The Skylark's Johnny Swet on Why Ice Is More Than a Chilling Tool
The Fort Knox
It was art that brought The Skylark's (200 West 39th Street, 212-257-4577) consulting mixologist Johnny Swet to New York, but it was the bar scene that kept him here. Upon discovering his affinity for oil painting at Arizona State, Swet headed to New York to pursue his passion while maintaining the menagerie of bill-paying restaurant roles he had solidified out west. Where his eye for aesthetics led, his behind-the-bar talents followed -- from The Bowery Bar to Balthazar, and from Pastis to Freemans. When he's not curating the décor at top nightlife destinations (he's outfitted Miami's Marlin Hotel and Rex Restaurant), he's creating the cocktail lists at them, including Rogue & Canon, JIMMY, The Elm at King & Grove, and, most recently, The Skylark. Here, we chatted with Swet about his favorite at-work acronym, his flavorful approach to ice, and why his cocktails benefit from his time in the kitchen.
How did you treat this opening differently than your other openings?
It was awesome when David [Rabin] asked to do the cocktail program at The Skylark. We're also partners, along with Larry Poston, in JIMMY at The James. For The Skylark, he wanted a mature program with a nice arc to appeal to a broad spectrum of clientele. I immediately loved the quality of spirits and beautiful glassware of the bar, and the view is killer. The opening of the space was so well planned, and they have a great staff and owners -- they really allowed me to be creative.
What did you consider when creating the cocktail list here?
The diversity of the clientele, from fashionistas to business execs, to a lot of movers and shakers in New York. The list of cocktails and spirits needed to be diverse and well made.
How would you describe your approach behind the bar?
My approach behind the bar is to make a great drink with a nice, healthy amount of liquor. I believe in a heavy pour, for sure -- along with the notion that you shouldn't get stuck in that "pretentious mixologist" stereotype. It's all about just making a great drink with good spirits and having a friendly and sincere personality.
What is your process for creating a cocktail?
I tend to really think like a chef when creating cocktails. In my businesses, I spend so much time in the kitchen that I start to learn flavor profiles and combinations that work well together. I build from a base spirit, then I look to what's seasonal, and then I look at herbs, spices, and so on. I also like the "KISS" principle -- "Keep It Simple, Stupid."
Ice blocks play a big role in some of your drinks. When does a cocktail call for attention in this area, and how do you decide on which flavor will work best in ice form?
Ice blocks work well in the simple drinks. When it melts, the infused ice will enhance the flavor of the spirit or cocktail. I would see some of the very high end mixology places cut or chip their own ice blocks and thought it looked beautiful, but I knew it was time consuming and would take too long to get the drink out in my establishments. So I started using silicon molds from bake shops that they use to make fancy molded deserts in. From there I just started experimenting with flavors: green tea, cinnamon, thyme. During this process I realized the potential to add a cool look, and a flavored ice block would add a slow melting flavor to the drink.
What ice block has been the most successful or well received, to date?
At The Skylark, the grilled lemon ice block is a hit. At JIMMY, the cinnamon ice block is a hit for sure, and at Rogue & Canon, I actually have been trying to perfect a peanut butter ice cube.
Which cocktail on the list most resembles your drink preferences or bartending style?
The 'Fort Knox.' It is basically a Gold Rush, which is bourbon, honey, and lemon, but I add yellow chartreuse and the grilled lemon ice block. It's simple but perfectly balanced.
What's one of the best lessons you've received in this industry?
Check your ego and work hard. Be on time. You are your own brand, so make sure you have a strong work ethic.