15 November 2015

RIP, Ryan McGrale, Beloved Boston Bartender.

Photo courtesy of The Improper Bostonian
By now you’ve probably heard that Ryan McGrale, beverage director at Tavern Road, passed away suddenly, unexpectedly this weekend. The news left me stunned: I'd sat countless times at his bar at No. 9 Park (a late-afternoon weekend ritual for my wife and me for years), the Flatiron Lounge in Manhattan, and finally at Tavern Road. I cannot add much that has not already been said in the recent online outpouring of shock, grief and celebratory remembrances of this extraordinarily talented bartender, genuinely caring hospitality pro, and uncommonly vivid force of nature.

But I did get to feature him in my April 2014 cover story for The Improper Bostonian on Boston bartenders, entitled "Pouring Reign". (I so love his front-and-center badassery in Adam DeTour’s awesome cover photo, right.) In this piece, I talked with a dozen local pros I admire: six promising newcomers, and six talented veterans whom I felt didn’t get the press attention they deserved, in which latter company I firmly placed McGrale. I had to edit the interviews heavily for length, which left too many colorful, telling reflections from my subjects on the cutting room floor. One small thing I can do in Ryan’s memory is present his unexpurgated comments here.

Thanks, Ryan. You left a huge mark on a legion of patrons and industry colleagues. I will never forget your incredible energy, riotous good humor, fantastic cocktails, and above all, your dedication to making your customers feel loved and well cared for. RIP.


MC Slim JB: Measure or free-pour?
Ryan McGrale: Mostly measure, but free-pour occasionally.

MC: Drink that you wish more customers would order?
RM: I wish more customers would order gin cocktails (e.g., "Gin doesn't agree with me!")

MC: Drink you wish customers would forget existed?
RM: Wish customers forgot about a Margarita WITH SALT.

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, etc.? (Could be a work piece or something on your home bar.)
RM: First-edition “Bon Vivant’s Companion” by Jerry Thomas.

MC: Most annoying customer behavior?
RM: Yelling drink orders at the bartenders while we are either making drinks, taking another drink order, or interacting with another guest.

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?
RM: My last bar shift in NYC. The bar was getting slammed around 10 pm. In NYC, that's early. This bar also does some of the most cocktail volume in the country. So things were getting pretty stressful. I had a guy from Jersey waving his credit card and cash at the opposite end of the bar. My nearest bartender was just getting stomped on with no end in sight. I looked down to check on her and locked eyes with this guy waving his credit card and cash in the air. I said, "We'll be with you in a minute." He continued to wave and be animated, insisting someone come up to him and take his order despite us politely saying we’d get to him in a moment. He thought we were ignoring him and started *snapping his fingers* to get anyone’s attention. I hate when anyone does that. So I figured I’d go out in a little blaze of glory for all the rough nights the Jerseyites had given me over the years, especially as a Bostonian. So I got down on all fours, walked down the bar, jumped onto the bar in front of the guy, crouched down, put my hands on his left and right cheek, and licked the left side of his face. The crowd was now seeing what was happening. I said, "We are here to serve you as best we can. We are people, not dogs. Don't you ever dare snap at anyone who serves you!” loud enough for people around him to hear. I hopped off the bar and took his order. The crowd started cheering like crazy! He smiled and said "You’re right, I’m sorry, never again in this or any bar!" Then he and I had a shot together and the night continued as it started.

MC: Spirit (or wine varietal/region or beer style) that more customers should be trying, and your favorite cocktail or bottling to introduce a newbie to it?
RM: Sherry. "Perfect Bamboo" cocktail: Amontillado Sherry, sweet and dry vermouth, Angostura and orange bitters.

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?
RM: Any day at start of service except Fridays and Saturdays.

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? 
RM: I worked at Clover Club when it opened, then went to sister bar Flatiron Lounge after. I still use NYC lingo at my bar now. I use "Staff meeting" and "Point." Lately we use the phrase "Bar tool!" Imagine what I’m referring to.

