The “secret” drinks that bartenders love most

Illustration for article titled The “secret” drinks that bartenders love most
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There’s a special kind of adrenaline rush that comes with the territory when you work in the service industry. You’re spinning dozens of plates as people bore holes into you with their eyes, only ceasing when they finally get their vodka soda or whiskey ginger.

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The pressure is on, especially on weekend nights. Then, you hear the call: “Staff meeting!” Though it might seem to the observer like an actual business discussion, this is occasionally insider lingo for a lightning-fast moment of peace on an intensely busy shift. Sometimes it happens during a rotation or after a break, other times it occurs mid-rush; at many establishments, it can only happen when service has ended and the till is counted. Whenever this ritual goes down, it’s a sip that hardworking people take for themselves.

You better believe that it functions like a secret club. This drinking and concocting of absurd bevvies to lighten the load of working-class labor is a rite of passage at many spots. My favorite example from my own days slinging sauce: the fiancé, a nod to both Beyoncé’s frequency on the speakers and the bartender who created it. It was a two- or three-finger pour of chilled dry white wine, usually Blanc de Blanc since it was less popular with customers. We knocked them back around midnight when things were rising to a fever pitch, and again at 3 a.m. as things mellowed at the bar (the dance floor was always a hot mess until 4).

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Sometimes customers are invited to this private party—regulars, former employees, or friends of the staff are dealt into the mix—but “staff meeting” drinks can range from fun and educational to downright trolling. We asked four hospitality pros to share their stories of shift drinks both secret and shared, so the next time you witness a staff meeting in the wild, you know what you’re looking at. If you’re a good customer, you might be invited to play, too.


The Tiger’s Ass

Zachary Gelnaw-Rubin, co-owner of Lion Lion bar in East Harlem, has what he calls “too many rituals to count” after years in the industry, but his cheekiest (literally) is a tradition called The Tiger’s Ass, which comes around but once a year for Lion Lion’s anniversary in November. This ominous-sounding drink comes straight from the rear of a tiger-shaped bottle that was once filled with crappy Scotch—among the least palatable shooters around.

“Once everyone has already drank too much, we drink the Tiger’s Ass,” Gelnaw-Rubin said.

He explained that the gag is half in the bottle, half what’s inside. “To pour it, you remove the tail and pour through its behind. Everyone present gets a pour straight from the Tiger’s Ass until it’s empty, and then we refill it with whatever is on hand. I have no idea what’s in there now, waiting for next November.”

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Whereas many inside jokes pop up during every shift, often for staff only, this experience is, according to Gelnaw-Rubin, “generally imposed upon everyone who happens to be in the room at the time.” Beware the first of November, where even the customers are subjected to The Tiger’s Ass at Lion Lion.


Pina Daq Snack

Some secret staff tipples sound a bit more tame than The Tiger’s Ass, but rest assured, after one of expert bartender and music entrepreneur Kigan Joseph’s pineapple daiquiris, the good times are gonna roll.

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“My colleagues and I all take immense pride in creating artisanal cocktails that take a couple of minutes, yet are so delicious they can be gone in two gulps and a chug—fresh pineapple juice, lime juice, silver rum and all,” Joseph told me. Full disclosure: Joseph and I once worked together at a raucous Tiki bar where he was known for being able to balance a coupe glass on his head before pouring in a perfect pina daq for one of the many shot sessions we held during our punishing shifts. Cameras would be whipped out, screams and cheers would sound, and somehow under all of that pressure, he streamed a spot-on cocktail en la cabeza.

“We call them Daq Snaqs, Snackquiris, and Chug-Ups,” he said. “The ritual is the communal chugging.”

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Though it started as a staff thing, it was too fun not to share this unique hybrid of a shot and a fine cocktail with customers. “Nowadays, we use mini coupes rather than full size coupes,” Joseph explained. “I’ve made lots of lifelong friends chugging daiquiris.”


Mezcal for days—and for late nights

Jahde Marley, wine consultant with Indie Wineries, uses these “staff meeting” moments to take a break from the main focus beverage. Wine industry folks like Marley spend their days engaging with bartenders and sommeliers about the wines they offer, representing the labels they work with to the hospitality industry at large.

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“We are in the wine industry,” Marley told The Takeout. “We taste and/or spit acidic, tannic juice all day. All day. Mezcal gets our terroir-driven rocks off and just isn’t wine.”

Bonding over a sip of mezcal can be as much of a conversation starter as a fine wine, with unique, storied traditions of production. After a long meeting working on a wine list or introducing new vintages, it’s a relief for Marley and her colleagues to sip on something a little bit stronger that still has a cultural story.

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Said Marley in an email, “I love talking about taste of place while tossing back a shot—it’s business in the front and party in the back.”

Wine people like Marley aren’t the only mezcal lovers. Sean Struss, beverage manager at Tao Group’s Vandal restaurant and bartender at Little Ways in New York City, also uses this spirit for team building and the occasional customer buyback. (For those not familiar, a buyback is essentially a freebie to get you to stay a bit longer and tip a bit more, usually the third drink or your last round.)

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When it comes to end-of-the-night rituals, Struss goes for a mezcal old fashioned. “It’s got it all, being smokey, sweet, and spirit-forward,” he says.

But bartenders like Struss also like to challenge your palate, especially if you’re dropping into an employees-only team building session or post-shift comedown. “I’ve made them for people before that have never had mezcal,” he said. “It’s always kind of funny to see someone’s face when they just can’t handle smokey spirits.”

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No matter their reaction, the goal of Struss’s drink is actually to win people over to team craft spirits instead of the more common offerings like big-brand tequila, especially when the drink is a freebie. The gift has a purpose: to elevate your experience and to open your mind to new flavors.

“Mezcal drinkers that have never tried one always love it,” Struss said. “But when I’m trying to show love to a guest, I like to expose them to potentially lesser known producers that do things with an incredible amount of integrity. Anytime I can get someone to actually taste a special tequila like Clase Azul reposado and leave Patron in the rearview mirror, it’s a victory for bartenders and patrons everywhere.”

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At many bars, this comrades-and-confidants-only sip is a simple, small, pour of Fernet Branca or Menta, while many dive bars stick to Irish whiskey or bourbon. Other times, it’s a unique cultural moment and semi-private delight—one you’d better be tipping well for if you’re a customer.

New York's Highest. Sicilian AF. Artist, writer, wicked witch. @realdanhell on Instagram

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DISCUSSION

Our go-to free drink for winning pub quiz in Hong Kong was Fernet Branca. Why? Hell if I know, my wife still makes a face when I remind her the one time I took her — but that didn’t stop me from trying it outside of Milan (where it’s from).

It’s still tastes the same there...