A Chat With: Colin Bryson
I spoke with Colin Bryson about bartending, the face he would make if I ordered a Long Island Iced Tea, and how bars are compensated by liquor companies, among other things nightlife related.
To the interview!
NYNightlife: Where do you work?
Colin Bryson: I work at Dutch Kills and Painkiller (PKNY). Dutch Kills is a saloon style bar located in Western Queens. Its primary owner is Richie Boccato and it is partially owned by Sasha Petraske of Milk & Honey fame. Dutch Kills was one of the 10 finalists for “Best Bar In America” at this past year’s “Tales of The Cocktail” in New Orleans. Sadly, we did not win. Clearly a sham. Painkiller is a tiki bar located in the Lower East Side, also owned by Richie. Legally, we are obligated to call the bar “PKNY” now, but I refuse to conform to what those fascists desire, it will always be Painkiller to me.
NY: Why do Richie Boccato’s bars have the word “kill” in them?
CB: Wow, somehow that never crossed my mind. Dutch Kills is simply named after the area of Queens it’s in— that area used to be called “The Dutch Kills” and appropriately located on the corner of Dutch Kills Street. The name Painkiller was inspired by a cocktail called “The Painkiller” that was originally served at The Soggy Dollar Bar. So I think its safe to assume that there is no correlation between the names of these bars and some fascination with violence. Richie also is a partial owner of Weather Up in Tribeca—a bar whose name does not imply any bodily harm.
NY: Known associates?
CB: Too many associates to list here, but I suppose this might be a good place to talk about my mentors.
– Obviously, Richie [Boccato]
– Michael McCilroy and Sammy Ross—principle bartenders at Milk & Honey and owners of the soon to be open Attaboy. These guys are modern day legends in the cocktail world and they have taught me a lot, not only about jiggering, but also about tact and demeanor.
– Zachary Gelnaw-Rubin: a fellow bartender of mine at Dutch Kills and also the owner/operator of Hundredweight Ice (the ice company that furnishes most of those fancy blocks you see floating in cocktails at many of the city’s noteworthy establishments).
– Valentin Gonzalez: head bartender at Painkiller. I don’t know if anybody actually knows him by name, mainly because when you ask him who he is, he’ll just say, “I’m the cleaning guy.” But there are a lot of people who know him as “Big Sexy.” He has single-handedly gotten more people wasted in the Lower East Side of Manhattan these past two years than any other individual tending bar. People (myself included) are actually scared to go in when he is working because you know how your night is going to end.
NY: If you were given free reign to open your own bar, describe what that bar would look and feel like.
CB: I am still waiting for somebody to open a bar/club in New York that offers great cocktails and does not feel like a cocktail bar. When I open a spot, I am going to try my damnedest to make that a reality. I am fundamentally against making your customers feel uncomfortable. You’re sense of belonging should not be any different if you order a can of Modelo than the guy that orders a Ramos Gin Fizz. Hell, I love a can of Modelo. If you want a vodka soda, there is nothing wrong with that either. But if for you’re next round you want a Hemingway Daiquiri, I would want it to be just as good as the one you had last week at Little Branch or Death & Company, hopefully better.
My spot would be dark and minimalist. Think like how Bret Easton Ellis portrays ‘80s New York. But probably smaller. Industrial, with lots of stone and brick. Maybe even some exposed plumbing and electrical work. I don’t know much about building code though—is that allowed?
As far as vibe: I feel a great sense of nostalgia for a time gone by when nightlife was really about the escapist paradise—people gathering somewhere with a group of strangers to really let their hair down, where their whims and wants were celebrated and not discouraged.
The stuff Travis Bass is doing with all his pop up spots right now really interests me. The doors at these places are still some of the toughest in the city, but its seems to be for the right reasons. They’ve got an occupancy limit and they’ve got a list of friends or acquaintances that want to be there. If you’re not one of those people, there really isn’t room for you. From what I’ve seen, trying to throw money around doesn’t really get you anywhere at these spots.
