Chefs have El Bulli and Noma, climbers have Everest and K2 and bartenders have Milk & Honey. Indeed, the idea of one day working behind the three feet of hallowed bar that is the New York institution of ‘Milk’ would have to be one of the chief aspirations of any bartender around the world. Since 2000, the Manhattan bar has built a peerless reputation and won the admiration, accolades and respect of the bartending community and the host of critics who pass through its velvet curtains.
Milk & Honey itself is a bar unlike any other. No signage or fanfare marks its presence down an alley in the heart of Chinatown. Word of mouth is the singular marketing strategy. A Google search will bring minimal hits; any active links will lead to vague descriptions with no sign of any images. They even changed their phone number after a certain NYC publication issued it online. It’s the vision of one man that despises drunk people and forces all who enter through his doors to abide by his stringent house rules. Enter the enigmatic Sasha Petraske.
I first met Petraske at an event in a small showroom packed with people. Even from the other side of the room, I knew immediately when he had entered. He crossed the room and sought out a hook upon which to hang his flat cap and then calmly strolled towards the bar, as if this was the typical sort of entrance one would make to a room. Having long been a fan of Milk & Honey and their famed house rules, I knew that this was simply an extension of Petraske’s own house rule number 4: ‘Gentlemen will remove their hats. Hooks are provided.’ Which half makes me ponder if Sasha might have left immediately upon discovery of an absence of hooks. Lucky for me, we were in a furniture showroom.
His presence in the country of late has been solely devoted to the opening of a new bar. The Everleigh, which recently opened its doors on Gertrude Street, is a joint venture between himself and two long serving employees, Michael Madrusan and Lauren Schell. To better understand what this new venue represents, it’s important to understand the pedigree of bar from which it stems.
Milk & Honey New York seats 22 drinkers, serviced by five staff. For any of you doing the maths, this isn’t a ratio that lends itself to lofty profits. There is no real cocktail menu to speak of; instead the bartender makes your drinks based on your spirit and flavour preference and the influence of what’s seasonally available on the fruit front.
Everyone sits in small groups, dominated by couples. No one is loud, no one lingers. They obey the rules, regardless of whether they have read them or not. “It’s a bar for grown ups,” states Petraske. “The reason for being is to exist as a drinking society for people who can sit down and drink their drinks quietly; be quiet when they drink and be quiet when they leave.”
We all know that there is a large proportion of the drinking populous that doesn’t abide by these guidelines. They drink to get drunk, to ‘pick up’ and facilitate a raucous and adventurous night out. So Milk seemingly flies in the face of these reasons for drinking. In Petraske’s view, people drink for two reasons: “To make new friendships and to reinforce old ones.” And Milk is almost squarely dedicated to the latter.
It’s near impossible to gain a seat unless you know a member or a bartender, which brings us to house rule number 5: ‘Do not bring anyone unless you would leave that person alone in your home. You are responsible for the behaviour of your guests.’ Petraske expands: “Everyone is welcome once, but not everyone is welcome back.” And it’s hard not to admire his approach to this democratic door policy. “I judge people on their actions, not on what they’re wearing or who they think they know.”
Though a refreshing concept in a city like New York, applying such an idea to LA would surely cause riots amongst the glitterati refused entry based on their unsavoury behaviour. I regret not asking Petraske if Lindsay Lohan would be allowed to enjoy a gin fix at the bar. And while Petraske remarks on his “temerity to open a bar and telling people that they can’t come in unless they follow the rules,” it works and the regular customers who frequent the bar have an anticipation of great quality and quiet drinks, all with old friends.
But with all these rules in place to seemingly stem any chance of fun, what is it about this venue that makes it so appealing for both customers and in the view of the aspiring bartender? Well, it’s the drinks. They’re good. In fact, they’re perfect. And it’s not a statement made lightly. No drink goes over the bar for want of something more. There is a precision in process that few bartenders, let alone customers, will ever fully grasp. Add this to the unique atmosphere and you have a bar that sees many professional critics award it the world’s best bar.
I inadvertently interviewed Petraske while he was conducting a training sessions for one of the Everleigh’s newest recruits, and learnt more in that two hours than in my last six years of bartending. To summarise it for you, it’s all about water content. And Petraske has invested a lifetime of research and money into the concept. He freely admits to buying freezers to improve his ice with money that was pegged for rent. Obsession has led to perfection. And don’t think that he blindly believes it’s his way or the highway. He revealed, “If someone shows me a better way to make a drink, that’s now my way to make that drink.”
What then, does this mean for The Everleigh? Well, the bar layout is the same as the other bars; the percentage of the bar devoted to making drinks is definitely in the bartenders favour. A large freezer houses the day’s hand cut ice, which someone took three hours to prepare prior to opening. All the glassware is frozen, the juice is squeezed to order, eggs cracked on demand. There are no shortcuts – it’s Petraske’s way and Madrusan and Schell are diehard disciples.
The atmosphere possesses a similar quality to that of Little Branch, one of Milk’s NYC sister venues. A tad more relaxed, Madrusan found it resonated more strongly with Australians, whether they be tourists or ex-pats. It seems that Australians might not be quite ready for a closed door, members only, behave yourself at all times policy. The rules are little more lax but there is certainly an anticipation that you arrive and subsequently imbibe with only those you know. Schell’s input brings a subtle feminine touch to the interior and service methodology, not seen in any of its sister venues.
The name comes from a brothel located in Chicago during the 1900s, world renowned as having the highest quality working girls and outstanding interior appointments. Though drinks may substitute working girls, there are plenty of parallels between the namesakes. Indeed, the modern Everleigh recalls a time when libations were simpler affairs and glamour in it’s truest form existed in drinking establishments.
Under Petraske’s watchful eye, they have been able to establish a venue that allows for Milk & Honey’s style of drinks to be enjoyed and applauded in a manner comparable to the stringent standards of its sister venues.
And does Petraske approve? Well, he must. He booked and early flight home and left the team to their own devices. He’ll be back next year to make sure everything is up to standard. Until then, you can probably leave your hat on.
Level 1, 150–156 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy
(03) 9416 2229