If you've met Sam Ross, you certainly haven't forgotten him. Until recently he sported a mullet and a Mohawk (the mullet now hangs on his refrigerator door, still in its hair band). If Ross has made you a drink, you won't have forgotten that either, especially if it was a Penicillin, the drink that's come to be associated with his name. It's well on its way to becoming a latter-day classic. The first time I sat at New York cocktail bar Milk & Honey, some four years ago, I ordered one of these arrangements of smoky Islay whisky atop a froth of ginger, honey, lemon and blended Scotch. It now stands as my favourite cocktail of all time.
When I joined Ross one afternoon for lunch at Brooklyn's sepia-tinged Fort Defiance restaurant, he said, "I'm channelling Gene Wilder," as he greeted me, rolling his eyes toward the puff of hair floating above his forehead. Not unlike a young Dr Frankenstein, the Melbourne native has more than a streak of flamboyance (an old red Vespa and denim suits are among his weaknesses) and is quietly inventive. He didn't realise the Penicillin was a revelation until a waitress at Milk & Honey's sister bar, Little Branch, insisted that everyone should experience the drink at least once. With a cult following akin to that of Dick Bradsell's Bramble or Dale DeGroff's Whiskey Smash, the Penicillin now appears on cocktail lists in establishments all over the world, including Ross's favourite restaurant, Keens Steakhouse in New York. "It gives me great pleasure to think that people might be drinking it long after I'm gone," says Ross. "It's very humbling."
Before he moved to New York, Ross helped build Melbourne's cocktail reputation with his work at the now bygone Ginger, says fellow bartender Matthew Bax of Der Raum. "I'm sure many of the cocktail-competition dudes were well happy when he left for the US," says Bax. "It gave them a chance to win something."
Bax's view that Ross has grown to be one of the finest classic bartenders anywhere in the world is shared by many in the cocktail sphere. "And despite his huge reputation he remains ever so humble."
Knowing that New York's cocktail scene was where he wanted to forge a career, Ross sought out Sasha Petraske, the accidental inventor of nouveau speakeasy culture, and his tiny, sign-less back-alley bar, Milk & Honey. For those conspiring to re-create classic cocktail culture, Milk & Honey was and is hallowed ground, praised for its spare, prescriptive yet innovative approach to drinking. The bar has never had a menu, but the barkeeps are catalogues of classic and modern recipes.
Aside from the occasional flamed orange peel, there is nothing extravagant about Milk & Honey's style, and Ross's method is thoroughly informed by this approach. "He has a certain flair," says legendary tiki bartender Brian Miller. "He's extremely creative, and his drinks are well balanced but simple. I know no one else whose cocktail has gone global like the Penicillin." Miller adds, "We worked at Pegu Club together. I couldn't have long hair or jewellery. I got sent home on the first day to shave, and Sam shows up in acid-washed jeans with a mullet and a Mohawk. He looked like he'd just rolled out of a Loverboy video. But he could bartend circles around me. You can do anything you want when you're that good," he laughs. "And that accent - he could insult you and you'd thank him, he's so charming."
It's looking like a watershed year for Ross. He and fellow bartender Michael McIlroy are set to take over Milk & Honey's current clandestine Lower East Side digs when that bar relocates to a new site. They'll open Attaboy, a cocktail bar that promises to be more forthcoming than its predecessor by ditching the reservations-only policy, adding windows and introducing blackboard specials.
From his beginnings as a bartender in Melbourne, Ross has cultivated an ability to intuit a room's energy. "So many young bartenders are so focused on the drinks that they don't grasp the overall concept of being a bartender - having the right music, seeing if there's a situation over here, or if we're going to run out of this," he says. Then, reflectively, he declares, "I still just want to be behind the bar." Luckily, that's exactly where you'll be able to find him. Attaboy.