The One Spirit You Couldn't Pay This Top Bartender to Drink
Spend a few minutes poking around Sam Ross’s Brooklyn apartment, and you’ll discover a number of clues casually attesting to his stature as the most admired bartender of his generation.
Near the front door he’s stowed his wallet, keys, and sunglasses not on a valet tray, but rather, on a Riedel crystal plate naming him Tales of the Cocktail’s 2011 “American Bartender of the Year.”
Farther in, on a coffee table, you’ll find a copy of Regarding Cocktails, the posthumously published book by Sasha Petraske, his former boss at the seminal Manhattan speakeasies Milk & Honey and Little Branch.
A few yellowed copies of the May 29, 2012, edition of the New York Times spill from the low shelf that harbours his collection. The food section announced that Ross (photographed wearing suspenders and a genial smirk) and business partner Michael McIlroy would transform the old Milk & Honey space into Attaboy, a subtle update they opened to acclaim a few months later.
In Ross’s kitchen, a stack of coasters sent by Esquire are strewn across the countertop. They promote the inclusion of the Attaboy team’s Diamond Reef, which opened in March, on the magazine’s “Best Bars in America in 2017” list.
And among the baseball memorabilia scattered around the apartment is a memento of something that happened in Vegas. Last month, while doing work at the Dorsey at the Venetian (where he wrote the cocktail menu) and preparing to open a couple of bars at the Palazzo, he threw out the first pitch at a home game of the Las Vegas 51s, the Triple-A affiliate of his beloved New York Mets. “I’d love to throw out the first pitch for the Mets at one point,” Ross says. “That’s one of my realistic life goals.”
Crazy as it may sound to a novice cocktailian, this may actually be attainable. It’s impossible to find another barkeep of Ross’s age, 34, whose influence is so great. Right now, somewhere in the world, at far-flung joints he’s never heard of, patrons are ordering such famous Ross inventions as the Penicillin (a sour that gets its smoke and sting from Scotch and honey-ginger syrup) and the Paper Plane. On the other side of the bar, bartenders dreaming of following in his footsteps discuss making sours according to “Sam Ross specs”—a ratio of 2 oz. booze, 0.75 oz. sweetener, and 0.75 oz. citrus juice.
Despite all the eminent keepsakes decorating Ross’s apartment, you’d need to study the home bar itself very closely to divine the importance of its proprietor. A few “dumb awards” are tucked away in a corner, behind a magnum of Moët bedazzled with the diminutive “Sammy.” The liquor collection itself is strictly edited, comprising a modest 50 bottles or so. “I’ve been wanting to put some shelving in for the last little while, but I haven’t actually gotten around to doing it,” he says. “Because of that, you’ve got to keep it pretty tight.”
He continues: “I’ve got things here that I drink regularly,” like a 17-year-old Hibiki Japanese whisky, a current favorite. “It’s got a lot of fruit and caramel but not too much oak.”
And then there are prolific oddities, “some weird things that I have.” He opens a bottle of what he calls “the most appalling thing you’ve ever tried in your life”—Amaro d’Udine, a liqueur that’s justifiably obscure in the U.S. Ross discovered it on a trip to Italy, bought the beautiful bottle out of curiosity, and was shocked to discover its undistinguished bitterness and thin, waste-product-like texture. “I think this label is absolutely gorgeous,” he says. “But you couldn’t pay me to drink a full glass of this stuff.”
On a similar, though moderately less grotesque theme, he pulls out a bottle of horika. “This is a Ukrainian chili vodka-type product that a friend brought back to me,” Ross says. “It’s got tremendous spice. But, again, it’s not the kind of thing where I’d say, ‘I’m really craving a glass of Nemiroff.’”
Much more palatable are bottles of Four Pillars gin, which hail from Ross’s homeland of Australia. “They’re a Victorian gin,” he says, referring to the Australian state. “This is all made around the Yarra Valley, which is famous for their pinot noir, which is delicious. … It’s got real potency, and it’s got nice minty notes.”
He recommends using Four Pillars’ navy-strength variation in a cocktail with a delightfully ominous name. “We do a drink called the Lifetime Ban”—equal parts Fino sherry, vermouth blanc, and overproof gin.
Ross recently wrapped up a temporary ban on drinking—an eight-month hiatus inspired by the need for peak performance during a spate of busyness that included launching Diamond Reef and the Dorsey while also tending to a new Attaboy outpost in Nashville. “My tolerance is still so low,” he laments.
Thus, if he were fixing a drink for himself this afternoon, he’d probably just make a simple variation on the low-alcohol Americano cocktail. But for the sake of his guests, he pulls a slab of ice from the freezer and goes to work with an ice pick, in advance of fixing up a Rob Roy variation.
A Little Sammy Nightcap
1 oz. Aberfeldy 16-year-old Scotch whisky
1 oz. Laphroaig 10-year-old Scotch whisky
1 oz. Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
0.25 oz. Amargo-Vallet bitter liqueur
Build in glass. Stir well with good ice. Finish with a lemon twist and serve.
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