When Faun bartender Billy Nichols moved to NYC, he knew he would soon find himself in the city’s bustling food and drink scene. “Most of my NYC friends were working in bars and restaurants, so it was just a matter of time before I ended up in hospitality,” says Nichols, who landed his first service gig as a back waiter at Vinegar Hill House. Soon enough, he was slinging drinks at the Brooklyn restaurant before he worked his way up to head bartender. Most recently you can sample his work behind the bar at Faun, the Italian eatery that opened doors in Prospect Heights this August. Here, the Virginia native shares with us the makings of a perfect cocktail, the spirit category he could chat about for days, and the two cities that make his cut for dream drinking destination.
BoozeMenus: What are the components of a great cocktail, in your opinion?
Billy Nichols: A great cocktail is a balance between booze, bitter, sweet and sour. I love it when a drink has all four components that work to complement each other.
BM: Who’s been a role model for you in this industry, and what have you learned from them?
BN: I've worked with a lot of great people, but Bill Fitch has always stood out as a role model. Bill was the wine director at Vinegar Hill House when I was working there, and I have the pleasure of working with him again at Faun. Not only is he incredibly informative when talking about wine, but he can talk about almost any topic. He cares about his product and takes pride in sharing his knowledge with the guests and staff.
BM: Which cocktail on the menu now was the most fun for you to create?
BN: The Known Unknown was fun to create. I knew from the beginning I wanted a split base of gin and mezcal, but it took some experimenting to reach the final product. I ended up using two amari to balance the drink: Amaro Meletti and Contratto Fernet. Meletti has a rich sweetness that smooths out the herbal bitterness of the fernet.
BM: What spirit do you get most excited about turning your guests on to?
BN: I love it when a guest is interested in our digestifs. At Faun, we have limited space for bottles, so I have to be selective about what goes on the shelf. The digestifs were my category in which to have some fun and offer a selection. The different flavor profiles offer a chance to have a conversation with guests and bring them something that you have picked out just for them.
BM: What’s your approach behind the bar?
BN: I think a bartender should be able to talk in-depth about the product while being relatable and friendly. I've seen bartenders who put on a holier-than-thou vibe and completely lose their customer. Bars and restaurants are selling more than what's listed on the menu. We are providing hospitality.
BM: What ingredient, spirit, tool or method are you loving right now?
BN: One of my favorite producers right now is Laurent Cazottes, a French producer of natural eau-de-vie and liqueurs. His 72 Tomatoes is a tomato liqueur made from seventy-two varieties of tomato that has amazing depth of flavor, but every bottle I've tried has been something special.
BM: If you could grab drinks with anyone in the world right now, who would it be, where would it be, and what are you drinking?
BN: The where part is easy. I love the bar/restaurant scene in Montreal and New Orleans, so it would be in one of those cities. There is a long history of eating and drinking in those towns, and they know how to do it right. In New Orleans, I'd be drinking a 25 cent martini and turtle soup at Commander's Palace, followed by beers at The Saint. In Montreal I usually just drink a lot of wine. And if I had to choose someone to accompany me, it would be any one of my friends. They are far more interesting than any celebrity I could name here.
BM: What cocktail/bar trend would you love to see go away?
BN: I don't want to see any trend disappear entirely, but I would like for bars to recognize which trends work for their space. It feels like every dive bar in Brooklyn has a House Cocktail list with housemade infusions and syrups. If your clientele is drinking cheap beer and well whiskey, you don't need to be fancy.
BM: Where can you be found post-shift, and what are you eating or drinking?
By Nicole Schnitzler
(Photos from left: Billy Nichols by Toralf Suemmchen; Badalisc Cocktail; Interior by Toralf Suemmchen)