That being said, you can’t really create a tough door. That is categorically not cool, and New Yorkers can smell you contriving such from a mile away. I will say, however, that if I ever opened a spot where the door became notably difficult, it would be quietly satisfying to watch rich suits stand outside while busboys from neighboring establishments walk right in to grab a beer.
I know a few things for certain: There will be dancing. There will be loud music. And my bartenders will know what the fuck they are doing.
NY: Take a photo of the face you would make if I ordered a Long Island Iced Tea at your bar.
CB: This is interesting. Because a LI Tea is one of the only drinks I will refuse to serve people. On rare occasions my friends and I will order them to be ironic and amuse ourselves. But if you order that drink and you’re serious about it, I’m not sure that you respect yourself.
NY: Many bars are paid by spirit companies to have the spirit brand on a cocktail menu. Want to shed some light on this process for those who may not know they’re being marketed to when reading a cocktail menu?
CB: This is such a convoluted bureaucratic nightmare. There are a myriad of arrangements that liquor companies make with bars. For instance, if a bar has one cocktail on it’s menu made with reposado tequila, the bar is likely going to have to purchase that specific booze on a regular basis. A good way for a liquor company to guarantee that the bar purchases a lot of their booze is for them to make sure that cocktail always gets made with their product. So Herradura Tequila might cut a bar a deal on price to ensure that said reposado tequila cocktail always gets made with Herradura and as a result, the bar is buying that every week.
Liquor companies will also pay not just to have their product in the cocktail, but to have a bar print their brand name in the recipe. For instance instead of saying, a Gimlet is made with Gin, Fresh Lime, and Sugar, Plymouth would pay the bar to have it printed as Plymouth Gin (specifically), Fresh Lime, and Sugar as the official Gimlet recipe.
Bars get paid in a variety of ways. Sometimes liquor companies will give a bar price breaks on ordering the booze. Sometimes they will pay for something the bar needs to purchase (example: shakers, strainers, or jiggers).
A lot of times a bar will agree about a monthly tab that the brand will ring up at the bar. So for example, the bar would agree to put El Dorado Rum in the well, so long as the rep from El Dorado comes in and spends $500 per month at the bar. And if they fail to do so, you stop ordering that product. This is why so many times liquor reps will bring all their friends out and make a big spend. They have to do it anyways, whether they drink anything or not. And often times, they won’t even come in to drink because they are just too busy. So they will just stop by, swipe their card, and leave. Boom, easy money in the bar’s pocket.
That being said, on principle, the bars I work at do not get into these type of deals for financial gain. We put booze in drinks because we think it tastes good. End of story.
NY: On an off night, I’m going to _______
CB: Well, I spend the majority of my days behind fairly docile cocktail bars. So when I’m off, I like to throw on my dancing shoes and have a good time. My favorite spot used to be Goldbar, but I have not been there since the transfer of power. I really enjoy Le Baron. That place always puts me in a great mood, mainly due to the DJs and eccentric foreigners. Europeans seem to have way more fun dancing than Americans for some reason. For a more relaxed night I hit The Wren for a Miller High Life and shot of whiskey. I do enjoy Brazilian night at The Darby as well (for obvious reasons). Fair Warning: my Bossa Nova is not to be trifled with.
NY: How, if ever do you decide to comp a drink when you’re tending bar?
CB: Lemme just get this out of the way: if you even allude to the fact that you are looking for a handout, you will not get one. Asking for free drinks is undoubtedly the most tactless thing you can do in a bar. I would judge you less for getting hammered and throwing up on a bar stool. I only comp drinks for two reasons.
One: I am trying to establish a loyalty with my customers. I truly love my regulars. I want them to feel like they own the place every-time they walk in. I give freebees to the people that come back and bring their friends with them, or new customers that I think will do so. It just makes financial sense. I give you one free drink, and your friends buy five. Easy.
