribbons [~ENY~]