Talking Cocktails and “Startenders” with Ian Hardy of Huckleberry

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Huckleberry opened in 2008 on an unassuming strip of Grand Avenue in Williamsburg, sandwiched between bodegas and dollar stores, at a time when that part of Brooklyn was just a place to live, not a “destination.” Maybe you stumbled upon Huckleberry because you heard from a friend of a friend that this guy you used to see is DJing, or because you want to escape Bedford Avenue. You come because you’re tired of your usual routine, and you want to try something new. You come for the atmosphere, the muisc, but most importantly — the cocktails, which are second to none. Beverage director Ian Hardy has created a solid menu that riffs off traditional cocktails and creates new concotions that are destined to be new classics.

We sat down with Ian one swampy July afternoon to talk about cocktails, the neighborhood’s favorite drink, and why “startenders” are bad for business. Check it out, after the jump.

Let’s start with the basics. How’d you start bar tending, and where were you before this?
I was living in Seattle, I was working at a fine dining restaurant that no longer exists, but I was actually bussing tables, so this was probably about ten years ago, and I was on call one day, and I called in to see if they needed me, and they told me I was going to come in and bartend, and I had never bartended before, I had no idea what I was doing, so I just kinda jumped into it, and learned on the job, and figured it out, and never stopped.

photo by Austin McAllister

Tell me a little more about the theme for your menu and the process behind getting it together.
There’s no overall theme, it was just part of the original concept of the space, which is craft cocktails. When we first opened, this neighborhood was not what it is today. We were the only place anywhere near here that was offering cocktails of any kind, let alone craft cocktails. The whole idea was to be the first kids on the block and sort of really old-school, which is kind of what we achieved, I guess.  We do seasonal, so when the seasons come, we try to use seasonal ingredients for each go around on the menu, but, as far as what drives it, it’s all about just trying to stay creative and stay fresh.

What are your favorite cocktails here?
I have a few different favorites. One is called the William Miller , which is kind of a classic for the space, we’ve had it a few different times in the past, but it’s a bacon infused whiskey cocktail. That’s just my favorite because it’s extremely unusual, so it’s kind of like, a punctuation on being original, in the cocktail making scene. I also am a big fan of another booze-forward cocktail called The Geezer, which is a gin cocktail with Amari Nonino, Cochi Americano and Peycahud’s bitters, which is kind of a bittersweet cocktail, but very booze forward.

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Are there any drink trends that you’re totally over?
There’s nothing that’s trended that I am done with, other than  maybe shots of Fernet as the industry shot, I’m kinda over that.

Whats your least favorite cocktail to make?
Thats a tough one, because I try very hard to avoid snobbery in this business. I think the most valuable quality a bartender can have is to be universally approachable. It’s a big problem, I think, with the whole mixology scene, is that people are put on pedestals, and there are “star tenders” — that whole scene to me is kind of anathema to what this is all about. I will say that when people order Long Island Iced Teas, it does kinda grind me a little bit the wrong way, just because it’s a cocktail designed to get someone as drunk as possible as quickly as possible. We should try to enjoy booze as a means of having fun, rather than just getting messed up and sloppy.

What kind of drinks do people in this neighborhood order the most?
The most popular cocktail is called the Sampogna, which is a jalapeño infused cocktail with honey, lemon and St. Germain. The jalapeño infused tequila is intentionally made as spicy as possible, but the cocktail itself is actually very spicy, like challenge your palate spicy. Yet, for whatever reason — I would’ve thought, when I made the cocktail, that that would’ve made it  a limited audience cocktail, instead, its the most popular cocktail on the menu, by exponential factors, it outsells all the other cocktails on the menu, two to one…I think the combination of drunkenness and spiciness is like some sort of weird scientific phenomenon that kind of go together really well.

Off-menu, we get a lot of Old Fashioneds, a lot of Manhattans, a lot of  classic, cocktails that people know because they’re classic, a gimlet is another one, a Negroni.  When it’s not on the menu, that’s what people order. The classics. It’s the frame of reference they have, but also, they’re classics for a reason.

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Say I come in to your bar, and tell you that the only drink I’ve had is a screwdriver, but I want a recommendation off the menu. What would you serve me?
That’s one of the most challenging things. You really don’t know what they’re actually going to like or not going to like, because they really haven’t explored enough to tell you themselves.

So, with that one, I’d probably just try to make them something…like a really good example would be a gimlet or a daiquiri, which is like a really simple, universally loved drink. It’s classic, it’s, if you make it with equal parts sugar to lime juice, it comes out being just tart enough, just sweet enough that virtually anybody is going to like it.  You gotta, feel that out. It’s a case by car basis. But I always have go-to cocktails in my head, either originals, or classics, that I will bring into that scenario to kind of experiment with this person’s palate.

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