Long one of our favorite NYC bar personalities and highly conceptual mixologists (mutually exclusive, thank you), Eben Freeman has been laying low for a hot minute—until now. Last we saw Freeman, he was working magic in the basement bar of West Soho's failed experiment Tailor. (The space will soon be taken over by Clover Club's Julie Reiner. More on that). Now, after consulting stints in Asia, he's back in NYC (sorta) and ready to bring some big-brained concepts to a city "stuck in the rut of traditionalism," as Freeman recently told us at the 2010 Taste of the Nation. Also on his mind? Keg cocktails and taking a break from Sam Mason.
Since Tailor shuttered, I haven't seen you in awhile. Have you been out of town?
I have. I've been traveling in Asia for about the last 11 months—to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore—doing development work for different groups. We're designing bar carts and working on a pressurization system where I can do cocktails on draft in restaurants.
As usual, you're really on the cutting edge. I mean, you were talking about doing tiki long before it became this big thing in New York. So what will we be writing about in a year?
Well, as you know, I'm a little disappointed, to be honest. With Tailor, we had really thrown some vocabulary out there which people have since copied. I think there's a lot of really talented young bartenders who are unfortunately stuck somewhat in a rut of traditionalism. I'd really like to see some of them push the envelope a little bit. As far as I'm concerned, this draft cocktail idea is the future—being able to do forced combinations, like sodas, on draft. Soda has been a trend for awhile [Editor's note: Yes, indeed], but the idea of being able to do it all in a minute.
So, cocktails on draft?
You've seen me do the pressurization in the small bottles [at Tailor]. I'm now doing that in a 5-gallon Cornelius keg.
Is that what you were doing with the smoked Coke?
The smoked Coke was definitely where the whole idea started, which gave me an understanding of how soda systems work. We took the Coca-Cola syrup and we'd smoke it, and then I'd put it back in the Cornelius keg and hook it up to my soda system, and you could actually do it with a gun. The problem was that once I had smoked Coke, I had smoked club soda and smoked ginger ale. So, with this new system, you can have dedicated lines that can be changed like beer lines. Think kegs of margarita and rum cocktails.
In the meantime, will you be working some shifts in NYC?
I'm thinking about working with somebody who has a number of venues and has one that he doesn't use on Mondays and Tuesdays. What I hope becomes a developing trend, is the idea of doing flights and tastings of cocktails—because when a customer comes in, you never know how many drinks they're going to have. It's difficult to pace their experience. I'm thinking of doing something where you can come in and have shots and cans of beer and relax and hang with me. But if you want the cocktails, you have to go through the whole flight
What's your advice for Julie Reiner, who's taking over the Tailor space to open Hawaiian-themed Lani Kai?
I hope she does well down there. It's a challenging neighborhood, and she's going to be doing unusual food and drinks. But she's got a huge client base, so I think that she'll have a good chance. It's great that Julie's doing it, because the weekends can be bridge-and-tunnel down there, and she's dealt with that. A really uptight bartender would have a real problem doing that.
Do you miss working in NYC?
Oh yeah, without question. Again, I'm disappointed the language wasn't picked up and the people weren't being more creative and adventurous. There're a lot of people doing exactly what I do, there are small riffs on it, but I'm really waiting for somebody to break out and do something insane.
Have you spoken with Sam Mason recently?
I think he's opening up a whiskey and beer bar [Edit: He opened Lady Jay last weekend]. I think Sam needs a little time away from me and all of my attention. He's looking for a place where he can drink after a day of work. But Sam will always influence my work. I miss Tailor and I miss the scene and also New York. If nothing else, we were a little bit different, and I think people miss having an alternate opinion.
Photo by Sam Horine