Prost/Proust- Sam Ross and Michael McIlroy

This past summer I found myself at 134 Eldridge Street during an all-too-brief jaunt to New York. I had time for but one cocktail at Attaboy in the capable hands of bartender Dan Greenbaum- a Rusty Nail, if I recall correctly. The room has history, obviously. You can read all about its evolution from Sasha Petraske’s landmark Milk and Honey to its current incarnation- a bar that existed in the minds and hearts of Michael McIlroy and Sam Ross long before they signed the lease.  To hear them tell it, you come to realize that every last detail of Attaboy was executed with eight years worth of vision. The two would sit around after their shifts at Milk and Honey, sipping on beers and dreaming up what they would do with the space if it were theirs- a dream they never really thought would come to fruition.

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The last time I wrote about Attaboy, my final words on the matter were that I wanted to go back. Not just for the drinks. Not just for the space. Not just for the bartenders. I was intrigued by this room that means so much to so many people. From the bartenders that worked for Sasha to the patrons that occupied the barstools at Milk and Honey and then continued to walk through the doors of Attaboy, the space is much greater than its four walls. I’m not sure I fully grasped that sipping on my scotch and Drambuie in June. While I sensed the intrigue, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And now having spoken with Ross and McIlroy, I no longer want to go back. I have to. I want to take in the details of the space with fresh eyes and an appreciation for the care, the intention and the love that went into creating this new room while still paying careful homage to its history. From the pressed tin on the front of the bar, to the old Cynar painting peaking out from behind the shelves, to the white-washed brick wall, all of these little details were dreamed up in the post-shift, wee hours of the morning by two great bartenders over a couple of beers. I want to go back and sit at the bar at Attaboy to fully appreciate what I sensed but couldn’t fully articulate that first time- a room that has struck a  beautiful balance between old and new, past and present, history of future with a great deal of intention and the utmost respect.

**Before we dive in, a brief note: I interviewed Ross and McIlroy separately and then together. The article is broken down as such.

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SAM ROSS

What is your favourite word?
Unctuous

What is your least favourite word?
Unctuous. It’s so descriptive that I feel it in every part of me. I almost feel dirty saying it.

What turns you on?
Dark hair.

What turns you off?
Irishmen.

What’s your favourite curse word?
Strewth.

What sound or noise do you love?
Laughter.

What sound or noise do you hate?
The end of when Micky brushes his teeth and he spits the toothpaste out. That really pisses me off….we travel a lot together.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Hair dressing.

What profession would you hate?
Anything relating to outdoor labour.

If God exists, what would you like him to say when you arrive?
One Penicillin please!

Which talent would you most like to have?
To be able to speak more languages.

Who is your favourite fictional hero?
Homer Simpson.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
The Red Baron.

What is your most treasured possession?
My twin sister.

If you could choose what to come back as in your next life, what would it be?
A professional baseball player. Baseball is one of my favourite things in the entire world. Me and my brother are sports-mad, we always have been. So back in Australia cricket, Aussie-rules football, soccer. Once I got over here, baseball was my first friend in New York. My first summer I was living there with some Long Island boys and I didn’t have a job. They were my only friends and I learned baseball with them. Mets, Jets, Islanders.

If you could only have a 5 bottle bar, what would they be?
Ango, Campari, Sweet Vermouth, Gin- probably Jensen’s, and Bourbon- probably Eagle Rare or Buffalo.

What’s your death row drink?
Bottle of Champagne, ice cold. Blanc de Blancs. The French stuff.

What is the one cocktail book that should be behind every bar?
Jones Complete Bar Guide by Stan Jones.

What is the one non-cocktail book that should be behind every bar?
Jitterbug Perfume.

If your best shift behind the bar had a theme song, what would it be?
I’ll tell you what, right now I’m on a big Genesis kick so it’s gotta be something Phil Collins-y.

 

MICHAEL McILROY

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What is your favourite word?
Yes.

What is your least favourite word?
No.

What turns you on?
Vintage watches.

What turns you off?
Racism.

What sound or noise do you love?
The sound of ecstasy.

What sound or noise do you hate?
The sound of a gag reflex.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
A cyclist.

What profession would you hate?
A chef.

If God exists, what would you like him to say when you arrive?
It’s about time.

Which talent would you most like to have?
To be able to cook well.

Who is your favourite fictional hero?
James Bond.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Frank Lloyd Wright. His taste was splendid as a designer, a taste maker and an architect. He was exquisite.

What is your most treasured possession?
My family.

If you could choose what to come back as in your next life, what would it be?
Greg LeMond.

If you could ony have a five bottle bar, what would they be?
Campari, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth, Jensen’s Gin and a bottle of rye.

What is your death row drink?
A pint of Guinness.

What is the one cocktail book that should be behind every bar?
The Savoy Cocktail Book.

What is the one non-cocktail book that should be behind every book?
King Lear.

If your best shift behind the bar had a theme song, what would it be?
Truth N Time by Al Green.

 

SAM AND MICHAEL

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Do you remember when you first met?

