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9 Things I Learned From — and About — Giuseppe Gonzalez

A man pouring a martini.
Renowned bartender Giuseppe Gonzalez can tell you everything from where to find a legit martini in Harlem circa 1921, to the nuances of brand marketing of the 60s — but he's not just a cocktail wiz, he's also a ton of fun. Photo by Liz Clayman.

Giuseppe Gonzalez may have studied neuroscience and Spanish literature at Cornell, but the Puerto Rico native turned New Yorker has his cocktail history down. In the span of nearly an hour, I got schooled in everything from where to find a legit martini in Harlem circa 1921, to the nuances of brand marketing of the 60s. I also learned more about Suffolk Arms, his English pub-inspired venture that opened just two weeks ago on New York’s Lower East Side. And then I caught wind of a couple of the hospitality-related chips on his shoulders. Just one of them? “This notion that I can’t take my job seriously or have a real discussion about cocktails without being seen as a nerd or not fun — it’s just not true,” he says. “You should hang out with me for an hour — I’m tons of fun.”

It’s exactly what he hopes patrons will do when they sit at his bar. “I always just want to have an honest conversation with people, and I hope to do that with our menu — I want people to take the bait,” he says.

So I did — and he was right. About being tons of fun, yes — but also about seriously having an opinion and seriously knowing his stuff. Here are just nine of his insights worth pocketing (or at least worth considering).

1. Jerry Thomas is a fraud. “That’s one of my favorites,” says Gonzalez. “Out of the 13 drinks in his book, seven of them were copied by someone else who he never gave credit to.” As for his unearthing of such hard-to-swallow details? “It’s all common knowledge, but it’s just something we don’t talk about.”

2. David Embury wasn’t such a nice guy, either. “A lot of people love talking about David Embury, but he was a racist and a misogynist,” he says. “If you actually read his book and not just the cocktail recipes, you’re just like, ‘yo — this guy was a prick.’”

3. Blue cocktails weren’t invented yesterday. “Whenever anyone asks for the oldest drink on my menu, I say, ‘that one — the blue drink.’ That blue drink is the Soyer’s Highball, named for Alexis Soyer, who Gonzalez credits for opening the first ever cocktail bar — and for serving drinks with food coloring. “If you really want to be technical about history, it was the frivolous drinks — the blue drinks, ice cream drinks and Jell-O shots — that are actually older than the martini and the Manhattan,” he says.

4. For best results, make cocktails that are easy to copy. Gonzalez has a few modern classics that he’s coined over the years, including the Trinidad Sour and the Negroni Swizzle, and he ascribes their success to one firm rule: a no-fuss makeup. “I love replicability,” he says. “If I put a cocktail on my menu, every bar around the world should be capable of making it, and it should be available forever — there’s transparency there.”

5. We should all treat vodka with a little more respect. Gonzalez dedicated the third and final section of his cocktail list to vodka cocktails, all of which are curated by some of the era’s most beloved bartenders for a purpose: to dispel a stigma that has strongly evolved in the industry over time. “Whenever people say, ‘great bartenders don’t use vodka,’ I say, ‘well, here’s a menu curated by some of the most important bartenders of our time — Gary Regan, Julie Reiner, Audrey Saunders, Tony Conigliaro. These are the greatest of the greatest making vodka cocktails, which are some of the best drinks I’ve ever had.’”

6. Women are the ones to watch — and they always have been. Gonzalez says he’s indebted to two women for his career: Julie Reiner for starting it, and Audrey Saunders for saving it. “I was lucky enough to be surrounded by some boss bitches,” he says. When he cold-called Flatiron Lounge for the 30th time, he says he was lucky that Reiner picked up. “Without her, I don’t know where I’d be in my life.” The other thing he loves about the industry pro? “She’s a woman, and I’m a Puerto Rican kid, so we don’t fit the template of the classic ‘1920s speakeasy’ bartender,” he says. “We had to break that misconception down over time, and she gave me a shot.” After some business deals went south later in Gonzalez’s career, it was Saunders who stepped in. “I didn’t want to be in this industry anymore, and Audrey was like, ‘Why don’t you work at Pegu for a while?’” he says. “All I had to do was make drinks for 10 hours, and I was so fucking happy — I fell in love with the biz again.” And herein lies another fun fact from Gonzalez: long before these ladies, there was another dame on the dram scene. “The most famous speakeasy bartender was a woman named Texas Guinan,” he says. “She was raided by the police once a month but still became a millionaire and would call her guests ‘suckers.’”

7. All of the old-time bartenders are sober. “Find me a guy who’s been doing this for 20 or 30 years — not a consultant, not a mixologist, but a bartender who’s worked behind the stick everyday, and ask me if he still drinks — you’re not going to find one,” he says. “You realize at some point in your career, sometime in your 40s, ‘you know what? I’ve got a family and I want to be able to do other things.”

8. There was nothing romantic about speakeasies. “A real speakeasy in the 1920s was a shitty place where you drink bathtub gin and something that could possibly blind you,” he says. If you really wanted cocktails during prohibition, Gonzalez would’ve pointed you towards Harlem. “You’d have to go to a mob-run jazz club like the Cotton Club, and there you could order a martini.”

9. He’s humble — and funny — as all get-out. As we wrap up our conversation, and my expansive history lesson, he ends with this comical phrase: “But what do I know, Nicole? I know nothing.”

We're inclined to respectfully disagree.

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