Tributes continue to pour in for bar legend Sasha Petraske, who died last Friday at his home in Hudson, New York. He was 42.
Sasha and Milk & Honey, the bar he opened in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1999, are widely acknowledged as revolutionising the cocktail landscape, first in New York and then across the globe.
Milk & Honey’s secret entrance and house rules paved the way for hundreds of speakeasy-style bars, its cocktails introduced a new generation of drinkers (and bartenders) to pre-Prohibition drinks and Sasha’s meticulous attention to detail made bartending again a respected pursuit, elevating it far beyond a job you did to pay your way through college.
News of his death circulated quickly among the global drinks community, prompting an outpouring of personal stories and tributes.
In the US, Jacob Briars, global advocacy director for Bacardi, spoke for many when he said, “Sasha Petraske managed, almost singlehandedly it sometimes seemed, to change cocktail culture in NYC, and around the world.
“It would be no exaggeration to say that Milk and Honey was probably the most important bar of the last 15 years, and Sasha the most important, and reluctant, figure in the 21st century cocktail boom we still enjoy today.”
In the UK, Jake Burger, owner of the Portobello Star and Jake’s Bar, echoed those words, saying, “Very few people, if indeed anyone, could claim to have had a greater influence on the modern cocktail landscape than Sasha Petraske.”
Jonathan Downey, who opened Milk & Honey’s London venue with Sasha, tweeted: “He changed the way we drink and the way we behaved in bars.”
Here in Australia, his influence is just as keenly felt, not least because he spent time in Melbourne setting up The Everleigh with former Milk & Honey bartender Michael Madrusan.
Nathan Debritt recalls Sasha would visit the Kodiak Club regularly during that period. “Back then Lucien Sankey, Clinton Hor, Fred Siggins and I were insecure but impetuous. And the fact that Sasha from New York liked our bar, gave us confidence, it made us a little more proud of what we did and who we are.”
The Everleigh was one of a string of highly-regarded bars Sasha helped create after making his name with Milk & Honey. A second Milk & Honey opened in Soho, London, in 2002; East Side Company Bar and Little Branch launched in New York in 2005; The Varnish opened in Los Angeles in 2009; and Dutch Kills opened its doors in Long Island the same year. Attaboy replaced Milk & Honey on the Eldridge Street site in 2013 while Milk & Honey moved to larger premises uptown in the Flatiron District. It closed the following year when the landlord invoked a demolition clause in the lease but there were plans to find a new site for the bar.
But for all the brilliance of Sasha’s subsequent projects, nothing could eclipse the excitement and theatre of the original Milk & Honey. The adventure began long before you’d even arrived, with a secret phone number required to make a reservation; then there was finding the place, which was marked with a small tailor’s sign outside; and there was Sasha himself, immaculately dressed in white shirt and braces, looking like he might once have served Al Capone.
Pushing through Milk & Honey’s velvet drapes into the bar was like walking back in time. Seated at a tiny table, the sense of anticipation was palpable. There was no cocktail menu; you ordered a classic or the bartender offered a recommendation. Juices were all freshly squeezed, the ice was exquisite, there were chilled metal straws that cost $5 a pop. Back then, American cocktail culture was characterised by sour mixes, sweet apple martinis and frozen margaritas dispensed from machines, but that small bar in the Lower East Side made cocktails elegant and sophisticated once more.
Sasha himself was a reluctant poster boy for this new golden era of cocktails, shunning the limelight and retaining an extraordinary humility, long after his influence had been felt right across the globe. In an interview with CLASS magazine, he once said, “Cocktails are not worth intellectualising, they are just something to be experienced. A cocktail is a simple thing – what matters is if you make it right.”
Anyone who met him, however, couldn’t help but be impressed by his manner. He lived and breathed his philosophy; there was no pretentiousness about him, no bullshit; his work ethic, his passion for perfectly made cocktails, his love of vintage clothing – it was no façade, it was at the very core of his being.
This week, Gaz Regan posted a long quote from Sasha on the subject of humility, part of which we’ve republished here:
“No amount of skill or knowledge will replace character. Bartending is a service position, you’re here to serve people. You put your ego aside for eight hours, and make other people’s interests more important than yours, and it is a wonderful thing, it’s a freeing thing. I find it far more interesting than distilling whiskey. Bartending is simpler and easier than other things, but it is more rewarding. It’s what I want to do.”
Sasha Petraske (1973-2015)
These are the house rules Sasha put in place when he first opened Milk & Honey in 1999. These rules still apply to Milk & Honey London.
- No name-dropping, no star fucking.
- No hooting, hollering, shouting or other loud behaviour.
- No fighting, play fighting, no talking about fighting.
- Gentlemen will remove their hats. Hooks are provided.
- Gentlemen will not introduce themselves to ladies. Ladies, feel free to start a conversation or ask the bartender to introduce you. If a man you don’t know speaks to you, please lift your chin slightly and ignore him.
- Do not linger outside the front door.
- Do not bring anyone unless you would leave that person alone in your home. You are responsible for the behaviour of your guests.
- Exit the bar briskly and silently. People are trying to sleep across the street. Please make all your travel plans and say all farewells before leaving the bar.
More tributes to Sasha
“Such a sad day for everyone connected with Sasha and the industry. We’ve lost one of our brightest stars.” Jack McGarry, The Dead Rabbit
“Sasha was the consummate host, bartender and warm human being whose passion for the craft was both infectious and mind boggling.” Manuel Terron, the Keystone Group
“RIP Sasha. You gave so, so much more than you received.” Philip Duff, Liquid Solutions
“His impact on what we all do will be felt beyond our lifetimes.” Adam Elmegirab, Dr Adam Elmegirab’s Bitters
“Go well Sir, we shall not know your likes again.” Jake Burger, Portobello Star