Interview: Bartender Joaquín Simó (Pouring Ribbons)
225 Avenue B
New York, NY 10009
917 656 6788
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What does a cocktail have to be to go on the menu at Pouring Ribbons?
It has to be balanced, more than anything else. Objectively speaking, you can say if a drink is balanced or not. Whether you like it is subjective. So we try to create a drink that’s well balanced. It’s not overly tart or too dry or sickeningly sweet or incredibly boozy. We try to make a drink that is objectively really well balanced. From there, we try to be a little more accessible. Some drinks, we try to push people out of their comfort zone, so we have a pretty wide latitude for the styles of drinks that we do, but definitely, we’re not going to put a drink on there that’s unbalanced. From there, it’s up to individual palates as to whether or not that suits them.
What’s your top selling cocktail at Pouring Ribbons, and why do you think that’s the case?
The top selling I think is the Death and Taxes, which is Dorothy Parker gin, Clear Creek blue plum brandy, lavender infused blanc vermouth, lemon juice and a little bit of wildflower honey, and our house grapefruit bitters. It’s just a really lovely, accessible riff on a gin sour. You get a little bit of dry, haunting note of stonefruit at the end, you get a lot of high floral notes between the hibiscus and the elderberry that are a bit of the gin playing off of the lavender notes and the vermouth infusion. The wildflower honey brings its own musky floral notes to it. You have a lot of light, bright things in there. It’s a clean refreshing cocktail. It’s not too rich or too sweet, so it has that more-ish quality, where you take a sip and your mouth finishes – [licks lips] – and you’re ready to have another.
It’s funny when you mentioned Death and Taxes, that’s actually the name of a beer Moonlight makes, which is like a black beer out of Santa Rosa.
Cool. It was the name of a collection of poems that Dorothy Parker had published. That’s where I pulled the name. I figured if I was using that product, then have a little nod to the poet as well.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work behind the bar?
At Pouring Ribbons, we didn’t hire anybody to work behind the bar. We hired staff, and the notion was everyone was going to work all positions, so everyone was fully cross-trained. I didn’t want to have people who were dedicated cocktail servers, versus people that were dedicated bartenders. That was actually a great way of weeding out some of the egos that you find in the bar industry. If you tell someone, “How do you feel about working a shift a week on the floor?” And they say, “Oh no, I don’t carry trays…” If you tell someone that during the interview, and right off the bat, they say, “No, that’s not my job, I don’t do that,” right off the bat you know they’re not necessarily a team player. If you’re saying that during an interview when you’re supposed to be doing everything possible to impress me, and the first thing you’re saying is, “I don’t do that,” then odds are you’re not going to fit into the workplace culture that we’re looking to instill here. That actually made hiring a little bit easier. We’re looking for bright, passionate people who have big, engaging personalities, people that care about customer service, because you can’t teach that. You can teach someone how to jigger. You can teach someone to learn the history of a classic cocktail. You can teach all of those things, but you can’t teach someone to care about the guest. We really hired a lot based on that. We hired a lot of out of towners too: Portland, Minneapolis, Chicago, San Francisco, a lot of out of towners.
That’s a pretty good commitment, if they’re willing to move here to work for you.
It really was, and we were really honored by that level of commitment from them, and we’ve done our best to continue and try to do staff trainings and to make sure that we keep investing in our staff to make sure they want to continue to stay here and be loyal. I was at Death & Co. for five-and-a-half years, which is, as you know, a lifetime for a bartender in one place, and nothing would make me happier to look back five years from now and say, “Pouring Ribbons is still open and that person has been here since the beginning.” I would love to see that happen.
Death & Co. has developed a reputation for being a farm system for great bartenders.
It has been the launching pad for a lot of great people. It’s a great stage, and if you’re able to shine under those bright lights there – and I say bright lights purely figuratively because it is the darkest bar in the history of creation – but if you’re able to shine there, you’ve proven you have the capacity to create great drinks and hopefully created a convivial, welcoming atmosphere.
Is there such a thing as a night off for you?
Surprisingly, yes, and that goes back to having partners. Usually, either Troy or I are here during service, any night of the week. There are nights where I don’t have to be here, which is really lovely. My wife, for one, is extraordinarily grateful for that.
What would you like to be known for as a bartender?
I’d like to be known for offering a wide variety of experiences for the guest. I don’t ever want somebody to say, “Joaquín Simó, he’s the one to go to when you want the history of the Sazerac.” Or he’s the only guy to go to when you want this one thing. Hopefully what I want, and what I’ve worked on for years, is the ability to read a guest and understand that when you come in on a first date, you’re going to treat them a little differently than when they come in on a third date, and when they bring their boss in, it’s different than bringing their colleagues or underlings. When they bring their mom in, it’s different than bringing their college friends in, and how you treat a guest, and understanding implicitly that this is a different situation, and knowing there are times when they want you to take the lead, or when they want you to show off a bit or bump them up, or when they need you there often or not as much. Your ability to read and understand and intuit that, and give them whatever it is that they’re looking for in that experience means they will always feel comfortable going back to you no matter what it is, and if you can get somebody to come back to me when they want to learn, or when they don’t care to celebrate, or when they want to mourn, or when they’ve just had a blah day. Whatever it is, with a big group or small group, and they say, “I know where I want to go, because I always feel comfortable there,” hopefully that’s my bar.
If you could fill your glass with only one more liquid, a cocktail or spirit, what would be in there?
Only one? It would probably be a Sazerac made with a Pappy Van Winkle 13-year rye. That stuff has got to be distilled from unicorn tears. It’s just impeccable. It’s probably my favorite American distillate. That’s not a drink that I drink very quickly, so if it had to be the last thing, a Sazerac usually takes me a half-hour to 45 minutes to drink, so I’d probably want to milk it. A daiquiri, I’d probably take down too fast.
Who would you let make the Sazerac for you, if you couldn’t make it yourself?
Ago Perrone, cause no one is more stylish than ago, and if this was going to be my last drink, I’d want the show to be as good as the drink, and Ago would deliver that in spades.