In September, the bar Apothéke opened in an unmarked space on Doyers Street, a tiny alley in Chinatown that sort of plays hangnail to Worth Street's cuticle. Apothéke is one of those semi-private venues, a bar you can't get into; that it's close to a secret tunnel makes it all the more baroque. You half expect to find a minotaur preening in the bathroom mirror with a bottle of Binaca and a comb. The name Apothéke refers to the pharmaceutical-themed nature of its mixed drink menu. The idea is that the place raises the bar for bars, and that head chef (or lead apothéker, as it were) Albert Trummer is half-and-half supertaster and chef, and one part sage. His specially concocted, spiced-tinctures-botanical-elixirs might cure your woes, homesick blues, lovelorn heart, or gnostic turpitude, if you're into that kind of thing.
Trummer is smart, thoughtful and sometimes, a seemingly crazy, larger-than-life character (a few chefs and some of his own employees have confirmed this for us). Other bartenders flame lemon peels the size of nickels to add a citrus twist to drinks; Trummer does, too, but then lights the entire bar on fire and juggles champagne flutes while telling you a story about robot synthpop from his native Austria in the 1980s. Last month we went to the bar and spoke with the man behind the elderflower, just as he was about to set some house-made absinthe on fire.
How's stuff going at Apothéke? I'm so happy that we have a following after just a few months. We need to get more furniture!
Tell me about how you got into making drinks. I grew up in Austria and our family restaurant was on the first two floors with our home on the third floor. We also had a glasshouse, a herbal garden behind the house. My brother and I grew up tasting these foods and botanicals inside the energy of the restaurant. I have two brothers and one was more interested in the front of house and another in the kitchen. I wasn't that interested in either. We had a basement where we did private secret parties. We had smoke machines - it was almost like a mini Studio 54 in the cellar where my dad entertained his clients. At one point he became sick and stopped so I started throwing high school parties there when I was about sixteen. It had a hidden entrance and I wanted to entertain my friends with drinks.
What kind of drinks did you serve when you were sixteen? This was the late 80s so Bacardi and Absolut Vodka were big. I wanted to make my girlfriends a little drunk and tipsy, you know. You can drink at 18 in Austria but people drink earlier. These parties were very successful but after a year my dad shut me down. He said, you can't run a club, you have to go to school.
Where did you go from there? I began my training in restaurant school and I was greatly influenced by celebrity bartenders on cruise lines, and those at the Negreso Hotel working for Cipriani and aristocrats. They were a huge influence on me.
What drink epitomizes the 1970s? Gin Fizz. Because one of my mentors, when he trained in the bar, gin was big. After shaking the gin you had to fill up with the old soda gun and that was his first bartender job. I drank with those people - heard their stories. In Europe the kitchen and front of house were like sophisticated armies. And these front of house guys taught me the classic cocktail knowledge for a few years I ran a couple bars with them in Europe.
What's a good drink secret? A simple secret is a martini. There are 20 different ways to make one but it comes down to having a chilled shaker and the right ice. And the right amount of vermouth. It could be complicated but it's not. I also learned that alcohol, music, lights, etc. make people happy even if they're depressed or they're not in a good mood. And it was my mission to do that.
To make people happy? Yes. And I always wanted to create cocktails but my mentors said no. No. First you learn the classics from each family of cocktails. A martini, a margarita, a sour and so on. And I had to practice all the time. Smelling the liquor, tasting the liquor. When I made my first martini my mentor didn't even taste it, he said, "Put it away."
Like the Karate Kid. I had to make the martini like that 5, 6, times. Finally he said, "You're getting better. Let's talk in one month." After training, which was 5 years with these masters, plus restaurant school which was 3 years, then I could expedite drinks of the same quality.
I have to say, the bar surface itself is really beautiful. It glows. Thank you. It's onyx from Ferarra, Italy. A single piece of stone. My dream was to have a bar that was bigger than the lounge you know, a big bar. At Bouley I had such a tiny bar and had to do a 200 cover volume. And then in the old Nicole Fahri space I found my dream, the last piece for this space. It took me two weeks to get that 5 ton piece of marble out.
How did Apothéke get it? My brother worked for Nicole Fahri and one night in February after we signed the lease the manager there said, oh I'm so exhausted. And I all I could think was, oh where's the bar? I have to have it. No one wanted to help because it's so heavy and it's so delicate. I was there every day to make sure no piece got cut out.
But back to Bouley. When I came to New York I saw a major potential with the drinking business. It was 1998 and everyone was focusing on the top chef, the master chef, the celebrities. David Bouley, Jean Georges, Tom Colicchio was starting to become known, Daniel of course. Remember, fine dining was huge. There was even this big cafe with models and a catwalk in the middle. What was it called?
The Fashion Cafe? Yes. And I was thinking this is New York City you know, where are the drinks? They were missing. The classic service was missing, the culture was missing. It was all about the number of covers. I think my first mentor was David Bouley. He was one of the first to put a lot of effort into his bar, the same kind he put into his food - and he would fly on private jets to Maine to visit the fishermen and pick out the lobsters. He shipped in herbs and spices and made everything available to me as well. I mean, for the first six months, he didn't talk to me but then he noticed what I was doing and then he was so supportive.
