You shouldn’t be shocked to see me writing a blog post about the death of New York City bar owner and cocktail genius Sasha Petraske since the topic is consistent with my editorial policy—to recognize forces and their agents which move against the banality of mainstream thought.
Besides I’m a fan of flavor (don’t be surprised if I launch a food blog someday), and Petraske brought plenty of it.
I also see a parallel worth exploring in Petraske’s creative life and that of Jazz great Thelonious Monk—I’ll cover that topic later in this post. Speaking of Jazz, Petraske was a fan of the genre.
Most important, Sasha Petraske was a friend.
I don’t visit bars to get drunk or to pick up dates—bars are places for me to explore the many manifestations of flavor in wines, spirits and cocktails.
(Laughing) I’ll save that topic for another day.
Nonetheless, my drinking preferences explain why being introduced to Sasha’s Milk & Honey bar—through an ex-girlfriend—was a gift from the flavor gods.
All the rumors I read or heard about Sasha’s reputation prior to my visits to his establishments—polite but not talkative, acclimated to human behavior but not terribly sociable—were quickly dismissed after meeting him. It was quite easy to have conversations of substance with Sasha about books, writers, music, society, food and of course, booze. Sasha was unselfish about sharing his body of knowledge with others, and was always open to hear new ideas.
With the help of Milk & Honey business partner, “TJ” Siegal, and the gifted bartenders Sasha always seemed to attract, Sasha and crew helped me to understand how cocktail making’s lesser-known techniques and ingredients provisioning methods drive the finished product’s flavor.
For instance, I began to understand how making ice with distilled or mineral water can change the way water is distributed throughout your drink.
And while it’s simple to grasp the importance making cocktails with freshly-made fruit juice, I learned how 15 minutes of added juice age can turn an ethereally good cocktail into a lesser incarnation of greatness.
But Sasha’s influence is broader than my world. He catalyzed bars across America and beyond to embrace the nearly forgotten art of Prohibition-era cocktail making, while positioning the bartender as the essential enabler to making your night out a special experience.
Thanks to Sasha and his team, more bartenders today include the terms “muddling” and “infuse” in their workday lexicon, as well as show reverence to classic recipe bibles like the Savoy Cocktail Book and Stuart’s Fancy Drinks.
I even see bars emulating the speakeasy vibe of Milk & Honey by posting Rules of Conduct on their walls or building discreet entrances, without realizing that the original Milk & Honey’s proximity to residences prompted the need for such measures.
And you can’t ignore the continuing trend of restaurants—too numerous to count—which now incorporate the nearly century-old artisan cocktail-making paradigm into their beverage programs.
Hell, even TGI Fridays jumped into the game with a “handcrafted cocktails” menu.
Some of you have Sasha to thank for finally leaving your embarrassing college drinking habits behind. No more Sex on the Beach or Incredible Hulk orders—you’re all about Sazeracs and Bee’s Knees now.
Among the many interesting things I discovered about Sasha is the way he seemed to place the excellence of his craft above his desire for commercial fame. I’m sure he could have published one meaninglessly expensive food and wine book after another like many other fame-seeking “foodies,” but those kinds of pursuits never seemed to make his list of priorities.
Just like Thelonious Monk—another renegade artist—Sasha didn’t dislike money, but he wanted to reap the financial benefits of his work on his own terms. Monk spent much of his creative time with musicians who were equally eager to shake-up the music world—a practice which turned Monk and his collaborators into even better artists. I saw a similar practice in the way Sasha surrounded himself with business partners and bartenders who weren’t waiting around for the Food Network’s call—they were too busy challenging each other to redefine the American bar scene’s relationship with the cocktail, one drink at a time.
I feel bad about the Sasha’s departure, but I also feel worse about about not staying in contact with him more often. What’s more, I could have written this post while he was alive.
Rest in Love, Sasha. I have some glasses to raise for a few days…
song currently stuck im my head: “ l’ascenseur pour l’échafaud (album)” – miles davis