Ask a Bartender: 16 Questions with New York City's Michael McIlroy at Attaboy
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Knock, knock, knock.
Here I am — soaking wet on a rainy Monday evening, banging on an unmarked door, ready for a serious bourbon-based cocktail after a hard workday. I pause and listen, hoping that I’ll get buzzed into Attaboy, the replacement bar for Milk & Honey’s original Lower East Side location taken over by its former bartenders, Michael McIlroy and Sam Ross.
Once inside, the tiny, quiet bar is similar to the original space with slight improvements, but the cocktails haven’t changed — still personalized for each guest and still some of the best in the city.
In between pouring spirits and being the boss, charming co-owner McIlroy told us in his Irish brogue what turns him on about bartending, how he feels about the term "mixologist," and how sometimes he’s happy just drinking beer and a few shots.
Some people call you Micky. Is that common, or is that name reserved for people who know you well?
Honestly, I've never introduced myself as Micky in my life. My friends do that for me, which is fine. I've nothing against it, but if my mother heard me introduce myself as Micky, I’d get a clip around the ear.
You were a bartender in Belfast before heading to New York. How many total years have you been tending bar?
Yes, I started at the ripe, old age of 16 back in Belfast. I was lucky that I kind of knew what I wanted to do at an early age.
What brought you to New York?
To cut a very long story short, when I was 21, I flew over to New York to ask Sasha if I could have a job at Milk & Honey. It was the only bar in the world I wanted to work at. The rest is history.
Where/when was your first gig? How many bartending jobs have you had?
I've had only a few bar jobs. My first gig was at a hotel bar in Belfast. Then, I started working at a cocktail bar called Apartment, which to me was the coolest bar in the world. It was here that I fell in love with shaking drinks. After that, I started working for Sasha, which lasted eight amazing years, and now I've got Attaboy.
What turns you on about bartending?
Blowing people's minds. It's still so cool to freak people out with the block ice and silver straws. Introducing them to sprits and styles of drinks that they've never had before. But on the flip side, I love the simple things: A beautiful tray of drinks about to be sent to a table bringing people together, having a busy bar, getting slammed on a Saturday.
Many bartenders claim to be "mixologists" now. How do you feel about the term? Do you consider yourself one? Why/why not?
I’ve no real issue with term, but it's a rather silly name, if you ask me. Elitist, one might say. I personally wouldn't call myself one, and I know my colleagues don't describe themselves as "mixologists." Although I do make cocktails and have done so for years, I can also pour an exceptional pint of Guinness. I know some mixologists who can't. Maybe that's why they call themselves that.
You were part of the crew at Milk & Honey for eight years before it closed its original location to expand. What made you want to take over the space as your own instead of move over to the new location?
To myself and Sam [Ross], it was a room very close to our heart. It's been an important location in the world of cocktails since it opened and has inspired an incredible number of bars around the world so keeping that place "alive" was a very simple decision.
In what ways has it been rewarding being the boss now?
Owning a bar has been my dream since I was 16, but it hasn't sunk in, yet. Being a boss is slightly daunting, though. I’m making most of it up day-by-day.
I noticed you kept the same format (no menu, buzzing people in, a quiet bar). Why do you think this concept works so well?
It's a small space so it's manageable. Anything larger and it would start to get difficult.
What have you changed about the bar or space?
We've made the bar longer, [changing] four seats to eight with some standing room. And, we relaxed the famous house rules. We also cleaned up the window so we can see some light coming in. Hopefully, people will stop calling it a speakeasy now.
Have you seen some familiar faces (former guests) from the original Milk & Honey?
A lot. It's been great having the same guys back in. The response from our "hard-core" regulars has been great.
What are a few of your favorite cocktails to make? And why?
Love the classics, of course, but it’s also cool to find some hidden gems in the old guides from yesteryear.
What spirit is sexiest to you? Why?
Campari. It's Italian. Enough said.
For you, which spirit is the most versatile?
[It’s] got to be gin.
Somebody wants a cocktail with no preferences, allergies, or aversions. What’s the first thing that pops up in your mind?
What an annoying customer (ha ha, only joking). I guess each bartender has a couple of surefire hits that will please most crowds. Something like a Gold Rush [bourbon, honey syrup, and lemon juice] is always a crowd-pleaser. If it’s a more experience drinker, I'll probably do a boozy Manhattan or martini variation. I always find myself slipping into drinks that I want.
What are a few of your favorite watering holes and why?
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