For King Tai Bar bartender Dane Risch, hands-on experience is everything. When a bartender failed to show one day at the West Broadway bar he worked at 15 years ago, he was summoned to abandon his serving duties and step behind the stick. “The other bartender and I both knew I had no idea what I was doing, so the night went like this: every time I got a drink order I didn't know how to make, he and I would face the bottles against the wall for him to tell me the recipe, then I'd turn around and make it as if I knew all along,” he recounts. By the close of two nights like that, he not only had bartending 101 down — he’d realized a newfound interest in the skill. That passion led him to open King Tai last spring, a Crown Heights bar slinging tropically-inspired cocktails strongly rooted in the classics. Here, Risch shares with us why being quick on your toes pays off, his chief cocktail bar complaint, and the libation that’s proven impossible to improve upon (yes, he’s tried).
BoozeMenus: What did you consider most when creating the drinks list for King Tai Bar?
Dane Risch: We try to be cognizant of a drink's context or lineage. Like, where did the idea come from? What classic cocktail inspired it, directly or indirectly? How did we change it to make it our own? These days it is almost impossible to come up with a recipe, no matter how original it may seem at first, that couldn't be traced back to a classic. And every customer brings their own personal context to the table. One person might interpret something as a Negroni variation; while another could think it’s a play on a Manhattan — and they may both be right. If we put a drink on the menu at King Tai, we are going to be transparent about where it came from.
BM: Any cool stories behind any of the drinks?
DR: I'm very into a drink we came up with for a month-long tiki-themed event we did with some other bars in the area. The original idea for this particular drink was to sort of poke fun at a lot of old-school tiki recipes that call for so many ingredients and try to do so much all at once. So we thought, “OK, let’s put everything in there, let's make every part of the tongue respond in a different way to this thing.” It started as a total mess, but what we settled on in the end was fantastic, actually.
The name is "MezCall Me" and it’s mezcal meets a Ramos Gin Fizz meets a piña colada. It probably shouldn't work, but oh, it does. The recipe is mezcal, tequila, lemon juice, coconut syrup, orange blossom water, egg white, and shaved cinnamon. It's smoky, tart, sweet, creamy, soft and foamy. Tangy is the perfect word. It tastes like cotton candy in the best way possible, its a real party of a drink. I think it embodies the sunny, slightly island-y, light-hearted elements of our bar perfectly.
BM: Which cocktail do you feel most personally connected to?
DR: One drink I’m very attached to is the 40 Steps, new to our menu in September. It’s an homage to the end of summer and the beginning of fall. Where I'm from, there is a beach at the end of our road called 40 Steps beach, and it’s where we go swimming most often, as in several times a day. The drink marries bourbon — always on hand at the house — with guava and lemon, a nod to sunny, breezy days at the beach. We probably sell more of those than anything else at this point.
BM: What's the biggest lesson you've learned in this industry, and who did you learn it from?
DR: Most of the important lessons were learned during my many years at Botanica Bar. The owner there, Mark, is a wonderful person as well as an incredible boss, manager, and businessman. The place celebrated its 20th anniversary last month—that is an incredible feat in this town!
What I value most in a bar is speed and efficiency. Maybe its because I'm a Capricorn or something, but we learned at Botanica to serve large crowds quickly and efficiently. It’s one thing to be able to take your time and craft a heartfelt cocktail that may take several minutes to produce, but it’s another thing completely to be able to deliver great drinks at the speed at which they are ordered on a busy night. It is a rare bar that can do this in New York, and something that I think used to be associated only with "beer and a shot" type places which are, here in NYC anyways, a dying breed.
An efficient and streamlined bar starts with the design of the space, involving every aspect of the bar's layout from the large to the very minute, like how much room is there to maneuver behind the bar, how far away is the ice machine, how well stocked is the bar before service, where is the glassware in relation to the ice, and on and on. We designed King Tai so that it wouldn't bend under pressure, and I think it shows. It made me happy to read somewhere that we "keep drinks coming as fast as you can sip them" or something like that. At least someone noticed!
It has become far too typical, I think many would agree, to walk into a bar in Brooklyn and wait 10 minutes to be greeted while there are only a handful of customers. I don't get it, I never have. We are getting lampooned all over the media and pop culture for it, too! There are just way too many options in this city for people to have to put up with what might be either a poorly designed or poorly managed bar, or just uninspired service.
BM: How do you determine when to source an ingredient vs. when to make one in-house?
DR: As of now we make just about everything we use at the bar, that is, as far as juices, syrups, and cordials go. Lemon juice, ginger syrup, grenadine, orgeat, honey vinegar, chili syrup, clove bitters — these are some things we make in-house. I don't love the labor of it, but it is way less expensive and it allows us to have total control over the end result.
BM: When's the earliest time of day you can justify a cocktail?
DR: As far as I am concerned, there is no time too early. It has everything to do with what the rest of the day will require of you and how well you can do it after a few drinks. As for me, however, I'm practically narcoleptic after a day drink — I need a nap.
BM: What's your morning routine?
DR: First thing I do is walk the dog, then I have coffee, most likely in front of the computer. Throughout the day I will listen to public radio to find out what's going on in the world.
BM: What's your go-to fireside cocktail?
DR: I'm going to lump myself in with hundreds, maybe thousands of others out there, and say a negroni. It’s the most elementally perfect drink: three ingredients in equal parts on ice with a twist of lemon or orange. Super simple to make, powerfully complex and delicious to taste—it simply cannot be improved upon.
BM: When you have guests over, what are you making them?
DR: When my wife and I have guests over for dinner, I try to come up with something fun that fits with the theme. It’s sort of a nerdy little challenge I like quite a bit. The drink usually involves something fresh, like a muddled or pureed fruit or vegetable, or an herb that somehow refers back to the meal. It will undoubtedly be very simple to execute, so that I can make lots of them!
By Nicole Schnitzler
(Photos from left: Interior by Michael Arnaud; MezCall Me cocktail by Noah Fecks; Dane Risch by Michael Arnaud)