21 Dec Interview with Seth Bulkin⎪Apotheke, NYC
OK, first of all, if you have not been to Apotheke, make sure you get yourself there pronto. If you haven’t even heard of it, well, then, we probably can’t help you, but you should read this interview anyway to find out more. A spacious-on-the-inside, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it from the outside kind of place, Apotheke is filled with warmth and old world charm, complete with chipped tile wall mosaics and plush sofas built into the walls. Obviously another reason we love Apotheke is because they stock FAIR. This should come as no big surprise to you, given you’re on our site and reading this, but we always like to give fair warning (see what we did there?). Here we chat to Director of Operations, Seth Bulkin, about Apotheke, how it got to be so legendary, and why they stock FAIR.
FAIR BLOG: Let’s start with the basics. I’m going to ask you about your bar, how it came to be, how long you’ve had it, the reasons behind it … everything!
SETH BULKIN: The bar was created by Heather and Chris Tierney, along with a guy named Albert Trummer. Heather was a food critic and Chris a designer. Chris had come up with an idea for this apothecary style bar and Heather wanted to start getting into the world of cocktails, and she had met Albert – Albert was this crazy Austrian cocktail guy. They wanted to start something new and it was around the time of the cocktail revival movement in New York nine years ago. Apotheke was one of the first.
They had the idea for a cocktail apothecary really, where all the ingredients are super fresh, and with lots of different herbs from around the word. Now we have an herb garden on the roof and we’re growing our own there which means lots of infusions and lots of unique ingredients that you are not going to find in traditional cocktails. Now it seems like there many bars that are doing infusions, using all kind of ingredients. It’s kind of nice in a way to see that our initial idea really took off and a lot of people have literally copied Apotheke all over the world.
So that’s where we started, but one of the things we stand by and that we maintain is for everything to be made in house, everything is made fresh, everything that is in the cocktails is juiced or made right here. We really do create everything here. Instead of popping open a bottle of pineapple juice or buying a bottle of lime juice, we never do anything like that. I think it’s also something you can decipher in the cocktail; when you get it and you taste it, you might go “why does this taste so good?” compared to what I am used to. Using fresh ingredients and fresh live herbs, it really does make a big difference.
Nine years is a long time for anything, especially a bar in New York City. Why do you think you have lasted so long?
To be here nearly ten years already is almost unheard of for something like this. The fact that we are able to not only maintain a high volume of clientele, we are also able to now expand and start opening up other locations, and we have product lines that are now coming out as well. We’re starting to really try and build the brand around what we’ve created here in New York City. Being that the original one is in New York City, that carries a lot of weight, both around the country and around the world. A lot of people look at New York City as kind of like the forerunner of ideas, it’s super cosmopolitan, and if you want to find out what are people doing, then you see what’s happening in New York. So, the ability to kind of maintain that here, I think, is what allows us to stay relevant. And the fact that we are trying to stay on the cutting edge of what we’re doing cocktail wise. We don’t keep a menu that is just stagnant, we have three different menus throughout the week.
That’s amazing, can you tell us more about the menus? How often will they change?
They were changing twice a year, but I’ve changed that up because I kinda of feel that the best ideas come when they come. We used to do tastings every six months, and we’d all sit around and people would try and come up with ideas two weeks before a tasting and try and cram. But my thought is that you get the best out of people when they are self motivated to do their thing. When you push it on some people, you will get a half assed version of what could be. The idea is to let that creativity ride and present when you think it’s perfect. When you feel like it’s done, present it, and we can take it from there.
One thing we do that I really like is the three different cocktail menus. We have one that is the house menu, that is five days a week, that’s our mainstay. That’s where majority of things that people are used to are found. Then we do a prohibition night on Wednesday and we have a special cocktail menu for that. They’re still very Apotheke but they are somewhat based around the idea of prohibition cocktails; they tend to be simplistic, and we try to take it and expand on it. We have live jazz and burlesque on Wednesdays and a password at the door, and a little peep hole. On Sundays we have a band called Live Footage, and they’re great. It’s a two piece band, cello and drums and the cello is run through all these different effects. It’s a trippy vibe and it’s real laid back. I decided I wanted to feature absinthe on that night because they work so well together. Apotheke has kind of been known as an absinthe den and we feature 13 different absinthes from around the world. So, we have created six cocktails specifically for that menu that feature absinthe. Sunday has a few other one offs as well. It gives a nice variety.
The other thing we do that I like is keep our menus nice and short. Our menus used to be very long and guests didn’t want to read through all that stuff, and decide which one out of 36 cocktails while the bar was three to four people deep. We’ve cut it down to 18 and each menu is set up as a prescription list. There are six categories for prescriptions. Each menu has its own set of categories, they aren’t the same. Each one of the drinks within a category features something that speaks to the category. Categories are things like stimulants, health and beauty – which is where the Kale and Comparison featuring FAIR vodka lives of course – etc. Each category has three drinks to choose from, which keeps it real easy for people.
Doyer street in Manhattan has a very rich history. We are in the five points area, which if you are familiar with gangs of new York and all of that, is where the Chinese and the Irish gang warfare would happen. Doyer street is a bit of a unique street. It is an s curve, which you really won’t find anywhere else in New York. Doyer street was once coined murder alley, or the bloody angle. The Chinese gangs in the Tong Wars, the hatchet men, they would square off right here, basically right where Apotheke sits, at the curve. They’d go at each other and it was pretty bloody. There were underground tunnels that would lead from Doyer street out to Mott street or straight out to the Bowery, for a quick escape. It’s cool because China Town is the area that is really yet to be gentrified.It’s very different, unique, when it comes to the location. There isn’t a train in a two to five min walk from here like most other locations. It’s a destination area; you really have to want to come here to be here. I think that the location has absolutely helped the allure of the business because it is kind of like that old world, the style of it is that old European style. When you come, what we’re trying to do is try and transport you from reality into an alternate reality. Kind of like when you go the movies or to a play or something, when you step inside suddenly you are somewhere else. That’s really what we are looking to do; Apotheke is really about the experience. Of course the cocktails have to be killing it, it’s the heart of the business, but we’re really about the experience you get when you come here. That’s what we try to provide each and every night.
Sounds great and we can’t wait to try a few more. So of course, we want to ask: why FAIR?
I can’t take credit for personally choosing FAIR but I did use FAIR vodka in our Kale and Comparison cocktail; it was one of my moves. What we do with the freshness of everything, and making things in house and in small batches, all the things that we really stand for, FAIR also stands for. We curate carefully by knowing the companies we stock; it’s my job to know all these things and know the spirits, and get a nice understanding of how each product is made and where they are made, and if they are doing it themselves, and how they are doing it, and all these different things.When it comes to FAIR, it’s really great, the product stands for what we stand for: it’s a small company that is doing a lot of good, they are giving back, and all organic. Using quinoa to distil vodka is unusual, most of the time you’re using winter weed or you’re using potato, or some other grain that is more prevalent in vodka. When I came in and took a look at what we had, I ended up doing a full change over of our spirit line. FAIR is one of the spirits that I didn’t change, and I wanted to give it a good home. The Kale and Comparison seems to be the fitting cocktail for it – the flavour is amazing, and as far as the health and beauty category goes, it has a really good fit. It was really a no brainer, I can’t take a lot of credit for it, it was like “hey! We go together.”
And to wrap up, a nice simple question. If you had to describe Apotheke in just three words, what would you use?
Unique experience are two words I would absolutely use, because it is very unique and we are all about experience. Time-warp might be last one.