A Mezcal Master Turns to the Martini

A Mezcal Master Turns to the Martini


The New York bartender Phil Ward helped usher in the tequila and mezcal renaissance when he opened Mayahuel in 2009. That East Village bar was one of the first in the United States to focus on agave spirits and cocktails made with them. By the time it closed eight years later, there were mezcalerias across the country, and drinkers everywhere were calling for mezcal margaritas and mezcal Negronis.

Since Mayahuel’s passing, Mr. Ward has been biding his time mixing drinks at other people’s bars, notably Long Island Bar in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. But later this month, he will open a new bar in the borough’s Crown Heights section. It will be called Altar, and he’ll be serving … martinis?

“Obviously, I love agave spirits,” Mr. Ward, 45, said. “But I have to be honest, I’m so sick of making drinks with them. I don’t even like to drink agave that way. I like to drink it by itself. So I’m really excited to be able to make drinks with whatever I feel like.”

And so, in the name of variety, Altar will have a special martini menu. “I’m just obsessed with gin martinis,” he said. “It’s just a really fun box to play in, if you’re going to keep the integrity of it, with gin and vermouth and a little something extra.” Among the variations will be the Beefsteak Martini, a mixture of gin and both bianco and dry vermouths that is subtly infused with shiso.

The main cocktail menu will be compact, comprising just 10 or so drinks. Each will embody Mr. Ward’s belief that “there’s nothing as complex as simplicity.”

The Chrysin Martini will be a 50/50 martini made with Plymouth gin, Lustau Blanco Vermut and a chamomile-infused gin. The L’Overture will be a mix of pineapple-infused Jamaican rum, lemon juice, Angostura bitters, sparkling wine and a misting of Chartreuse. (Cocktails will cost about $13.)

Mr. Ward, whose business partner is Arturo Leonar (an owner of the Mexican restaurant Chavela’s, next door), is playing with a few other new ideas at Altar. There will be large-format drinks, served in various vessels of glass, metal and ceramic. Some cocktails will be accompanied by a small bite, such as chocolate or pickles, meant to compliment the flavor of the drink. And there will be a daily dealer’s-choice drink, which customers order with no hint of what it might be.

“You don’t know what it is,” said Mr. Ward. “You just get it.”

One thing you won’t find on the menu are nonalcoholic cocktails, one of the biggest drinking fads going. But then, Mr. Ward has never been one to follow trends. “We’ll have things needed to make a mocktail if someone doesn’t want to drink and wants to be part of the fun,” he said. “But I don’t think you need them on a menu. People come to bars to drink.”

Aside from the Palomino No. 2, a riff on a mezcal-grapefruit highball that was served at Mayahuel, there will be no echoes of the agave bar that made Mr. Ward’s reputation.

“This thing where people are opening McBars, where they open the same bar in different places — I just feel every bar is very particular, and the room is particular and it has a soul,” he said. “You should just open a new bar somewhere and call it something else.”

Altar, 645 Sterling Place, Crown Heights, Brooklyn. No phone or website yet.



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