Milk & Honey became a phenomenon, known for its unapologetic dedication to expertly crafted, pre-Prohibition era cocktails, not to mention its eccentric reservation system and exacting rules of decorum.
Sasha Petraske, who helped restore lost luster to the venerable cocktail as the founder of the New York cocktail bar Milk & Honey and other polished drinking spots around the world, was found dead Friday at his home in Hudson, N.Y. He was 42.
His wife, Georgette Moger, said he had died overnight. The cause had not been determined, she said.
Petraske’s role in the modern cocktail revival is difficult to overstate. The opening of Milk & Honey in 1999, in a narrow space on a dark, little populated block of the Lower East Side, has been called instrumental in the revival of cocktail culture across United States and beyond.
Though unmarked and unadvertised, Milk & Honey became a phenomenon, known for its unapologetic dedication to expertly crafted, pre-Prohibition era cocktails, not to mention its eccentric reservation system and exacting rules of decorum. In a Manhattan bar world then ruled by glitz and noise, sloppy drinks and sloppy behavior, it served as a rebuke and a utopian alternative.
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Petraske went on to open similarly urbane and serious-minded bars with a number of partners, many of them former Milk & Honey bartenders. These included Little Branch in Greenwich Village; Dutch Kills in Queens; Middle Branch in Midtown Manhattan; the Varnish in Los Angeles; and the Everleigh in Melbourne, Australia. Petraske also opened a roomier version of Milk & Honey in London with Jonathan Downey, a British entrepreneur.
Petraske’s influence can be seen in myriad details now common to cocktail bars worldwide, including hidden entrances, a focus on classic cocktails and a formal attire adopted by bartenders.
He also championed the “bartender’s choice” found on many cocktail menus, the use of jiggers to measure out drinks, and the ubiquitous use of cucumber slices in water glasses. Many leading bartenders in the cocktail industry began their careers at Petraske bars.
Sasha Nathan Petraske was born in Manhattan on March 16, 1973. His father, Alan, was an administrator in the health-care industry. His mother, Anita, was a fact-checker at The Village Voice. His parents, like his grandparents, were Communists, and they bred in him, he said, a distrust of capitalism and a sympathy for the laboring classes. That influence later played out in his dealings with his employees. He openly, and cheerfully, admitted to being a poor businessman.
“I abandoned the idea of communism early,” he said in an interview, “but the ideals of social justice stayed with me.”
As a teenager Petraske attended Stuyvesant High School but dropped out — he said it had bored him — to take a job in a cafe. Soon he took a cross-country bicycle trip, lived in San Francisco for a while and joined the Army, serving for three years. Back in New York, he worked at Von, a bar in the East Village and began to dream of opening a bar that would reflect his love of jazz, vintage clothes and old-fashioned decorum.
Responding to an ad in The Village Voice for a narrow commercial space on Eldridge Street at $800 a month, he learned the landlord had been a friend of his in the fifth grade. Promising to run a quiet bar, he began renovating the space. Soon broke, he borrowed money from friends, and, with little fanfare, opened Milk & Honey on Dec. 31, 1999. He borrowed many stylistic aspects — rules of etiquette, quiet atmosphere, large ice cubes — from Angel’s Share, a bar he admired in the East Village.
With his dark, slicked-back, 1930s labor-leader haircut and suits, Petraske lent a bygone formality to Milk & Honey. Enigmatic, and allergic to the press, he refused to be interviewed at first or even to give out his last name.
Becoming rich and famous never seemed to be a priority.
“I’d go work as a consultant, make money, take it and use that for Milk & Honey,” he said.
In 2012, he was a co-founder the San Antonio Cocktail Conference, an annual convention.
That same year, Petraske handed the keys to the New York Milk & Honey to two of his longtime bartenders, who reopened the space as Attaboy. Petraske then moved his bar to bigger digs on West 23rd Street. The new location did not last long. The building was sold, and a demolition clause in the lease forced him to vacate.
Petraske had suffered financial setbacks in recent years, but he planned to open a third version of the bar. He had also expected to open a new bar, Falconer, this fall in Brooklyn.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his father and a sister. His mother died this summer.
Though often accused of spawning a pretentious new breed of bartender, Petraske played down his impact.
“When it comes down to it, the Milk & Honey way is not an intellectual way of drinking, talking about cocktails,” he said in an interview. “That’s just silly. It has its place. It can be thrilling to catch bits of inside baseball. But it’s nothing that needs to be talked about. Cocktails are to be experienced.”