From Behind the Bar: Desert Island Drinks

From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.

About the Author: You may have seen Michael Neff behind the bar at New York's Ward III and The Rum House. He stops by on Wednesdays to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman.


[Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

What I'm Drinking: Racer 5 IPA (bottled) Suntory Single Grain Whisky "Chita" (from a flask)

My parents were never big drinkers. With a grandfather who lived and (eventually) died in Alcoholics Anonymous, my early exposure to alcohol was a truckload of invective and a surreptitious taste of an abandoned Coors Light that turned me off of beer for the next fifteen years. Remember the guy who never drank at parties in high school? That was me.

My conversion happened in 1991 at a house party my roommates and I threw in Massachusetts. For some odd reason, I was asked to make a punch.

I had no relationship with punch, or any other form of cocktail for that matter, and had no idea how to proceed with its creation. As this was before the internet-age, I went to the library to do some research. After several hours, I stumbled upon a recipe that seemed to fit the bill.

It was highly spiritous, easy to assemble, and enthusiastically greeted by the more worldly co-planners of our soiree. Four white spirits, lemon juice, sugar, and Coca-Cola. I was twenty years old, and the first cocktail I ever made was a bowl full of Long Island Iced Tea.

That punch was delicious. Both sweet and sour, it delivered a full-body buzz after two sips. As an added bonus, I got all of the credit. The more people drank, the more they thanked me for the concoction, and I kept the spirits flowing well in to the night. While this was not the moment I decided to be a career bartender, I do look back and think that it was the first time I've ever experienced what it's like to be the guy who brings booze to the party.

The early 90s were a horrible time for cocktails. It was the tail-end of the Dark Ages, which began with Prohibition and lasted well-past the eighties. We drank "cocktails" called Sloe Comfortable Screw, and Hop, Skip, and Go Naked. Old Fashioneds were for old fogies, and men like Dale Degroff and Michael Waterhouse were just beginning to make noises that indicated a cocktail revolution was on the horizon.

Meanwhile, I continued to drink poorly. On my twenty-first birthday, I ordered a Sex on the Beach, and I didn't start drinking beer until I realized how much cheaper it was than the cocktails I was consuming.

A move to Seattle changed my palate and my life; micro-brews were taking off, and my taste changed from Michelob to hefeweizen to pale ale, a progression from bland to sweet to out-of-this-world. Cocktails soon followed. I remember tasting my first Manhattan and thinking, "I am finally an adult." That smooth, sweet cocktail led me to Irish Whiskey. Until recently, I've stayed there ever since.

Irish whiskey is triple-distilled, and aged in predominantly used barrels. It is complex in an easy sort of way. I've always described Jameson as the girl next-door, and Power's as her slutty sister. On a trip to Europe, I discovered Paddy's, and was so blown away by it that I asked any friend going through Duty Free to bring me as many bottles as they could carry.

Above all of these, Red Breast was my dram. The last of the pure pot-still Irish Whiskies, it speaks caramel, honey, pepper, and springtime, and convinced me from the first sip to the last drop. For years, this was my "desert island" whiskey, the one that I would drink if I could only choose one for the rest of eternity.

This is a sad day for me, because I have to admit that I have once again moved on. I have been a lover and staunch advocate for Irish Whiskey from shots of Jameson to the glasses of Midleton Rare. But having sampled a lot more bourbon over the last few years, my palate has changed. Side by side, bourbon trumps Irish in boldness of character. The more you drink, the more you discover. Most Irish whiskies taste pale and thin by comparison. While I will always love my Red Breast, I think my desert island whiskey has changed to bourbon. I still have a place on my bar for the Irish. Just don't make me drink them side by side.

What's your desert island drink?