15 July 2014

"Pouring Reign (The Director's Cut)", Part I: Ezra Star of Drink

Ezra Star of Drink, Boston, MA
Photo courtesy of Ezra Star
In April 2014, I wrote a cover feature for The Improper Bostonian entitled “Pouring Reign”, in which I interviewed twelve Boston bartenders I admire. Six are veteran talents I felt had been overlooked by local media; six are newcomers promising enough to get themselves situated in some of our top bar programs. All had many more interesting things to say than I could fit in the space allowed.

How many more? My initial draft ran to 10,000 words, but the feature was allotted 2500; I begged my editors for more room, and they generously let it swell to 3500, a very long feature for the publication.

As happy as I was with the piece (and especially the gorgeous accompanying portrait photography by Adam DeTour), a lot of great material got left on the cutting-room floor. I got permission to run the unexpurgated interviews here. Here’s the first one, my unedited interview with Ezra Star of Drink, one of my personal favorites among an absurdly talented staff at one of Boston’s most popular and acclaimed craft cocktail bars.


MC SLIM JB: Drink (the bar) is arguably Boston’s most nationally-famous craft cocktail destination; it’s been a while since I’ve been by when there weren’t dense crowds and a line out the door. How do you balance the demands of high-volume service with the ideal of a personalized cocktail experience?

EZRA STAR: Balancing the demands of high volume service and individual attention can be very difficult especially in a place that doesn't have a menu. The first way I deal with this is to not think about making drinks. We have to make a ton of drinks, but the more focused I can be on the people at my bar the better. I rely on creating and refining systems that allow the team as a whole to execute and refine the standards of Drink.

MC: Measure or free-pour?

ES: Drink uses OXO stainless steel cups for measuring, which I find to be very quick and easy measuring tools. The problem with them, though, is that as you use them, the numbers eventually wear off, so essentially we are free-pouring our drinks. My personal preference is to free pour, but I trust myself when I make a drink. At this point I have made at least ten thousand cocktails and know by sight and feel generally what a quarter-ounce, ounce, or whatever is when it comes out of a bottle. When I go out, unless the person seems as though they know what they are doing, I prefer to see them measure.

MC: Drink that you wish more customers would order?

ES: I would love to see people ordering more brandy-based drinks, especially women. Nine times out of ten, if I have someone who claims to not like whiskey or dark alcohol, I can always surprise them with a brandy-based drink and they love it.

MC: Drink you wish customers would forget existed?

ES: The Long Island Iced Tea. I love them, but come on... I know you want to get drunk; let's be a little more aggressive. How about a 151 all-dark-alcohol Long Island?

MC: What is your most prized bartending accoutrement, e.g., spoon, ice tool, ice mold, shaker, mixing glass, knife, Lewis bag, cocktail book, serving glass, other piece of barware or glassware?

ES: My most prized bartending tool is my ice saw. I love the thing, I even engraved some stars on it to make it known to whom it belongs. Plus it looks pretty bad-ass sticking out of my bag when I'm walking to work. I feel like an Edo-period samurai walking through the city.

MC: Most annoying customer behavior?

ES: Asking about my tattoos, or grabbing my arms while I'm making drinks to ask about my tattoos.

MC, aside: Kids, remember the ice saw.

MC: Every bartender has a collection of Fiasco Moments, e.g., the tray of glasses smashed into the ice bin, the flyaway tin that resulted in a guest wearing a shakerful of cocktails, the strangers you introduced at your bar that ended up in a murder/suicide, your proud original creation that customers hated, etc. What’s a particularly egregious / entertaining one of yours?

ES: I had been working for about ten days straight and had just finished making six Ramos Gin Fizzes when on my seventh, the shaker slid from my hand and went into the lap of the person across from me at the bar and covered her in cream and egg. She was really nice about it (though I don't think she'll ever order another one), but I was pretty embarrassed.

MC: What spirit, wine or beer should more customers be trying, and what do you suggest to introduce a newbie to it?

ES: Armagnac, grappa, Cognac, anything made from grapes. A great introduction is Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac. I love it so much I actually have a habit of signing the back of every bottle I see.

MC: What’s the best day of the week and time of day for a customer to engage you in a leisurely, educational five-minute conversation about drinks?

ES: I am always down to talk about booze and making drinks, but because of how busy we get, I tend to ask people to come in early on Tuesday, Wednesdays or Thursdays (and by early, I mean when we open at 4pm).

MC: You may have seen this article on the in-house lingo of certain NYC bars. What’s one of your house’s code words/phrases for intra-staff communication in front of customers? 

ES: My favorite one is "In the pool", as in someone who is only getting water or is too drunk to have drinks.

MC: What’s your typical end-of-shift drink?

ES: Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac in a glass.

MC: What’s a great book / film / record / play / TV show you’ve consumed recently and recommend?

ES: House of Cards for a show, but I have been reading this amazing book called What the Nose Knows by Avery Gilbert and it has been blowing my mind.

MC: Do you have a guilty-pleasure drink, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want your peers or customers to catch you drinking?

ES: Apricot Sour: 2 ounces of Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot liqueur, half an ounce of simple, and half an ounce of lemon. It is so good, so sweet, and so wrong.

MC: What’s the last astonishing restaurant meal you had other than at your place?

ES: I recently went to Fairsted Kitchen and was blown away by what they are doing over there!

MC: Dr. Bartender, what’s the best cure for my hangover?

ES: An Italian Greyhound cocktail and pho. Recently after an incredible night of birthday drinking, I had to come in at noon hungover to cut some ice. The salt rim of the Italian Greyhound and the soup were the only things that got me through it.

MC: Most interesting current trend in cocktails, wine or beer?

ES: Loire Valley reds seem to be popping up all over the place. Love it!

MC: Most ridiculous / overhyped / bullshit trend?

ES: Drinking orange bitters.

MC: As a bar customer yourself, what’s one aspect of Boston’s bars that you wish more operators would do a better job of? 

ES: Good sound. So many places have shitty sound systems or sound proofing.

MC: What Greater Boston bar is absolutely killing it right now? Of all their qualities, what’s the single standout attribute that makes you want to drink there?

ES: Sarma. Amazing food, wine and cocktails. I love what these guys are doing, just wish I lived a little closer to them.

MC: What are the top destinations on your Bars of the World Bucket List?

ES: Happiness Forgets (London), Artisan (London), Callooh Callay (London), William and Graham (Denver), Honeycut (LA), Experimental Cocktail Club (Paris), The Black Pearl (Australia), Alembic (San Fran), Rick House (San Fran), Trick Dog (San Fran), Anvil (Houston).

MC: What’s the most ridiculous thing a Yelper (or other amateur reviewer) has ever said about you or the place you work?

ES: "They have a line to get in. Why don't they just let more people in?"

MC: What bartender or bar manager, currently working or retired, is your first-ballot lock for entry into Boston’s Bartending Hall of Fame? 

ES: John Gertsen and Misty Kalkofen

MC: Offer a sentence or two of advice to aspiring bartenders.

ES: Work hard, read everything you can about what you do, forget what you read, find a person who will yell at you to forget, then look at the people on the other side of the bar and get to know them.

MC: Say a few words about your most influential bartending mentor. 

ES: I have had the privilege to work for some of the industry's most amazing people, and I am still blown away by Scott Marshall [formerly of Drink, now at 22 Square in Savannah, GA.] The things I learned from him are still echoing in my mind to this day.

MC: What’s the most surprisingly useful life skill that bartending has taught you?

ES: Learning to listen to other people.