The traits of a bar that today signal a quality cocktail establishment—the bartender as host and guide, the bespoke cocktails and the minimalist entrance—are in vogue thanks to the man who started it all, Sasha Petraske. In 1999, Petraske opened Milk & Honey on New York's Lower East Side, and with it he pioneered a new attitude toward cocktail culture. An approach that embraced (and still embraces) fresh, quality ingredients, thoughtfully-sourced booze and pristine ice to build near perfect classic cocktails occasionally garnished with one of those now ubiquitous chilled metal straws. Along with a pressed white paper napkin and glass of water. Proper cocktails with proper service, for which one needed a secret phone number to secure a table reservation behind 134 Eldridge Street's discrete door.
Petraske was 42 years old when he passed away last Friday in Hudson, New York. In addition to blazing a path that forever changed the cocktail landscape, he inspired and mentored a generation of bartenders, like Sam Ross, the guy who dreamed up the Penicillin and now operates Attaboy in place of the original Milk & Honey.
According to The New York Times, Petraske was recently married and had started a consulting job in Hudson, New York. He had plans to open a third incarnation of Milk & Honey, as well as a new bar in Brooklyn called The Falconer.
Below, friends recall Petraske.
Robert Simonson, The New York Times
"I imagine my first visit to Milk & Honey was like that of many others—remarkable in every way. I ordered a Sazerac, a drink that was my obsession at the time. It was made of three things difficult to find in New York at that time: rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters and Herbsaint. (Absinthe was still illegal at the time.) Just being able to order the drink without anyone blinking or my having to explain it was part of the thrill of being there. There was only one man on duty and I remember being struck by his appearance and manner before I was impressed by the cocktail. He wore gray wool trousers, dress shoes, a white shirt and suspenders. He had eyes like black marbles and a flop of dark hair cut in a style not popular since the 1930s. This, I realized later, was Sasha Petraske. He brought me the drink in a beautiful glass on a tray adorned with a candle. I had had Sazeracs before. I never had one better. Maybe it tasted better because of the care I knew had gone into every aspect of its preparation.
Today, hundreds of bartenders possess the dedication to their trade that Sasha did. Back then, almost no one did. He gave many bartenders their careers and their names, but seemed strangely sheepish about the career and name he had carved out for himself. Humility and perspective are not qualities typically found in bartenders. It is a brash profession by nature. He was an endearing, necessary anomaly, an anti-business idealist who reinvented bartending as a profession."
David Wondrich, author of Punch and Imbibe!
"Sasha Petraske was a real New Yorker, something you don't see much any more. He was independent in his very soul—he acted on his own ideas, always; never let anyone tell him what to do, gave no shits whatsoever about trends or hype or buzzwords or anything with a marketing budget. If that meant he was never going to get rich in the bar business, so be it—he always knew what he was doing, at least in that respect. Sometimes the path forward was shadowed and lay through oily black puddles and broken glass, but that never stopped him from heading down it. I knew him for 15 years and admired him the whole time, above almost everybody in the bar business. His loss is irreplaceable. The only consolation is that I know I'm not alone in that opinion."
Alex Day, co-founder of Proprietors LLC
"Like many, I heard of Sasha long before I ever met him. He was a legend from the start, a man who's gentle demeanor invited all sorts of speculation—he was mysterious, seemingly living without the baggage of the modern world. It was inspiring to see, but as I got to know him it became abundantly clear that there wasn't a shred of aloofness in him. He was the smartest man I've ever met and by far the greatest teacher, a man who's individuality was so authentic that it made you want to be a better person simply by being around him. He taught us all the value of conviction, the need to take a stand when you value something, and the responsibility that comes with having an opinion. All while being a gentleman.
Sasha changed the world at large—we all know that—but what many probably don't know is he did it person to person, one at a time. The man loved to educate, to bestow wisdom not only with how to make an excellent drink, but how to live a better life. He mentored from a place of supreme love—for cocktails, for bars, but more than anything, a love of people connecting with each other. In the process of mentoring so many, he shaped a whole generation of people, not only bartenders. He did all that without agenda or ego; he helped us be more thoughtful people because he probably didn't know how not to. That kind of connection is a rare thing, and it's something I'm beyond grateful to have had with him. We need more Sasha Petraskes in the world, but there will only ever be one."
Reflecting on Petraske's Bar Contributions:
- Debuted pioneering craft cocktail den Milk & Honey, a small, signless bar which showcased perfectly built pre-Prohibition era drinks at a time when artificially-hued Cosmopolitans and Apple Martinis were the norm.
- Opened Milk & Honey in Soho, London.
- Opened New York's East Side Company Bar (on the Lower East Side), which patrons have described as "Milk & Honey Lite," thanks to its shorter cocktail list, lack of house rules and cheaper prices. (East Side Company Bar closed in 2010 and Painkiller aka PKNY took over the space until 2013.)
- Opened craft cocktail bar Little Branch in New York's Greenwich Village.
- Created the Gordon's Cup (sort of like a gin and cucumber Caipirinha), one of his most famous cocktails.
- Designed the cocktail menu for New York's now shuttered Double Seven lounge in the Meatpacking District.
- Created Cuffs & Buttons, New York's first cocktail catering company, with Milk & Honey alums Chad Solomon and Christy Pope.
- Opened New York absinthe bar White Star (Lower East Side), which he parted ways from in 2011, and which shuttered shortly after.
- Opened coffeehouse Mercury Dime in New York's East Village, which struggled and closed in 2009.
- Consulted on the cocktail program for Weather Up in Prospect Heights, New York.
- Opened Los Angeles' first craft cocktail bar The Varnish with Eric Alperin and Cedd Moses in February.
- Opened Long Island City, New York's Dutch Kills in May.
- Consulted on the cocktail program at W Atlanta's Drinkshop and W Washington D.C.'s POV.
- Created the cocktail program for the refurbished Lambs Club in New York.
- Consulted on the cocktail program at Bonahan's in San Antonio.
- Consulted on the cocktail program at W Boston's Descent.
- Consulted on the cocktail program for The Ranstead Room in Philadelphia.
- Created the cocktail program for New York's John Dory Oyster Bar.
- Opened The Everleigh in Melbourne, Australia, with bartender Michael Madrusan.
- Launched Hundredweight Ice and Cocktail Services, an artisanal ice and cocktail consultation company, with bar vets Richard Boccato, Ian Present, and Zachary Gelnaw-Rubin.
- Opened jazz club Silver Lining in Tribeca, New York with Little Branch alumni Joseph Schwartz and Vito Dieterle. The venue closed in 2013.
- Founded San Antonio Cocktail Conference.
- Opened Middle Branch in New York's Murray Hill neighborhood.
- Former Milk & Honey bartenders Sam Ross and Mickey McIlroy, along with Petraske, open Attaboy in the original Milk & Honey space.
- Opened Milk & Honey 2.0, which closed in 2014. Petraske had plans to move the bar to a new New York home.
- Started work on his first book for Phaidon Press, according to Grub Street.
- Started a consulting gig in Hudson, New York.
- Planned to open Falconer bar in Brooklyn this fall.