The famous lyric about New York — if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere — is especially true about bartending. Working the stick in the city of all cities puts you in contact with people from around the world, guests who may request Lord knows what and have very different expectations as to what those drinks may look and taste like. In the final analysis, there is more pressure per square inch bartending in New York than just about anywhere.
One of the celebrities of the New York bartending scene is Brian Miller, a seasoned veteran who has served with distinction at two of Manhattan’s most prestigious cocktail haunts — Pegu Club and Death & Company. However, Miller’s credentials go deeper than just where he’s worked. It’s more about how he works. His movements are precise yet graceful, and he always seems to be in total command of the situation. He maintains eye contact and ongoing conversations with all of the guests seated at his bar, which is especially impressive when the place is jammed.
In addition to being a highly skilled bartender, Miller is a seriously talented mixologist who refuses to take himself seriously. “The word mixologist makes me sound more important than I really am. I’m just another guy in NYC who makes drinks — sometimes good ones. I got into bartending for the same reasons Rocky Balboa got into boxing: because I can’t sing or dance, or in my particular case, I can’t carry a tray.”
Like most, Miller’s immersion into bartending began because he desperately needed to make rent and getting into the service industry was the quickest way to make cash. He started in the restaurant business as a food runner.
“At the time, I didn't even know what that meant. I quickly found out it meant carrying a large tray of food up a flight of stairs about a hundred times a night. And then I finally got promoted to the bar, pouring wine and beer. I felt at home behind the bar. All the while my brother Danny used to take me to bars to watch bartenders work — that was the quickest and ultimately the best way to learn how to be a bartender.”
Miller now can be found behind the bar at New York’s Lani Kai, a restaurant and artisanal cocktail lounge located in the Soho district. It’s a brilliantly appointed restaurant and cocktail lounge with an upscale Polynesian motif and sub-tropical ambiance. Brainchild of Julie Reiner — owner of the landmark Flatiron Lounge, Clover Club — Lani Kai is a bona fide slice of paradise.
“Now I have my Tiki pirate crew at Lani Kai and couldn’t be happier. Tiki Mondays is where I found solace. I’m probably a tad biased, but I think Tiki is the most significant beverage trend in the offing. I hope that one day Tiki drinks will get the same amount of respect that pre-Prohibition style drinks do. I hope that the world of Tiki drinks keeps expanding beyond just rum, juices and crushed ice. I hope you all one day know what it feels like to ‘escape’ into a Tiki bar.”
Like most professionals, Miller has been the direct beneficiary of sage advice, without which he feels he wouldn’t have attained whatever modicum of success he now enjoys.
“There were three people who gave me great advice. Ben Dougherty of Zig Zag Cafe in Seattle advised me to be humble and work in service. When I first started working at Pegu Club about six years ago, my brother Danny told me — in regards to keeping up with dupes and the demands of customers — that you can only go as fast as you can possibly go. Otherwise, you will start making mistakes. One day, when I was drowning at the service bar, Audrey Saunders — owner of Pegu — said, ‘You're not Superman, ask for help.’”
When asked what is the biggest mistake many bartenders make, Miller hesitated at first, then said the desire for recognition and having an over-inflated sense of self.
“This is the service industry, people; we’re here to serve. The customer is the star of the show, not you. It’s not about what you want to make, it’s about what the customer wants to drink. Your job is to make them feel better when they leave than when they came in. Making a name for yourself in the press is overrated. What the customers, your regulars and what your peers think of you is the only true currency you have. Awards and press clippings fade, the stories your customers and friends tell of you will last forever. It goes back to what Ben Dougherty said about being humble.”
Miller believes that beverage operators can greatly improve the relationship they have with their staff by simply listening to their bartenders. “They’re on the front lines every day and know what is best for the bar. People want to feel like they are a part of something and that their opinions matter. It’s what helps them get through the most frustrating and mundane of days. And a simple ‘thank you’ and ‘good job’ goes a lot further than you may think.”
If you find yourself in Manhattan on any given Monday, stop by the Lani Kai and find out firsthand why Brian Miller is the consummate bartender’s bartender.