MC: What’s your typical end-of-shift drink?
RM: Usually a cold beer accompanied by an amaro (but not Fernet-Branca.)

MC: What’s a great book / film / record / play / TV show you’ve consumed recently and recommend?
RM: Been catching up on film, especially after the Oscars. I really liked "Gravity", saw it in IMAX, very gripping and suspenseful. I strongly suggest it.

MC: Do you have a guilty-pleasure drink, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want your peers or customers to catch you drinking?
RM: I'm an open book. Not ashamed about letting people know what I drink, especially when they think we drink cocktails or craft beer every chance we get. I do enjoy a NASCAR Spritz: Bud Lite Lime with a shot of Aperol in it and a lemon twist.

MC: What’s the last astonishing restaurant meal you had other than at your place?
RM: Erbaluce! By far one of my favorites, if not the favorite restaurant in Boston. Classic rustic Italian, amazing homemade pasta, awesome wine list and stories for days from owners Chuck and Joan!

MC: What are a couple of dives you favor on your own time?
RM: I love a good dive bar. Delux was one of my favorites until it closed recently. [N.B.: it has since reopened under new ownership.] I love Anchovies in South End and The Field in Central Square.

MC: Dr. Bartender, what’s the best cure for my hangover?
RM: Either Gatorade or a shot of whatever your last drink was the night before. If you were drinking beer all night and still got drunk, sadly, a good shot of whiskey with a hit of bitters.

MC: Most interesting current trend in cocktails (or beer or wine)?
RM: Mists and foams.

MC: Most ridiculous / overhyped / bullshit trend?
RM: National and local cocktail competitions (except for the Cocktail Wars and World Class competitions.)

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? 
RM: Teaching humility.

MC: What Greater Boston bar (besides your own) is absolutely killing it right now? Of all their qualities, what’s the single standout attribute that makes you want to drink there?
RM: Blue Dragon. Somehow flying off the radar, though they have an amazing program of sprits, cocktails and beer, and a great meal at the bar to top it off. They are always busy and ready to show you a good time atop their knowledge and friendly service.

MC: What are the top two or three (or four or five) destinations on your Bars of the World Bucket List?
RM: Harry's New York Bar (Paris), The Aviary (Chicago), Tiki Ti (LA), Bar High Five (Tokyo), The Merchant Hotel (Belfast).

MC: What’s the most ridiculous thing a Yelper (or other amateur reviewer) has ever said about you or the place you work?
RM: I'm a very energetic and excited person, especially when I’m in the zone behind a bar: more than most, I can say. A Yelper once said that I had to be on drugs to like my job this much: literally on drugs. She was seriously saying that I was under the influence.

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

MC: Offer a sentence or two of advice to aspiring bartenders.
RM: It’s not about the drink. It’s about the WHOLE experience you provide them. Also: having respect and humility will lengthen your bartending career.

Photo courtesy of The Improper Bostonian
MC: Say a few words about your most influential bartending mentors.
RM: I have many mentors that have gotten me to today. It’s a tie between two. My first was Tom Mastricola: the reason there are fresh-juice programs in Boston pre-cocktail culture and the classic cocktail movement of the early 2000s. The second was when I worked in NYC: Julie Reiner. She helped take my game to another level that I couldn't have gotten to if I’d stayed in Boston. Living legend. One of the reasons we do what we do today behind cocktail bars. Overall badass! xoxo

MC: What’s the most surprisingly useful life skill that bartending has taught you?
RM: Again, humility!

MC: What question do you think I should have asked? Answer it. 
RM: I would have asked "Greatest Bartending Moment? Was it career-defining? Guest you took care of? Personally life-changing? Wake-up call?" Answer: Introduced two strangers to each other at a bar I worked at: two single people and I was talking to each of them then decided to have us all in one conversation because we were all talking about similar topics that they seemed to have some things in common and needed a companion that evening. They later started dating and then married. Six years later they had their first child, and his middle name is Ryan.