(L to R) John Bush, Dale Talde, and David Massoni
Whatever you do, don't call John Bush, the brains behind the cocktail menus at Thistle Hill Tavern and the recently-opened Talde, a mixologist. "I've always called myself a bartender, not a mixologist," he said when we sat down last week. "I've gone to places where they call it mixology, I've had some really good drinks there, but what it's all about for me is making a good, stiff drink exactly the same every time you make it. It's about knowing your clientele and knowing about what's going on in the world. It's about knowing when they've had enough to drink, when they want to talk and don't want to talk. That's what a bartender is, being good at reading the world."
And if reading the world is a skill, Bush certainly possesses it. A California native, he came to New York in 1995 and soon found work tending bar in the East Village, first at 2A and then at Niagara, where he worked for 13 years. He tired of the Village in recent years, though ("It's getting really young, and losing that neighborhood feel"), and jumped at the opportunity a few years ago to open Thistle Hill with friend David Massoni. "Seventh Avenue reminds me of Avenue A when I first moved there," he said. "I knew every bartender that bartended at every bar, I knew all the people in the bodegas and the stores."
Bush, who recently married and will be moving to the Slope from Williamsburg in May, can be found behind the bar most nights at Talde, and will also be behind the cocktail list at the third restaurant in their burgeoning empire, a "roadhouse" that will be opening in the space that was last home to Aunt Suzie's.
HPS: How did you approach developing this cocktail menu, as opposed to the one at Thistle Hill?
John: For Thistle Hill, I knew that I wanted to go old-school, English-Irish tavern, family-oriented. I based the cocktails around that: finding old cocktails and bringing them back, thinking about what my dad liked to drink and then fiddling around with them.
And then here, it was kind of the same thing but very different. I knew that we're technically an Asian restaurant, but I didn't want to go too crazy with kitchy Asian cocktails. I knew I wanted to go a little bit in the realm of Asian cocktails, though. The lychee martini, for example, tends to be a super-sweet, super-sour drink. And everybody makes it with vodka. I add gin, which gives it a floral flavor, cuts the acidity, and actually makes you think, "Wow, this is a cocktail!" It's not just booze and juice. And then I tried plum wine and thought it was really good, and I made a plum wine Bellini.
We definitely took certain Asian cocktails and tweaked them a little bit, but we still want to keep a Manhattan on the menu, but I use Yamazaki instead of another whiskey. And I have a full bar; you can still come in here and get a Miller High Life with a shot of Jameson or Jack. We're not limiting the bar to anything. I think it's great that 95% of our cocktails come off of our cocktail menu, but if you want something else all of my bartenders can make it for you.
HPS: What cocktails here are you the most proud of?
John: The Chinatown. It was 100% a creation of me, Dale, and my other bartender Bill. I've been wanting to do an Old Fashioned, but strain it. I didn't want it all pulpy and muddled. So I was thinking about the rums, and I realized that rum is as good as whiskey in an Old Fashioned! So I wanted to make a rum Old Fashioned the same way, but it wasn't quite there, there was something missing. So I made it with lemon, lime, orange, it still wasn't there. I did every combination I could, and it still wasn't there. So I made one just with lime, strained it, and it was pretty good, pretty close, but still something missing. Then about two weeks ago I went to Apotheke, and I saw them putting pepper on cocktails. So I put a little pepper on it, and BAM there it was.
HPS: In all your years of bartending, are there any really strange, wild drinks that have been ordered from you?
John: Well, in my opinion mixing anything with milk is really gross. Also, when people order Courvoisier and Coke. Just get a well whiskey and Coke! Once you start throwing flavors in there you're just making a vehicle for the alcohol. For half the price you can get the same taste and the same buzz. But I guess that's commercialism.
HPS: If you could have a drink with one person from history, who would it be?
John: I have two. I would love to have a full afternoon of drinks with Bill Clinton. I would love that. But I would say that if I was dying and I had the Make a Wish foundation, it would be to drink a couple bottles of red wine with Mario Lemieux.
People always ask me where I see myself in 10 years, and I say I want to be George Clooney's #11. He always talks about his ten best friends. I want to be 11, damnit!
HPS: What cocktails are most popular here?
John: The Chinatown, the Brooklyn Sling, and the Lychee Martini. The pitchers of Pacquiao Punch are also really popular. We're thinking about doing all our fruit cocktails in pitchers come spring and summer.
HPS: When you have the whole bar to yourself and can make yourself anything you want, what's your drink?
John: My favorite drink to drink, and my favorite drink to make, is a Manhattan. I love whiskey Manhattans, I love bourbon Manhattans, I love rye Manhattans, or Rob Roys they call them; I just love the taste of good bourbon and good sweet vermouth, and then finding different kinds of bitters. Across the board, I love the brown stuff.
HPS: Are there any cocktails you make that you really pride yourself on?
John: The Manhattan. There's an argument between whether you should shake or stir a Manhattan. I shake everything. I love the little ice chips you get wen you do. I shake everything but gin. Most gins have such good flavors that people drink it straight. Anything you drink straight, I don't shake.
HPS: If you weren't tending bar, what other professions would you be interested in?
John: I wanted to be a photographer for a really long time, and I love it, but as soon as I found out that shooting photos is only 10% of a photographer's job, that made it go all downhill. There's a lot of BS you have to deal with, and a lot of business involved. I can make money bartending, and just keep taking photos.
Talde, 369 Seventh Avenue Brooklyn NY 11215. 347-916-0031.