A native of Venezuela, 2011 New York Rising Star Mixologist Leo Robitschek might have cultivated a sufficiently happy career somewhere well below the equator. But lucky for the craft cocktail population of North America, Robitschek made an early and pivotal move stateside. And while Robitschek’s early goals had little to do with mixology (he originally came here to attend the University of Miami), that little leap over the Caribbean put the young collegian on a crash course with cocktail culture.
It was while attending university that Robitschek began his career in hospitality, bartending to make ends meet. A self-described “really bad bartender” early on, Robitschek eventually caught on to an actual passion for the industry when he moved to New York, where he discovered wine, beer, and eventually spirits at Sushi Samba. Robitschek wasn’t a voluntary student—theSushi Samba beverage director made wine and spirits class mandatory—but he was a natural student. And while he doesn’t currently identify himself as the “farm-to-cocktail” type of bartender, Robitschek was moved by even the modest emphasis on spirits knowledge and fresh fruits and juices at his first New York job.
Now in his sixth year on the team at Eleven Madison Park (he was hand picked, and has since been promoted to head bartender), Robitschek has immersed himself in the cocktail world, creating cocktails that honor legendary classics and work in harmony with Chef Daniel Humm’s cuisine. Most recently, Robitschek helped run the apprentice program at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans where, in 2011, Eleven Madison Park was recognized as the “Best Restaurant Bar in the World.” Among his mentors, Robitschek counts Jim Meehan and Julie Reiner.
Interview with Mixologist Leo Robitschek of Eleven Madison Park - New York, NY
Emily Bell: What drew you to restaurants and, in particular, mixology?
Leo Robitschek: I worked in hospitality through college, then I bartended. I was a really, really bad bartender. One of my coworkers had been an investor at Sushi Samba. I worked at Sushi Samba, the one at 7th Avenue South. Paul Tanguay was the beverage director for both locations. He ended up founding Tippling Brothers with [Tad] Carducci. But at that time he was a big stocky guy. He made us take mandatory classes on Tuesdays about sake, wine, and spirits. Coming form Miami, I thought I knew, but I realized I didn’t know much.
I started really liking wine first. From wine I moved on to sake and beer and spirits. I started playing around with different fresh juices, learning how to taste spirits, then I moved on to a few other places. The last six years at Eleven Madison Park really sort of changed my mindset and got me more into classic cocktails. I picked up any book that I could, I went to any seminar that I could. I worked with a lot of great, like-minded people. From there I sort of fell in love.
EB: Were you trained in bartending or mixology?
LR: I learned the basics from Sushi Samba—one of the first locations that was really doing fun things, they had a Pisco Sour on the menu that actually used egg whites, fresh juices, and fresh fruits. It was not my style of cocktail, but nine or ten years ago, using fresh juices, fresh fruits, it was a big deal. It was a very fruit and kitchen-driven program. At that time, not many people were doing classically-driven programs using more spirits and bitters like they are now.
EB: Is that where you land on the cocktail map?
LR: I think I’m definitely a bit more classically-driven. My roots are definitely in the classics. I enjoy using different spirits. While I’m pretty blessed to have an amazing produce section at Eleven Madison Park, we do definitely use a lot of that, it’s not completely my style. I’m not going to make a ginger raspberry Mojito. Not that there’s not a place for that. I’d rather make sure every single thing in a cocktail is there for a reason. I’d much rather showcase the whisky or gin, maybe using fresh fruits or juices or other spirits, but everything should be there for a reason, in my opinion at least.
EB: What are you favorite flavor combinations?
LR: I love bitters. Love, love, love bitters. I like playing with whisky, obviously. Bitters and sour, I love citrus and bitters. A lot of people traditionally don’t like mixing the two. You sort of learn they don’t go together. I like playing with aromatized wines a lot. They’re lighter in alcohol, so they work so well in many ways. Stuff like Cocchi Americano, Lillet, or vermouth. A lot of people don’t [use] vermouth as a base spirit. I like playing with those and Sherries as well.
EB: What are some current trends you’ve seen in the cocktail market? How have trends changed?
LR: I think people call a lot of things trends. There are so many different facets of bartending. There’s definitely a place for all of them. Some people have fresh produce, and fresh kitchen-to-bar programs. That’s cool and inspiring and great, but it’s not what drives me. There’s a trend in aging spirits. I think it’s great—what you can get from some cocktails—but sometimes it’s a little overdone. Realistically you don’t want to oxidize a vermouth, it just sits there over a month. Sometimes the flavors are great.
