TJ Siegal, Milk & Honey, 2001
2 oz Bourbon
3/4 oz Lemon
3/4 oz Honey Syrup
Add all ingredients to shaker, fill with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into glass over ice.
To make honey syrup, mix three parts honey to one part hot water, and stir thoroughly.
At age 11, I told my Dad in complete sincerity that when I turned 16 and was old enough to drive, I wanted my first car to be a Model A Convertible.
How my fascination with the 1920s took root I do not remember, but unlike most childhood obsessions, it was far from a passing phase. In high school, while my friends were listening to Coolio and Oasis, I was playing Louis Armstrong on repeat, and could practically quote Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway word for word. When I finally travelled to New York at 15 on an organized class trip, I made a point one afternoon to sneak away from the pack so I could step inside the Algonquin Hotel, the gathering place of Dorothy Parker's famed round table.
To me, the Jazz Age seemed more colorful than the 90s in practically every way. I envied that era's clothes, music and witty personalities, but more than anything, I lamented the fact I'd never gain entry to its most secret and fascinating underworld, the speakeasy.
Therefore, years later, when I got wind of a bar on a desolate Chinatown street whose interior was concealed by a tailor's storefront, and where one needed a reservation through a secret, unlisted number to gain admittance, I knew I had to find a way in.
That bar was, of course, the original Milk & Honey- a place that has since become something of a legend, and was arguably the business most responsible for ushering in today's new era of cocktail making.
A small, tin ceilinged room, lit entirely by candles, the place seated a mere twenty two, and eluded would be scene makers for years. Opened by a young barman named Sasha Petraske, who has since created a mini empire of discreet cocktail dens, visitors would find a list of rules posted in the bathroom that read as follows:
1. No name-dropping, no star fucking.
2. No hooting, hollering, shouting or other loud behaviour.
3. No fighting, play fighting, no talking about fighting.
4. Gentlemen will remove their hats. Hooks are provided.
5. 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.
6. Do not linger outside the front door.
7. Do not bring anyone unless you would leave that person alone in your home. You are responsible for the behaviour of your guests.
8. 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.
Once, Quentin Tarantino was famously kicked out and banned for causing a ruckus, but despite the protocol and hype surrounding its seeming exclusivity, Milk & Honey proved to be surprisingly unpretentious. In fact, while its format has since been imitated with varying degrees of success, and the speakeasy revival has nearly reached the point of ubiquity, Petraske argues that most, if not all of his policies, were born out of accident and necessity.
Dreaming of opening a bar before turning 30, Petraske has spoken at length about answering an ad in the Village Voice in 1999 for a cheap commercial space on the Lower East Side. "The residents wouldn't have considered renting out to a bar," he related to the Times in a 2012 interview. "I promised them that no one would ever know there was a bar there. Hence, the hidden entrance. People thought it was guerilla marketing."
As his small spot's popularity quickly began to grow, the reservation policy was instituted in order to keep a line from forming outside, and he confesses that a menu was never made as he had no experience with laser printing.
However, without an exceptional product, this illogical premise would have never worked, or seemed gimmicky at best. Thankfully, the cocktails churned out by Petraske's dream team of bartenders provided an enduring, magical formula. Indeed, at a time when the appletini was at its most popular, the fresh juices, ice rocks, metal straws, and details poured into Milk & Honey's libations seemed downright revolutionary.
One of the many drinks created behind its hidden door was the Gold Rush. A simple shaken blend of bourbon, lemon, and honey syrup, it was conceived by employee TJ Siegal in 2001, and has since gone on to become something of a modern classic.
I had the privilege of sampling the concoction on my first visit, a brisk evening in March of 2004. While I could go on at length about the victory dance my friend Sam and I performed upon successfully obtaining the number, or joy at settling into a wooden booth as Bessie Smith's Downhearted Blues played in the background, that straightforward cocktail might be the most important aspect of my memory.
Recommended by our Russian accented waiter, it went down easily, and was beautifully soothing on that late, chilly evening. Embarrassing as it is to admit, as a recent college grad, it also may have been the first whiskey drink I'd consumed that didn't involve ginger ale or coca cola.
Much in the world has changed in the ten years since I first sipped that beverage. The Gold Rush is now widely recognized and beautifully prepared in some of the country's finest saloons, but sadly Milk & Honey is soon to become homeless. Less than two years ago, Petraske shifted his operation uptown to larger digs on 23rd Street, dropped the strict and secretive reservation policy, and even included a small sign outside. In fairness, despite my nostalgia for the old location and what it represented to me personally, it seemed an understandable evolution. Yet, when signing the new space's 10 year lease, Petraske agreed to what seemed an unlikely demolition clause- that the building could be razed if purchased. Unfortunately, following his land lord's unexpected 2013 sale, that is exactly what is coming to fruition, and the premises must be vacated by the 25th of this month.
Nevertheless, Petraske remains resolute, and in fact believes the next phase in his bar's life will look much like the first. "We hope to move the venue back to its original size, somewhere downtown, hopefully in February," he said on the record a few weeks ago.
Regardless of where Milk & Honey's operations shift, though, its legacy and impact are certain to live on.
So, as the October temperatures continue to slide, and Milk & Honey's present incarnation winds down, I'm proud to raise a Gold Rush in celebration of that little bar's influence- both personal and universal.
NOTE: Although The Gold Rush is incredibly simple to make, any lower quality ingredients will become immediately evident upon drinking. In order to maintain proper balance, make certain the bourbon used is of a good brand that mixes well (I've found that Elijah Craig and Four Roses ably suit this purpose), and that the honey is a decent quality that has been diluted as a syrup. Honey by itself is too thick to mix properly.