Two: You work at a cool industry spot. There’s definitely a lot of implied “I scratch your back and you’ll scratch mine” dealings that are a big part of working behind a bar.
NY: If I’m sitting at the bar and you’re my bartender, what am I going to remember about you when I leave the bar?
CB: To be honest, hopefully not a whole lot. Regarding the trade of bar-tending, Richie once told me, “It’s important to know that what I’m doing is important, but that I myself, am not so important,” and I can’t say it any better than that. The goal is to make you the best damn drink you’ve ever had every time you sit down. I would hope that how I come off to people is that I really care about what I’m doing and that I maintain a strong sense of humility while doing it.
NY: How should people tip for a cocktail? For a beer? For a water?
CB: This is a mess of an issue, primarily because a lot of bartenders are only in the industry to supplement another profession—in other words, “what they really do.” When tending bar is only about money, people get really greedy and that messes with the balance of things. I try to not worry too much about it, because if you do, it can really bum you out. It would probably be more useful to state what I typically tip when I’m out for a drink.
Artisinal cocktail (measured and properly prepared): $2-$5
Water: Usually zero dollars if the water was ordered to accompany my drink. However, if I’m at Wilfie & Nell or SL on a busy Saturday night and I just order a water, I might tip a buck or two, solely because the bartender ignored somebody that wanted to order booze so they could pour it for me. A few dollars is worth it to me to not have to to receive an eye roll every time I desire hydration. Now, if water is the only thing you’re drinking (for whatever reason), you should throw a tip. It’s tactless to sit at an establishment for any significant period of time without leaving a gratuity. If you don’t have a couple bucks to spare, you should not be out at a public place. You should be home re-evaluating your life.
A lot of people think that tipping is only about the bartender getting paid. But, it’s also an opportunity for you as the patron to establish yourself as a high priority. If you drop a bartender a twenty on your first round of drinks, I guarantee you will be taken care of. It’s an investment for me (when I’m on the other side), and you get out of it what you put into it.
If you don’t tip me well, I am not going to curse you out. I will simply pay less attention to you. And if you stiff me a few times, I might just ignore you all together. It changes your life a lot more than it changes mine (if we are to assume you are out to enjoy yourself).
NY: Bartenders seemingly have more opportunities than ever to turn their mastery behind the bar into a career. Are you looking to stay with bartending or do you have an exit strategy with plans to do something in another industry?
CB: I love the nomadic nature of tending bar. I’m up to a lot of things in my life and a lot of them have nothing to do with making money. But tending bar and doing it well awards consistent employment at a very fair wage. More than anything, the pursuit of knowledge excites me. Now, I’m kinda getting into some existential hippie shit here, but seriously, I have learned and will continue to learn so much about humanity just from exchanging stories with my patrons. Some of my best friends started as my regulars.
Primarily due to circumstance, most people create social groups for themselves that are not very diverse. If you’re a banker, chances are you’re gonna know a lot of bankers. If you’re a fashion designer, chances are you’re gonna know a lot of fashion designers. And if you’re a computer engineer, chances are you’re gonna know a lot of computer engineers. Almost every person I talk to on a daily basis is doing something different, and I get to learn about it, if only for five minutes. And that’s rad as hell.
Do my aunts and uncles rave about my successes? Probably not. But I really believe tending bar is one of, if not the last great working class profession. People who fall under the more traditional definition of “successful” respect what I do a whole lot more than my suburban relatives will ever know.
Furthermore, nightlife in general awards you with bountiful sweat equity. A lot of the richest people in the world have to pay a whole lot of money to get into the places that we, in the industry, not only get into, but barely pay anything to be there a lot of the time. It all just comes down to the pursuit of happiness. Some people have to make and spend a lot of money to be happy. I just have to smile at few rude people a night and make them drinks, and thats the worst of it.
I think every day about opening a bar. No doubt, that’s the plan for me. And right now the plan is to go at that full throttle. But there’s really no way for me to know where the road turns later in life, and not only is that good thing, it’s goddamn exciting.