After serving patrons a different kind of buzz during his first service industry gig as a barista, Gil Bouhana moved behind the bar to open restaurants with B.R. Guest. It was during this time that he met Director of Cocktail Development Eben Klemm, who introduced Bouhana to the craft cocktail scene and its personalities. “It was a side of bartending that was unknown to me,” Bouhana recalls. Soon enough, he was slinging drinks at Times Square institution The Lambs Club. Under the tutelage of Sasha Petraske, one of the city’s modern cocktail movement pioneers, Bouhana discovered the subculture of New York’s high caliber drinking scene and the folks spearheading it — and he wanted in. “The utmost integrity, super high attention to detail and more than a fair share of creative expression — is what I got a dose of everyday.” Most recently, Bouhana has been overseeing the cocktail development at Midtown East’s Atwood Kitchen & Bar Room, where modern notions revive classics, including the brandy-based Bolivian Airmail and the Guapo Sour, with tequila, egg white, and cayenne pepper. Here, the Queens native shares his penchant for subtle sugar, the drinking city he’s itching to get to, and why he doesn’t pour and tell.
BoozeMenus: What was top of mind when creating the drink list at Atwood?
Gil Bouhana: When I met with the partners of Atwood Kitchen & Bar Room, Evan and Dan, we wanted to come up with cool drinks that aren’t found everywhere, but at the same time, that make sense. Accessibility was always a key component of our approach to the menu, and the level of service we wanted to execute.
BM: What drink on the menu has your name written all over it in terms of style?
GB: The Sutter’s Mill. I like whiskey, and those that know me, know I have a penchant for drinks with a “little" sugar in them. The Sutter’s is almost a whiskey sour; with honey and a pineapple chunk, minus the egg white, served with grated cinnamon. It’s a riff of the modern classic Gold Rush from the old Milk and Honey on Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side. I believe T.J. Siegal is the one who created it. It’s a drink we featured at The Lamb’s Club in Midtown, where I first met Sasha and was introduced to my bar family. It was something everyone enjoyed — classic enough to have bourbon and sour, yet the honey and pineapple made it different without being too far off.
BM: Which cocktail proved the most challenging to perfect for this menu?
GB: The Smoky Mountain. I wanted to make a good, boozy whiskey drink, but with a touch of flair — something that would go beyond the drink, hence the use of sage to smoke the glass. Even once the drink is poured into the glass, the smoke still lingers, leaving traces of mist. I was hesitant as to how the drink and smoke would interact; thankfully it came out just right.
BM: What continues to surprise you most about this industry?
GB: The constant innovation, authenticity and hard work that goes into play every day, shift and season of the year. And what I love most is that the hard work and innovation is being recognized — at the bar and beyond. I just recently came across an article by Michelle Greenwald, who teaches marketing at NYU and Columbia, about innovation and what today’s top bartenders across America are doing that could be applied to all businesses, both big and small. To be honest, it was refreshing to hear.
BM: What have you noticed about the drinking tastes in Midtown East versus further downtown? You also used to work at Milk & Honey — what about speakeasy versus restaurant?
GB: It’s evolving. As newer bars and restaurants move further up north, so have the tastes, albeit at a more moderate pace. What’s cool about making and serving drinks at a restaurant are the options. It doesn’t always have to be about cocktails or just wine; there’s greater access to multiple drinking options that are socially acceptable. Also, it’s quite handy to sit in one place and have awesome food and drinks all together.
BM: Which season is your favorite when it comes to bartending or drinks creation?
GB: Spring and fall are always go-to times of the year — the weather starts to change, and you can feel the buzz of people going back to work and excited to be in the city. I love spring for creating cocktails and trying new ingredients and recipes, but when it comes to tending bar, I love the fall. Something about the longer nights and colder weather makes it easy to sit down at a stool and enjoy a stiff drink.
BM: When you're traveling, what are you drinking on the plane?
GB: Bloody mary mix. I love that it’s savory and spicy. It’s almost a meal unto itself. Other than that, orange juice — always need the vitamins.
BM: Where's someplace you'd love to travel for an authentic drinking experience? What would the drink be?
GB: As I’m sure almost every cocktail bartender would attest to, Havana, Cuba is the place to go. It still has its older days charm and hasn’t changed much in the past decades. I would drink daiquiris, mojitos, and anything with rum and ice. My next choice would be Scotland. I would travel from countryside to countryside to all the different distilleries to drink whisky, and finish it all with a pint of cold beer. Mixing excellent libations with a beautiful countryside as a backdrop has never done me wrong.
BM: Describe one of the most memorable conversations you've had when bartending.
GB: I generally don’t remember conversations I have when bartending. Something about the bartender/patron confidentiality really kicked in early on in my career. And I’m happy that it’s stuck through because I’ve heard some gnarly things.
BM: When's the last time you experienced a rewarding moment in this industry?
GB: Every time I serve a drink.
BM: Any spirits you’re especially into right now?
GB: Plenty. I’ve recently gotten to know a whiskey from Charleston, South Carolina, called Virgil Kaine. They have three expressions: a ginger macerated bourbon — which is very non-traditional to say the least — a classic hot-dry bourbon, and their rye whiskey, which I personally enjoy very much. They have a great team and a really good grasp as to what they have to offer and who they are. Plus, Charleston is quite the city.
By Nicole Schnitzler
(Photos From Left: Sutter's Mill by Oleg March ; Gil Bouhana by Shaun Vakil; Guapo Sour by Shaun Vakil)