Milk & Honey's Mickey McIlroy Talks Bad Customers, Anti-Social Bartenders & Just Where They Hid the Vodka at His Bar
Back before every bartender was a self-proclaimed mixologist and seasonal cocktail lists were announced via press release, a business card was circulated among those in the know for an unmarked and unlisted bar on a dingy Lower East Side block where every drink was made with top-shelf spirits, the juices were fresh pressed, and the ice was cracked by hand. Milk & Honey may now have a listed number, but not much else has changed at the narrow, dimly lit bar. Or at least not in the three years since Mickey McIlroy has been behind the bar. Not that he would have it any other way.
Mickey McIlroy will not make you a unicorn.
Was it difficult to get a job at Milk & Honey?
The reason I came to New York originally was to find this bar. By this time I was taking things seriously [as a bartender in Belfast], I was making what I thought were good cocktails, but it wasn't what we do here. I was 20, 21 at this time and reading about the cocktail scene in the U.K. and New York and Sasha (Petraske)'s name was always cropping up. In the summer of 2004, I flew to New York... didn't have a job yet and I was sleeping on someone's couch. So, I just wrote to him. It was a long shot. But he called me back inviting me down to the bar. We had a chat and he offered me a job.
Among bartenders, does working at Milk & Honey give you a certain cred?
It was the bar that led the way and I think it still does for so many reasons. We've always kept it as it is. It's a quiet bar. We keep it very low key. Classic drinks. I love to think that people still have that fantasy of what goes on here. Still, every shift, I get guys who are there for the first time.
I remember when the Milk & Honey number was a secret and you had to know someone to get the business card.
We had to change that up because people were posting the number. But I still hope that people have that excitement when they come to the bar. I still get excited every shift and love people coming here for the first time. Their eyes are wide open and they're nervous, anticipating what's going to happen. Then, we do get a lot of customers who come in and say, "this is it?" It's like, what more do you want?
What's the worst kind of customer?
A lot of people come in, and they've already made up their own ideas about the bar. People sometimes come in dripping with attitude, trying to stump the guy behind the bar. They'll try to order some crazy drink that was in a bar guide in 1874.
What's the craziest thing someone has asked you for?
Very rarely have I not heard of a drink. People come in and they just say anything. You can ask us to come up with something so, once, someone said something like "unicorn." Like, can I make a drink that calls to mind unicorns? I just say, "I'll come back when you're ready to take this seriously."
Do you think that bartending has gotten too serious?
Absolutely. I got into this to learn new ways to make drinks. I never thought I'd be here after five years, but it just happened that way. The whole idea of working in a bar [appeals to me] because I love talking to the customers. I love hosting and making people feel welcome. It happens to be that I can also make a really good Old Fashioned. But I do want to be taken seriously and I love the art. I got into it for the love of the drink. For the glory of the cocktail.
It seems like some bartenders are more interested in "educating the customer" than in serving them.
Nothing pisses me off more than when I hear bartenders say, "I hate people. I hate talking to them." And that's when I say, "Why don't you chef or something? You work in a bar. You're going to be talking to people." I know a lot of people who just can't talk to customers and I think they're in the wrong game.