Goodbye Milk and Honey, Hello Attaboy
The old location for Sasha Petraske's legendary cocktail bar gives way to a new order.
Tue Feb 19 2013
Photograph: Britt Kubat
Goodbye Milk and Honey Shortly after New Year’s Eve, when the final nightcap had been downed, the last champagne bottle emptied and the guests ushered out, Milk and Honey closed its original space after 13 years at 134 Eldridge Street to move to another location. It’s easy to forget how close this storied drinking institution came to being a dud. Amid New York’s big-box clubs and bottle-service lounges, the idea of a small, classic cocktail bar seemed like a fatally novel concept then, and it nearly closed several times during its first months. “I imagined that it would be an oasis in the desert,” says owner Sasha Petraske on how he chose the name, a biblical reference to abundant lands.
Inspired by rigorous Japanese mixology den Angel’s Share in the East Village, Petraske sought the counsel of other cocktail pioneers, including the legendary Dale DeGroff (the debonair Rainbow Room ringleader). And using out-of-print books, he built a cocktail program out of bygone tipples and conjured an intimate, atmospheric room informed by a borderline-obsessive passion for 1920s drinks, fashion and music.
After a rocky start, word of mouth slowly spread among downtown waiters and bartenders, and when DailyCandy published the secret phone number of the new drinkery, its popularity exploded. “It just was the coolest bar in the world,” recalls Pouring Ribbons’ Toby Maloney, an early barkeep there and now one of the country’s cocktail greats. “Every night, we were blowing somebody’s mind. Like, ‘Holy crap! What do you mean this is a martini?’ ”
The bar’s almost mythical status spread overseas, prompting Irishman Michael McIlroy and Australian Sam Ross, separately, to make pilgrimages to Gotham, becoming such fanatical converts to the American cocktail renaissance that both begged for a job. “People, myself included, used to have a kind of cowboy-cavalier attitude about just throwing stuff together in a drink without any structure,” says Ross. “What Milk and Honey really did was refine the methodology, from the way we jigger to how one drink relates to one before it.”
Even with the bar’s success, Petraske was skeptical: The space was small, and its notoriously secretive practices (an unmarked door, reservations only, an unlisted phone number)—now widely copied—were the by-product of living beneath the landlord. He had thought of finding another space at times, but assumed “if I moved it, I would ruin it.” But walking to work one day two years ago, it hit him: “Milk and Honey is not a place. It can happen anywhere.” Last month, he relocated the bar to expanded digs in the Flatiron.
Still, there’s no denying the address carries some sentimentality, and longtime employees McIlroy and Ross will open their own bar there later this month. “Owning that room is the greatest honor of all,” says McIlroy. “We want to keep the flame alive.”