Last week, shock and sadness spread through the global booze industry upon hearing that Sasha Petraske—the man who forever transformed the drinking landscape with the opening of New York’s Milk & Honey in 1999, along with a slew of other bars that followed—suddenly passed away at the age of 42.
Petraske’s imprint upon modern-day cocktail culture is profound. The clandestine Milk & Honey on the Lower East Side (later it would move to the Madison Square Park neighborhood) revived the long-lost notion of a speakeasy, whose purpose was not to get its patrons tanked on happy-hour Cosmos, but to transport them to a world of bygone civility. Entering Petraske’s seductive candlelit world required a reservation from an ever-changing phone number. It meant sitting at one of the few tables and abiding by his house rules. It dictated patrons engage with their server to describe just what kind of drink they fancied, because here there were no menus to pore over.
Petraske’s vision launched countless careers. There are Milk & Honey vets Sam Ross and Mickey McIlroy—the former invented the now-famous Penicillin cocktail—who now preside over Attaboy, in the original Milk & Honey space. Richard Boccato of Long Island City’s Dutch Kills was a doorman at Little Branch until Petraske gave him a chance inside serving and making drinks at the bar. Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, the proprietors of Midnight Rambler in Dallas, made a significant splash by partnering with Petraske in the cocktail catering and consultancy, Cuffs & Buttons.
Milk & Honey. (Photo: guestofaguest.com)
“Where would we be without Sasha?,” reflects Joaquin Simo, partner of New York bar Pouring Ribbons. “Without him, would we ever have been treated to over a decade of the Mickey and Sammy Show at Eldridge Street? Would the wildly influential Violet Hour have happened if Toby Maloney hadn’t been Sasha’s first hire in 2000? Would downtown L.A. have had such a civilizing influence as Eric Alperin’s the Varnish? As a bar owner, I took special pride in taking my staff to Milk & Honey for their first time, watching their eyes grow wide as they were introduced to Sasha one by one. He set the bar so high, he had nowhere else to take it but to the heavens.”
Kansas City bartender Ryan Maybee opened the speakeasy Manifesto as a direct result of a transcendent experience he had at Milk & Honey in 2006. “I was fascinated. It was dark and hidden away, but we found it. When the door opened I remember being hit with the aroma of fresh herbs and citrus and it was just mesmerizing. Pulling back the curtain for the first time and seeing the flickering candlelight I was in love. So much of the experience was built up before you even sat down,” he recalls.
“Where would we be without Sasha? Would the wildly influential Violet Hour have happened if Toby Maloney hadn’t been Sasha’s first hire in 2000? Would downtown L.A. have had such a civilizing influence as Eric Alperin’s the Varnish?”
Although he was well aware of Petraske’s “no name dropping, no star fucking” rule, his friend, wine guru Doug Frost, had recommended Maybee seek him out. “I said to the server, ‘This has been an inspiring experience. Is there any way I could meet Sasha?”’ He extended his hand and said, ‘I’m Sasha.’ He sat down with us and was hospitable and humble. When I came back to Kansas City, I couldn’t get Milk & Honey out of my head and had to tell everyone about it. It was the kind of bar I wanted to hang out in. I needed to do something like this. I had never been more inspired.”
It wasn’t just in the States where Petraske’s impact was felt. He opened an outpost of Milk & Honey in London in 2002, and the phenomenon spread from Europe to Australia, spawning countless bars that proudly use from-scratch syrups and striking glassware. Dez O’Connell, who helms the bar at Brody Studios in Budapest, says Petraske was “quite reserved without being rude, confident without arrogance—ostensibly because he really knew his stuff and was very clear in communicating it. No hocus pocus, just down-to-earth explanations of what makes a good bar and a good bartender tick.”
The Varnish. Photo: minxsociety.com
In particular, O’Connell was struck by Petraske’s line about how reaching into the back of the freezer for the extra-cold glass instead of being lazy and taking the one at the front separates average from great on every level. “As a younger bartender I once half joked that I only started taking bartending seriously when I started to get in the magazines. Sasha looked at me and said if I’m doing it to be famous I’ll never be happy and would find out I’m in the wrong job. I’ve always bore that in mind: the craft of the service industry, not the magic of star-tending, or shit like that,” says O’Connell.
Wielding such a powerful hold could easily come with ego, but Petraske was a true gentleman who never succumbed to it, actively shying away from the spotlight instead. Quality and hospitality were what fueled him, tenets that would have inevitably been on display at Falconer, the bar he was working on opening in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood at the time of his death.
A native New Yorker, Petraske passed away while living upstate in Hudson, which for drinks geeks may immediately be construed as a somewhat comforting poetic symbol. As Greg Boehm of Cocktail Kingdom says, “I just can’t stop thinking of the coincidence that a person so influential in the modern cocktail renaissance died in the town where the cocktail was first defined in 1806.”