So you came up with this term, bar chef. Bouley wanted a signature drink so I did a cocktail with elderflower, which is huge now as a cocktail ingredient. After two years with him researching ingredients and playing with them in the kitchen, I called myself a bar chef. I didn't think mixologist was right.
What's not to like about mixologist? It's a good word. But I think it comes down to the bartender. An experienced guy who knows his liquors, that's a mixologist. A bar chef is a little different. A bar chef is someone who works closely with the kitchen - not someone who puts three raspberries in a cocktail. I use similar techniques to a cook. I reduce sauces, I made my own sugar cane with a press. I make purees and I use juicers. I make fresh infusions. Everything is fresh. I have a guy who runs around and gets me fresh herbs every day, he's my shopper the same way Daniel has a shopper.
Where did you go from Bouley? After two years I got the job at Town at the Chambers Hotel and the 60 Thompson Hotel. It was the chic place to go. And I thought I'm producing something chic so I called it the fashion cocktail. It was seasonal cocktails with fresh seasonal fruits. I thought, there must be something else. So now I'm taking it a step further with herbs and botanicals because I think the bar is a mood changer. There are a few special recipes that I'm using and when I give them to my customers they feel good. I had this idea with the design to do "pharmaceutical cocktails" to put you in a special mood. Like how Champagne lifts your energy and tequila is a painkiller. I'm working with a lot of herbs from south america. We're trying to make it all legal, using old recipes from the Aztecs and the Incas; Carribean house remedies - they don't use conventional medicines but they feel good after they make it. Like Freud, I think the dose is the most important thing. This is my vision: don't kill the customer. You need to have the right dose. So we don't use high alcohol.
On your drink menu here, for one of your 'elixirs,' it says the herbs and oils are from an ancient Italian monastery. Every liquor has its secrets and in Italy they use amaros and no one knows what they are, forgotten herbs. And I found out about these legal mood-making herbs in combination, a secret recipe that's very interesting.
Where do you eat? I always go back to restaurants where I have great relationships with the chefs - like Fabio Trabocchi, Fiamma. I go back to Bouley all the time. The food is fantastic and I love their tasting menu. I love Daniel of course, and he visits me here.
What do you make for Daniel? He likes the absinthe. And he likes Champagne. I have a good Champagne story! Eckart Witzigmann has a restaurant called Aubergine in Munich that was always fully booked for 4 months at a time. You paid $350 per person and he was one of the most respected chefs in Germany. When I worked for him, he'd come in at 10 in the morning and ask for his Champagne. And I said, sorry sir. And he asked, Dom Perignon 85, where is it? He expected chilled glasses and the right temperature. By end of the shift each day, he finished it. What I learned is, Champagne is almost like speed. Coffee affects your liver, but Champagne doesn't.
OK. You choose drinks for people based on what you perceive about them. If Obama came in for a drink what would you recommend for him? For politicians it's very hard. We did a party for Clinton at the Waldorf in '99 and we had a famous Austrian sommelier who worked for everyone, Daniel, Bouley, etc., and he likes wine very much. He calls himself The Grape.
I'm sorry. He calls himself "The Grape"? Yeah. He has really unbelievable wine knowledge.
OK. So he served at the Waldorf and Clinton has a speech and Alexander came up and said we have a magnum of Cheval Blanc 55. Would you like a glass? And Clinton said, I'd prefer a Diet Coke. That's how politicians are. Wall Street guys are stressed this time of year and they need pain relievers. People in love need Campari and Cognac. Champagne helps me to control my stress a little. I want to do a little absinthe show for you. I also want to have the visual affect. It's not like Vegas where it's a show with flames. It's also good to drink, it makes you feel good. My house absinthe.
At this point the interview stops. Trummer disappears into the prep kitchen behind the bar. A bartender comes over and issues a warning to stand back. "Albert throws the flames this far," he says, pointing to a spot on the floor. Apothéke's 'apothékers' also move to one end of the bar, as if they know the drill. Trummer reemerges, makes a neat row of glasses with tall stems, and organizes some other equipment neatly in front of him. The house sound system, which up until this point was doing a lot of Brazilian pop music, is abruptly turned off and replaced by The Steve Miller Band's Abracadabra. Customers gather at the end of the bar, and Trummer rolls up his sleeves a little. The song gets louder once the first chorus hits.
When asked, through the blaring music, if he chose this song for the house-absinthe-making performance-barside kabuki on purpose, Trummer nods his head emphatically YES to the beat a couple of times, while centering a prim and plain sugar cube on the grated absinthe spoon he's placed like a bridge across the mouth of a rocks glass. He pours some clear liquid from an unmarked bottle with his other hand. The area of the bar Trummer works also contains a pyrex Erlenmeyer flask and some other laboratory pieces he might have gotten for a steal from one of Frankenstein's eBay auctions. The whole thing happens kind of fast, but it is definitely around this time that curly blue flames start appearing; Trummer dips the stemware in his botanical-steeped alcohol, then double dips in his little hellish pool of absinthe fire. Trummer talks to the flames, or maybe just sings to himself, while he works. In either event, he tosses fireballs of the mixture from one glass to another at key moments of the song, and otherwise neatly pours the flaming alcohol between glasses to mix it.
When the song ends, the flames are extinguished and everybody goes nuts. "Shoot it in one go," Trummer says, handing out glasses to the crowd.