From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.

Get to Know Us: Michael Neff, From Behind the Bar Columnist

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[Photographs: Nicci Silva]

We met our Behind the Bar columnist, well, when he was behind the bar—SENY editor Carey Jones was on assignment for New York Magazine, reviewing Ward III when it first opened. Carey found her way back there often enough to become a regular, and soon the rest of us followed. Now Michael is an important member of the Drinks team, sharing his insights on bartending and the cocktail world each week, so we decided to give him a little Q&A treatment so y'all can get to know him a little better.

Got more questions for Michael? Leave them in the comments, and if you're nice, he'll answer.

Name: Michael J. Neff
Location: New York, NY
Occupation: Bartender/Proprietor at Ward III and The Rum House
Website: ward3tribeca.com and edisonrumhouse.com
Twitter: @coyotesallover

Where/when was your first bartending gig?
My first gig was in 1995 at a bizarre and beautiful restaurant/bar called ENTROS in Seattle, Washington. I was working as a shipping clerk for Williams-Sonoma at the time, had no money (though a lot of nice cookware), and read an article in the Seattle Times featuring bartenders around the city. The article spoke to my love of staying up late and my need for a new path in life, and I decided that that's what I was going to do. The fact that I had never stepped foot behind a bar and never worked one day in a restaurant didn't register as a big impediment to me.

I spent a week sitting at a bar in Pike Place Market, and the bartender showed me as much as he could (This is a maraschino cherry. This is a bar spoon.) I also studied "The Harvard Guide to Bartending," which had great chapters on how, physically, one goes about tending bar. Armed with this knowledge, I ginned myself up a resume, was hired for the Saturday night shift, and had to fake the rest from there. I used to memorize cocktails as I was walking to work, starting with Alabama Slammer and ending with Zombie.

How did you learn to make drinks?
It was a combination of things. In 1990s Seattle, restaurants were all about fresh food, local beer, and overall quality, which means the first cocktails I learned to make were with freshly-squeezed citrus juices. While we were making what are now considered to be gateway cocktails (Kamikazes, Cosmopolitans, Mojitos and Lemon Drops), they were delicious gateway cocktails. The head bartender, a guy named Kris Thirasawat, could see full-well that I had no experience, but was kind enough to keep it to himself, and trained me pretty vigorously.

In this business, where you start is often where you continue. If I had started in clubs, I probably would still be in clubs now. Since I knew my way around a cocktail, I tended to know people who worked in those kinds of bars, and knowing people is the quickest path to getting a gig. Also, because I started out making a certain level of cocktail, I refused to do anything less. This was when people were making margaritas with Rose's Lime Juice, which was the first thing I threw away. That got me in trouble, but it also got me jobs; I brought "cocktail programs" (a term I despise) to places that didn't have them before, and made more money for those places as a result.

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What are your guilty pleasures? Video games and bad fantasy novels.

Describe your perfect meal.
I'm a firm believer in Steve Jobs' concept that people don't know what they want until you show them. When asked about my perfect meal, I'll say "Chicken and Dumplings with a side of steamed broccoli." That said, I am presented with amazing meals on a regular basis, and I rely on the people that make them to show me what it is that I want.

What food won't you eat?
Macaroni and cheese. I also have an emotional aversion to things like head cheese.

What drink won't you drink?
Anything from Coors. Presented with a choice between a Silver Bullet or nothing, I'll take nothing.

What would you like to try but haven't yet?
Usually if I want to try something, I go do it. We'll see what comes up next.

Favorite food or drink person?
Danny Meyer. He's one of the few mentors that I wish I could have.

What do your family and friends think of your food and drink obsessions?
My family relies on them, as my drink obsessions are my career. My wife is right there with me, in either case. Most of my friends are more obsessed than I am, so I get a lot of support there as well.

Favorite drink sites or blogs?
I like the work here on Serious Eats: Drinks a lot (not counting my own!) Gary Regan's work on ArdentSpirits (and his newsletter) is essential. Chuck Cowdery's blog about whiskey is a staple as well.

Everyone has a go-to person they call for restaurant and bar recommendations. Who's yours?
My friend and co-proprietor of Ward III, Kenneth McCoy. He grew up in New York bars, and has a freakish memory for joints past and present. I'll call him and say, "Kenny, I'm on 2nd Ave. and 18th St. Where can I get a bite to eat?" and he gives me a list every time.

And what's the best recommendation he's ever given you?
There have been so many for so long....Probably Old Town Bar.

What is your favorite meal of the day and where do you get it?
Late-night dinner, which I'll get anywhere I can. Lately, I've eaten at Mother's Ruin a bit, and the food has been great.

Do you ever cook? What's the best dish you make?
I try to cook, but my wife is so much better at it than I am, that she usually kicks me out of the kitchen. I have elevated the burrito to an art form, though.

Do you make drinks at home? What's your go-to cocktail at home?
Occasionally. For a bartender and bar-owner, I have surprisingly little booze in my house. I'll usually make a Manhattan. Sometimes an Old Fashioned.

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