Nestled in the middle of 33rd Street in Murray Hill, inside what used to be a dilapidated antique showroom, you can find one of the best cocktail bars in the city. There is nothing run-down about the cozy Middle Branch. In fact, the place feels a lot like hanging out in a friend’s home, especially if that associate is managing partner and drink maven Lucinda Sterling. Most of the beverages served at the nearly two-year-old spot focus on recipes from around the Prohibition era (think Old Fashioned and Tom Collins), so they have a simple yet well-balanced nature to them. Along with the classics, though, Sterling also offers a new menu each season to highlight what’s fresh right now, and a roster of specialty drinks made by her colleagues from the other venues owned by barman and businessman Sasha Petraske. “Nowadays,” Sterling says, “you don’t have to be a cocktail nerd to appreciate a good cocktail, which is great.” Read on to see exactly what she means.
How do you make a good spring drink?
We are looking at something that’s usually a little lighter and has citrus in it, but still has a long finish on the palate. You don’t want something that’s too refreshing, because the weather is not that nice out so you still want something that’s a little warming.
What kind of spring cocktails are you whipping up right now?
Right now we have the XYZ, which is like a sidecar with lemon juice and triple sec. Then there’s the Whiskey Fix, a simple drink I love that’s easy to make. It’s basically a sour with crushed ice. We are also doing a drink with Applejack, which is a bonded apple brandy, and fresh lemon juice and pomegranate or grenadine. That gives it a nice complexity and a longer finish. Mostly, we are focusing on lemon juice, because apparently there is a lime crisis in Mexico.
How is the Mexican lime crisis affecting the bar?
Prices of limes have gone up at least four times. In the past, we would be able to buy boxes of limes for $28 or $25, but now we are paying as much as $140. I Googled it, and they are saying it’s being caused by the drug cartel impeding the traffic of limes somehow. I didn’t look further than that. It’s affecting the bar for simple things like causing daiquiris to be more expensive. Rum is supposed to be one of the cheaper spirits to work with at the bar, but if you can’t make a simple daiquiri, it’s hard to really turn a profit.
Have you taken any drinks off the menu because of it?
I changed the entire menu to highlight lemon or stirred drinks. It’s great because in the spring you can still get away with stirred drinks and it doesn’t affect the guests’ enjoyment.
What’s one of the trends right now on the NYC bar scene?
Bitters. This bitters, that bitters, every bitters. And a lot of businesses are springing up. We use the basic Angostura, Peychaud’s, and Regans’, but I am seeing a lot of orange bitters by various places. There is Fee [Brothers] and, recently, I made friends with a co-Colorado resident [Ray Snead]. His company is called Cocktailpunk, and he makes an interesting smoked orange. Now I am waiting for popcorn bitters and mistletoe bitters.
So, basically, you want all the Jelly Belly flavors in bitters form?
Yeah, I think it would be good since you can’t muddle a jelly bean.
How do you use bitters?
Bitters are basically an addition to the cocktail that rounds out and blends all the ingredients. Like, some would argue, the way Worcestershire sauces or salt does to a steak; it brings out the flavor and homogenizes the overall taste.
What are some trending spirits?
Sherry is coming around and a lot of people are using it. I think it’s changed its image in the eyes of bartenders. You see it in things like tequila. I just talked to [mixologist] Leo Robitschek over at [Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star] Eleven Madison Park, and he suggested if I wanted to do something fruity with tequila, which I felt limited by, a glass of sherry would bring it down a bit. So, I am going to try it. Bianco [is popular now], too. It’s a form of white vermouth, but it’s kind of sweet and you can drink it on its own or use it in a cocktail. Also, St. George Spirits in California, they are coming out with a lot of eaux-de-vie [fruit-based distilled beverages], like raspberry and spiced pear. Just as we have a lot of bitters, we have eaux-de-vie for everything. I am working with spiced pear now to get it into a summery drink.
Any drink or liquors you have noticed people ordering a lot?
Overall, I have noticed a great trend in whiskey. It’s popular all-around. More guys come in and order an Old Fashioned — they came to the right spot. I wouldn’t order one just anywhere. It’s a more educated crowd that’s coming in here and I don’t have to talk them out of vodka with Red Bull. Maybe I owe a “thank you” to all those television shows [talking about whiskey].
Would you say shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire have made an impact on the bar scene here?
I certainly think so, and I am glad. Everybody needs to take a step back to an era where good things were created — like the 1920s, before artificial flavors, when real ingredients were always used.
How did you end up working in the bar scene?
When I started out, I had no idea what a good cocktail was. One night in 2005, I went to Milk & Honey with some friends and ordered a vodka martini. I was not guided in the right direction and didn’t know this wasn’t the sort of thing you ordered at a Sasha Petraske bar. The only other experience I had drinking was a Midori Sour and shots of tequila, of course. So, I drank the vodka martini, and about one sip in, Sasha spilled it on me accidentally. It was kind of like a christening. It paved the way to my current bar-owner status. From there, he offered me a job to train because Little Branch [a more modern cocktail bar in the West Village] was opening very soon. I had just gone on a long road trip and was planning on continuing the trip around the country to find out what I wanted to do with my life. But I ended up working at Milk & Honey, then started working at Little Branch, and it ended up being a seven-year stint. Then, they offered me a position as managing partner of Middle Branch, which opened August 2012. Funny enough, I always wanted to open a bar, but didn’t know where or how.
Do you have any favorite places to drink besides the establishments in your bar family?
Favorite restaurants near here? Well, definitely The NoMad and the little haunt across the street called Le Parisien. They have good stuff, good food. For cocktails, Attaboy; it’s obvious why I consider [bartender] Sam Ross one of my mentors. [To note: Attaboy is located in the original Milk & Honey spot where Sterling got her start.] I generally go places where everyone is hanging out and get a Negroni. There is Death & Co. and PDT [Please Don’t Tell]. They both have a lot of good cocktails to choose from.
Photo Courtesy of Linnea Covington