Ward III's Michael J. Neff Talks Bespoke Cocktails, Expansion Plans, and What Your Favorite Superhero Has to Do With Your Drink

Michael Neff will make you a Wonder Woman cocktail.
Ward III opened in Tribeca nearly one year ago. In fact, it's preparing to celebrate its first anniversary at the end of June. The three owners, Michael J. Neff, Kenneth McCoy, and Abdul Tabini, can almost always be found at the bar in some capacity -- usually behind it mixing drinks, which is where every good bartender-owner should be.

So you're a bartender and an owner. Which one is more fun?

Well, they're both very different. We're in the world of owner-operator now, so you have to balance running a bar and running a business. It's fun to sit around and discuss what kind of spirits we want to have and discuss what kind of programming we're going to have on Whiskey Mondays, which is a huge event we do on Mondays, but nothing actually compares to being at the bar. We sometimes have to make the sacrifice of not being behind the bar because we have other stuff to do. We can't necessarily work until 4 o'clock in the morning, then have an interview at 3 o'clock the next afternoon. You have to be fresh for it.

You have an anniversary coming up.

Yeah, we've been around a year now, which feels like one big, long day. We're going to have a big anniversary party, which will be at the end of June. It will be announced on our Facebook page. We'll probably launch our new cocktail list on the same day.

You do seasonal cocktails?

Yes, but the thing is we make cocktails in a way that's not usual, so we have our list, which is the list we wrote. Then we have what we call a bespoke cocktail menu. That's more of a vocabulary primer for people to talk to us [about what they like]. It starts with a list of spirits, then a column for mouthfeel, and fruit and spice, and all these different [aspects of a cocktail]. That is always very seasonal. We go through a series of questions. Say, "What do you like? What do you not like?" Sometimes it's very esoteric. Sometimes I'll ask, "What's your favorite superhero? What month were you born in?" Because a lot of making cocktails is storytelling.

When a customer orders a bespoke cocktail, are you usually drawing on a repertoire of drinks you already know, or will you make something up on the spot?

It depends a lot on who's doing it. I almost always make something up. Every once in a while, I will stumble on a drink that I happen to like. If I get a lot of Scotch cocktail requests and just happened to make one that I really like, then I'll make that a couple of times over the course of the night. Even when we're really busy, the whole point to me is to be able to say we're not the kind of place that is just pointing you to classic cocktails. We're literally doing new stuff and it's a very exciting and interesting way for us to work. People have responded very well to it. If you say, "I like cloves, but I like tequila. I don't know if they go together," then I'll be like, "I don't know either, but let's find out."

Can you really come up with a drink based on someone liking Wonder Woman?

I do it every day. It usually starts out more concrete. The last question is usually something that's thrown out there to give me more of an idea of what kind of personality you have. I don't have, like, a Wonder Woman ingredient. But I might wrap it in gold and shoot a bullet at it.

How did you get into bartending?

I realized I didn't like to sleep at night. I like to sleep in the daytime. I was in Seattle, Washington, at the time, which was about 16 years ago now, and I decided I was either going to be a bike messenger or a bartender and I got a bartending job first. I was lucky to work in Seattle because I had no experience at all. I totally lied my ass off to get this job. I had a guy there who was very good at making cocktails at the time. It was the beginning of the whole fresh-juice revolution, especially in the Northwest. This guy taught me how to do his craft, and, as far as I knew, high-end cocktail making was with fresh ingredients, seasonal stuff. That's just how I learned how to do it. So I didn't know there was any other way until I watched other people do it. And I said, "Wait, that's not right."

Did you bartend anywhere in New York before opening your own place?

I met my partner, Ken McCoy, in 2000 when he and I were on the opening team of the Hudson Hotel. And then I've been pretty much in Tribeca ever since. Most recently, I was at Macao Trading Co. on Church. And my partner, Abdul, worked at the Odeon for 14 years. So, between the three of us, we have probably more than 35 years in the neighborhood.

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