My favorite trend is people trying to do craft cocktails all over the place. I don’t know if it’s a trend as much as more people getting inspired to learn. I can walk into restaurants now and see people trying to do creative things. Before, you’d have basic flavoring components. Even places like TGI Fridays now, they’re trying to do some classics on the menu. I think that’s pretty cool. I love that people are exploring a lot more in bitters, bitters in general, and amaros. I just think it’s getting a little obsessive, that every single person is making a bitter now. I don’t know if that’s completely necessary. Another trend I enjoy is using the iSi infusions. It’s an amazing way to infuse a spirit with only certain things, obviously for a shorter amount of time.
EB: What goes into creating a cocktail? How long does it take to create a new cocktail?
LR: It’s one of these things where you might have inspiration for a drink and think “Oh my god this could be delicious.” And you could make a cocktail and the first is perfect. You try doing different incarnations and no match. Or it could be an idea that just doesn’t come out. You might make 100 of that cocktail until you achieve a balance you want. Sometimes I’m inspired by guests. We have bartenders choice on the menu. Guests want this spirit and they want you to make it with different kinds of flavors. That’ll inspire me to play and make something.
At Eleven Madison Park I keep the bar menu a collaborative effort. With a new season coming, these are cocktails we’re removing. These are flavor components I want to focus on. These are things that we’re gonna have access to that I want to use. We’ll have four to five meetings, everyone will present, and we’ll all taste together. If you don’t do that and you’re one person making a list, your talent tends to be skewed one way. And it’s good to get feedback from other people. It’s the only way you can get inspiration.
EB: What inspires you when creating a new drink?
LR: A lot of things. A new spirit, when I taste it, I’m like “Wow this is really cool.” Vermouth de Cherino, a vermouth from the 1980s, has a great, sasparilla-like quality. Or a new rye or a new gin. But I’m definitely really inspired by seasonality as well. In New York we have four separate seasons that are really prominent. You really do get seasonal ingredients. Great tomatoes, corn, and berries in the summer. Winter comes along and there’s citrus fruits and pomegranates and spices and ciders. I definitely like to drink for the seasons. Growing up in Miami it was all sort of one season, with citrus-based cocktails. It’d be sort of weird to drink egg nog or a hot toddy and go pass out on the beach.
EB: What is your favorite cocktail to drink?
LR: Again I definitely drink time and place and of the season. If I go to a little Irish pub I’ll drink whisky and beer. If I go to cocktail bar, I’ll take something off their menu. At a restaurant I’ll have basics—Negroni, Manhattan, Martini. No matter how bad you do, it’ll be good. A lot of Negronis in spring, and whisky-based in winter. I like a great Martini.
EB: What’s your favorite drink to make?
LR: I like making tons of different cocktails. I’d rather make something for somebody that they’ve never really had. Something that’ll fit their bill. Seeing their eyes open and say “this is nothing I expected.”
EB: What are some of your favorite food-industry charities? Why?
LR: We’ve been working with Share our Strength quite a lot and City Meals on Wheels. We also work a lot with [Madison Square] Park. Obviously, it means a lot to us that we work with them quite a bit. We do that through Big Apple BBQ and other fundraisers. Flatiron chefs always participate.
EB: What does success mean for you?
LR: I think success is a lot of things. Growth, personal growth. Looking back and seeing what I’ve done in previous years and what I’m doing now, if I’m more proud of what I’m doing, not so much my job but what I’m creating. There’s obvious ones: getting press, winning awards. I think this year made a big impact on me. We got a new award at Tales, “Best Restaurant Bar in the World.” You were lucky enough to be nominated, more lucky to win. It’s great that so many people are recognizing each other. People think we’re actually doing a good job, that means success to me.
Another thing—I look at a lot of people I’ve worked with, seeing what they’re doing, how successful they are, that means the most to me. I look at who I taught to bartend, and they have an amazing palate and an amazing vision. Look at what he did at Compose—I think Eamon Rocky at Compose is amazing. It means a lot to me that he’s doing so well. There are different facets of success. Personal success to me is feeling better about what I’m doing. Success on a global level is more awards and press.
EB: Where will we find you in 5 years?
LR: Well, currently, I don’t know if you know about this new project called The Nomad – it’s on 28th and Broadway. It opens in February. We’re doing all the food and beverage. Chef Humm, the General Manager Will Guidara and myself. I’m basically focusing on that and Eleven Madison Park at the same time. I’m gonna stay at both. I still am going to be behind the bar. I’ll definitely work more on a managerial level than I do now. I say in a few years making The Nomad amazing, keeping Eleven Madison Park, and pushing the boundaries I want it to achieve. Hopefully, I’ll be working on new projects with the same group. They’re insanely amazing at what they do, and they have a knack for nurturing and pulling talent and supporting people they believe in.
EB: What would be your last cocktail (in your life)?
LR: It depends on the weather. If I’m sitting on the beach I want a Havana Club 3-Year or Havana Club 7-Year. If not, I probably want something like either a Brooklyn, or an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan. If somebody has a gun, an Old Fashioned or a Havana Club 3-Year Daiquiri. Whatever’s available.