With buzzwords like artisanal and bespoke taking over cocktail menus everywhere, it’s hard to tell which of the many suspender-wearing bartenders is the real deal. Our money’s on Paul Johnson, who works behind the bar at Two E Bar/Lounge at New York’s swank Pierre hotel and gushes historical cocktail facts even as he crafts nuanced drink after drink, tailored to customers’ desires. We sat down with him to talk NYC mixology.
These days every cocktail has a story. What’s your favorite?
In San Francisco, in the 1820s, there was a drink called Pisco Punch, and its key ingredient was a pineapple-gum syrup made by mixing one pound of brown sugar with a cut-up pineapple and letting it sit overnight. It was so potent that women were not allowed to drink it, and men were only allowed one or two cups before they would be cut off. Its potency was attributed to a secret ingredient, which was said to be one of two things: Barbados Mount Gay rum or a certain form of contraband. When I make it, I go with the rum.
Of all your bartending tools, which one is indispensable?
A good paring knife; I have two of them that have their own sheaths, so I can keep them in my back pocket at all times. I sharpen them on my wife’s grandmother’s old sharpener. And for a year I didn’t even use a cutting board because I didn’t want them to become dull. When a good knife goes dull, it’s like losing a dear friend.
What is your favorite shopping destination for mixology?
My favorite place is called Amor y Amargo (443 East 6th Street, 212.614.6818), which carries the largest supply of assorted bitters. They’ve got everything from standard orange bitters to tobacco bitters, so it really allows me to exercise my creativity.
In the spirit of the 100th anniversary of the martini, tell us how you like your martinis?
I like martinis the traditional way, with gin; and Americans are making good gins these days. I really like to use a new one called Death’s Door, which is made in Wisconsin. It is made with all local ingredients, and it is very aggressive—it totally kicks the butts of the lighter, smoother English varieties. It’s like Tyson-biting-your-ear-off gin.
What do you prescribe for an investment banker who comes in after a bad day in the markets?
A Dolce de Tequila: 1-½ ounces of tequila blanco, ¾ ounce of brandy, ½ ounce of lime juice, and ½ ounce of simple syrup—because tequila makes your present day a little brighter, and brandy finishes well.
What would you do with Xantè?
Xantè can be tough because it is already sweet, so if you add sugar or lemon it can become sour or have a bite. I go the other way with what I’ve called the Mocha High Dive, which has espresso, creme de cacao, and muddled allspice berries. You can find it on our hot chocolate menu.
How have you left your stamp on this bar?
The thing I want most for this place is for there to always be a surprise. Right now, I put a drink on the menu with an ingredient called sumac; it’s a red powder often used in Middle Eastern cuisine in place of vinegar; it has that raspier, tangy taste.
Where do you go for a bite to eat and a drink after work? P.J. Carney’s Irish pub (906 Seventh Avenue, 212.664.0056). I love that they serve their fries with mayo and burgers. And when I don’t quite know what I’m in the mood for, I love Blue Ribbon (97 Sullivan Street, 212.274.0404); they have everything from foie gras to fried chicken. My wife and I went there on our first date.
Where do you go to be by yourself in the city?
There’s something about Stone Rose Lounge in the Time Warner Center (10 Columbus Circle, 4th floor, 212.823.9770) that makes it a good, peaceful place to sit and read. I like to go buy a drink and sit there for hours; it stays pretty mellow and feels removed from the hustle down below.
What do you love most about the bar culture in New York?
It isn’t so specific to New York, but to bars in general: People bond at bars in a way that they can’t anywhere else. In other circles, people might sit and talk to you for the wrong reasons, but at a bar you can talk to the bartender and the people there and no one cares who you are.
Visit Paul Tuesdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., at Two E Bar/Lounge at the Pierre (2 East 61st Street, 212.838.8000).