Sam: We both came over in January 2005. I’d been over a couple of months earlier but I didn’t know about Milk and Honey at the time. Micky had actually reached out to Sasha on email and organized a Visa. For me, I got to New York and then found Milk and Honey which just happened to be the same time that Micky was starting there.

What was your first impression when you started working together?

Sam: Sasha hired both of us on the spot. He had a thing for international bartenders. At the time the idea of the professional American bartender didn’t really exist. Sasha was pretty fresh off of setting up Milk and Honey in London so he had experienced the professionalism of bartenders outside of America. Sasha told me I had to go meet Micky and that he hoped we’d be friends because we were going to be working a lot together. So I go, I meet him at Milk and Honey and my first thought was “Oh sweet. I’m better looking than him.”

Michael: That’s not true! My first impression when I met Sam- you can see now he doesn’t have much hair left? Well, when I first saw him, he was the same height, obviously, but he had this thick black hair that he gelled  into spikes and he looked like a fucking dick. And I thought “This is never going to work.” But honestly, as cliche as it sounds, we became best friends immediately and our relationship has just gotten stronger and stronger over the past 11 years.

And then you guys took over the old Milk and Honey when it moved…

Michael: So we ran that space for 8 years, essentially. We closed 13 years to the day and the chance for us to take it over happened and we did it. It was a chance that we grabbed with both hands. A lot of people already saw us and the room as one so it made a lot of sense.

I’ve read a number of interviews where you’ve both said that the room has a very special place in your hearts and the hearts of your customers. I’m sure keeping you on helped, but how do you cultivate this feeling of  belonging for your customers once?

Sam: We certainly maintained certain elements be it visual or service style that were from the old room. The intimacy of the space, the four walls, the dimensions didn’t change so you still get that feeling when you come in off Eldridge Street, through the curtains into this little beacon of joy amongst a pretty, smelly back street in Chinatown. There are still certain elements that you’ll feel when you walk in that you felt the first time walking into Milk and Honey. It’s a bit of a small detail but we took the pressed tin off the ceiling and put it on the bar front. The exposed brick wall is still there although we’ve white washed it. If you look closely, the Cynar painting is still behind the shelves. There’s still a sense of nostalgia with the place but with a much needed makeover.

Michael: For years we’d sit at the bar after our shift having a beer or a scotch and we’d say if we ever had this bar, what would you do with it….never thinking that it would actually happen. We said we’d extend the bar, we’d like to be able to see outside, play our own songs and wear our own kind of clothes. When the chance came up we were like, oh shit, in our heads we’ve been doing this for years.

Did the bar come to fruition the way you had talked about over the years?

Michael: 100%. We had it already in our heads and that’s what we did.

Sam: We went to the mattresses and pulled every dollar that we had stashed over the years.

Michael: And that’s the thing too. For years it was just me and Sammy putting away all of our tips. I sleep easy every night knowing that we put everything that we have into this- our heart, our soul, our life savings, our everything and it’s ours. Not to take away from other people that find an investment or a backer. We’ve just put our blood, sweat and our tears into this and it’s all over the place. It’s on the floor, it’s on the walls, it’s in the drinks and the ice that we cut. And we’re still hands on. We’re still on the bar three nights a week. We still have our clientele that have been coming there for years from the old bar as well. We’re very much hands-on guys because we love it still. It’s our bar and it’s our room. We’ve been going there for 11 years and it’s still fucking awesome.

How did your relationship evolve once you both went from managing a bar to owning a bar together?

Sam: It was the same. When it was Milk and Honey, it was an all-in sort of a job and Sasha gave us the full length of the leash to do anything we needed to do in that space. I guess that’s what gave us that sense of ownership with Milk and Honey anyways. So it really wasn’t that much of a transition, at least relationship-wise.

Michael: I think it was also because our friendship was too strong. We had known each other for eight years to that point. I remember having a chat where we agreed that no matter what happened, it wasn’t going to come between us. There’s arguments of course, that’s going to happen. But our friendship right now is as tight as it’s ever been. I think that helps and shows in the bar- the fact that we’re on shift together and with the staff who we’ve had from the first day, no one’s left.

If it hadn’t have been taking over the old Milk and Honey, do you think you would have inevitably opened a bar together anyways?

Sam: 100% This had been something we  were working on for a while. We got into this industry quite young and so we definitely had opportunities to earlier, but we never felt rushed to. The changeover took about two years so we first sort of came to an agreement with Sasha in 2011 and that was time. We were ready. We felt like it was our time. Things take time in the construction world and it took Sasha two years to find a space that he liked and get it opened. If it wasn’t for that, yes, we undoubtedly would have been opening our own spot together somewhere in New York.

Michael: And getting back to what Sam said, we weren’t in any rush. We were very happy in our jobs which is why we were there for eight years. Working there wasn’t just like working at a regular bar. This was a very important, iconic thing. We were just happy there, ya know?

 

  • elaine laurin

    great piece tal and guys.

  • “Unctuous”, i never heard that word before. I did try to google it though..
    pumasera.com