With the holiday season here, there’s never been a better time to throw a cocktail party! To help you make spirits bright, look to Keith McNally and Rich Bubbico, authors of the new book Schiller’s Liquor Bar Cocktail Collection. Keith is the owner and Rich is the manager of Schiller’s Liquor Bar, a destination for casual dining and superbly mixed cocktails on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Their three-volume book is full of recipes for regulars’ favorite libations, from classics to innovative, artisanal drinks.
Here, we ask Rich all about how he started mixing cocktails, his favorite recipes from the book, and the most important techniques for mixing. Read on for his story, then learn his best tips for making cocktails at home.
How and when did you become interested in bartending?
I have been working in restaurants and bars since I was 18. I love the culture. My grandfather was a bartender in the ’50s, and there are these old pictures of him shaking cocktails in a white jacket, looking suave. I also studied chemistry, and I think bartending is not far removed from that. There’s this curiosity that I have in how things will react when you combine them.
I have been working with Keith McNally since before Schiller’s existed. I started by answering phones at Balthazar when it first opened. I have worked in many restaurants during my life, but working for Keith continues to be a wonderful experience.
For those who haven’t visited, describe Schiller’s. What’s special or unique about it? How would you describe the cocktails you serve?
We have a good time. Keith and I try to hire folks who are genuinely excited about the job, and it definitely shows behind the bar. We have a great team back there, and they are relaxed and professional. There’s an electricity in the air at Schiller’s, especially at night when it’s bustling. We make drinks that we want to drink. We try to avoid things that are overly complicated or pretentious. We keep it simple and always use the finest quality ingredients. Cocktails that are simple and delicious have a broad reach. We get a diverse mix of customers, so we like to have options that will please everyone who walks through the doors.
Where do you get inspiration for creating new cocktails?
Our bartenders are excellent. They are excellent at coming up with new drinks to try. We will take an ingredient that we love and build a drink around that. As I said before, we make drinks that we like. We also love to revisit the classics and tweak them just enough to make them our own without straying from the original concept.
What are a few of your favorite recipes from the book and why?
The Jerry Thomas Manhattan is my all-time favorite cocktail. I love whiskey, and it’s such a classic recipe. You can play around with it a little. For instance, not all sweet vermouths are the same; you can experiment with different varieties and see how it affects the flavor profile of the drink, but in essence it will still be the same cocktail. I also love the Gentleman Caller. I am a big fan of Fernet Branca, so I commissioned our bartender, Kevin, to come up with a cocktail that had some Fernet in it. That was the result, and I think it’s great.
I am also a big fan of the Aviation. It’s a classic cocktail, and like the Jerry Thomas Manhattan, we didn’t invent it, but I strongly encourage you to come try our take on it. I think it’s beautiful from a visual standpoint, and aromatic as well as delicious.
You feature classic cocktails and more innovative ones. What do you like about each?
The classics are classics for a reason. There is no need to improve upon them. So we serve the Manhattan the same way Jerry Thomas did back in the 1800s. But, we need to keep things current, so we push the envelope a little bit. We try new things. We like to experiment. Our drink list is constantly in flux. We adapt to what the customers want, what we enjoy making, and the recipes evolve naturally.
What are the most essential techniques to master from the book? Any that seem intimidating but you’d encourage people to try?
One of the most important factors when making cocktails is consistency. If you make 5 of the same cocktail, they should all taste the same. It is especially important when making cocktails for a big crowd. Mastering all of the recipes and techniques in the book will help you to master that.
It’s all intimidating at first. That’s why we put this book together — to make it more familiar. Once you practice a bit, it becomes second nature.