In a dimly lit bar behind an unmarked door in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Australian-born bartender Sam Ross is serving me my favorite drink, which, up until now, I didn’t know existed.
“What sort of spirits, what sort of flavours, what are you thinking about?” he asks inside Attaboy, his roughly six-year-old bar. I request something smoky, citrusy and spicy with mezcal, and Ross nods obligingly.
He produces a pale-pink, citrusy concoction called a Mosquito, served in an elegant coupe glass – perfectly tailored for my spicy-and-sour-loving palate.
You don’t have to fly to New York to get the Attaboy experience – while Australia is not teeming with menuless bars, many offer a “bartender’s choice” option – but, thanks to Ross, you don’t have to leave your house, either: he’s made an app for that.
Bartender’s Choice Vol. 2 – available for $4.99 on iPhone and Android – is meant to simulate the experience of sitting in front of a talented bartender who will cater to your every whim. The original Bartender’s Choice app was released in 2007, but Ross has long been meaning to update it, both to make it available on Android and to keep up with evolutions in the cocktail world – evolutions such as my new favorite drink, the Mosquito, which Attaboy developed this year, and which is already being replicated and served at bars around New York.
“If you typed into your app: mezcal, sweet, smoky, I guarantee the Mosquito would be one of the things that comes up,” he says. When I try it at home later, it’s the first drink Bartender’s Choice Vol. 2 suggests.
Attaboy was one of the early adopters of the now-popular concept of bartender’s choice, where instead of an elaborate drinks menu, patrons simply state their preferences and let the bartenders do the rest.
“Bars are dark, and generally we go to them because we don’t want to make too many decisions,” Ross says. “So … instead of giving you a compendium to read when you’re trying to socialise in a dark bar, throw [us] a few pointers and we can sort of home in [on what you want].”
Ross’s late mentor Sasha Petraske (also one of the founders of The Everleigh) first popularised the concept in New York with his beloved speakeasy-style bar Milk & Honey, which was open in New York from 1999 to 2014 (an iteration in London’s Soho remains open) and was one of the most influential and popular bars of its time.
Ross was a bartender at Milk & Honey; when it moved to a larger space further uptown he and his business partner Michael McIlroy opened Attaboy in Milk & Honey’s original location. Petraske’s goal – and the one Ross has continued – is to make people drink better.
“What Milk & Honey did is snap people back in and showed them what quality was and what they should expect when they go out to any bar or restaurant – that you don’t have to pay money for shit drinks. It was raising the awareness,” he says. Now, says Ross, people do drink better, and his Bartender’s Choice Vol. 2 is a response to the world’s growing cocktail consciousness.
The app’s most exciting feature is its “I Feel Like” section, which is largely designed for home bartenders. Simply enter your preferred liquor and drink style, and a few flavour preferences, and the app will comb through Attaboy’s collected cocktail memory to find something that hits the spot. There’s also a glossary for cocktail neophytes, as well as useful guides such as “how to muddle”, “shaking vs. stirring” and “how to swizzle”.
Rounding out the app is a comprehensive, searchable recipe book, which Ross says is intended more for professional bartenders. “When people are having geeky cocktail arguments about recipes, I want us to be in that conversation,” he says. He explains that his bar is known for being a classic cocktail revivalist, and the compendium features about 50 per cent old recipes along with their origin stories, and 50 per cent modern adaptations of older drinks.
While Ross takes drinking seriously, he wanted Bartender’s Choice to be approachable, so that you don’t have to hit hundreds of specialty stores to find the ingredients you need.
“Modern cocktails can be over-complicated; there’s infused this and tinctures of that. And people don’t have that at home,” he says. “So the way we look at drinks is everything in this app is easily obtainable if you don’t already have it – we’re not brand specific, and it’s really things that you can pick up at your local store. There are fruits you don’t need to infuse – some might be seasonal – it’s very approachable.”
I ask for another drink similar to the Mosquito, but with a different kind of spice. This time I’m served a glass of burnt-orange-coloured liquid called the El Guapo, made with lime, cucumber, tequila, mezcal, cholula, cayenne, salt and cracked pepper. Once again, it’s exactly what I didn’t know I wanted. Even better? Now I can make it at home.