Behind the Bar: Jason Littrell Talks Insider Bars, Rare Booze & Pickle Juice Shots
On a Tuesday night at The Randolph on Broome Street, you're likely to find that bartenders, booze bloggers, and spirits brand employees make up a healthy cross-section of the crowd. It's hard to pinpoint when or why a place becomes an insider bar, but when it does, you can expect a rowdy, regular clientele. Jason Littrell is behind the bar at The Randolph (when he isn't at Death & Co.), where, if you're in the know, you know a shot of pickle juice follows a shot of whiskey.
Pickle back, anyone?
How did you get into bartending?
Like most bartenders, I was a musician -- a lot of us were actors, musicians or artists -- and I was just trying to make a living. I worked at a lot of shitty bars, and The Randolph used to be one of them (when it was M Bar). Then, Sasha Petraske got involved and taught us all how to make real drinks. It turns out, there's a creative aspect to it.
The Randolph is something of an insider's bar. How did that happen?
Bartenders are naturally social people. We don't beat them over the head with prices. Some of the best bartenders in the country go there. And they mostly just want shots and beer. But you can get a good cocktail, too. And I like to think The Pickle Back was a small part of it.
Yes, I've had one of those.
Afraid so. How did you come up with it?
We straight-up stole it from the Rusty Knot, but I like to think we made it our own. It's a shot of whiskey with a pickle juice back. Bartenders will come in and order a PBR and a Pickle Back. I went all over the city looking for the best pickle juice. I ended up finding it at Pickle Guys. They had the best garlicky, briny juice. The problem is, they didn't know how to sell it to me. They gave me a gallon for $3. That lasted two weeks. Now we get about two gallons a week.
Is it harder to make drinks for other bartenders?
At first, it was very intimidating. But once you get to know them, it's cool. Tuesday night is when they all come in. Having Sasha Petraske's name attached to the bar means that people come in expecting a certain level of quality. Which we have, but it took time. People would come in and ask for all kinds of wacky shit, like the Vieux Carre (meaning 'Old Square' in French, invented at The Monteleone in New Orleans, which just happens to be where Tales of the Cocktail is held). I'm glad they did. We were never afraid to ask how to make something. And now, I have all these random cocktail recipes in my head.
What's your favorite drink to make?
My favorite drink is the right drink in the right scenario. When people come in and they articulate what they feel like -- or not, sometimes people don't know what they want but you ask them questions about what they like and try to figure it out. You can always tell by their reaction [if you got it right]. I mean, it's not like we're saving the manatees. We're just making a good drink.
And your least favorite?
One of the most physically intensive drinks to make is the Ramos Gin Fizz. It has a lot of ingredients, a lot of messy ingredients. But it's delicious when it's done right. So, so good.
What mixology trends are you sick of?
The things that people are doing, some are fascinating. But some, you just have to ask why. It's like Jurassic Park: sure, you can make dinosaurs. But should you? I think the whole molecular mixology thing is very interesting and I sometimes practice it at home, but it all seems so academic to me. I prefer to make drinks the old-fashioned way. I'm an old-school kind of guy.
What do you have in your home bar?
What don't I have in my home bar? I'm really excited about this Mezcal del Maguey I just got called Tobala. It's made from a special agave plant from a single estate. I got it for about $100 on eBay. They only make like 600 bottles a year. Also, Chichicapa Mezcal. It's made with chicken breast.
My roommates love me because I make a lot of drinks at home, but I never drink them. I can't drink at home. I drink so much at work that if I drank at home, I'd be in trouble.
They must also appreciate the other perks of being a bartender, such as ladies throwing themselves at you when you're behind the bar?
You know, it doesn't happen as much as people think. Actually, it affects my personal life. Women say, 'Oh, I don't want to date a bartender because they're always [flirting with customers].' I'm more of a shy guy. Although, when there's a bar between me and them, it's easier for me to talk to them. Wait. What am I saying? Scratch that. I'm a total extrovert.
Is there anyone you don't like to see at your bar?
Yeah. Friends of mine who come in and heckle me when I'm really busy.