MCC 2011 – Behind The Bar: Painkiller
In some fit of insanity while planning my agenda for the 2011 Manhattan Cocktail Classic, I chose to schedule a Behind the Bar session at Painkiller early in the afternoon on the day following The Gala. As excited as I was to learn more about the bar that is leading the Tiki Revolution, I was dreading another drink so soon after the prior evening’s revelry; especially from a bartender as renowned for knocking his patrons on their asses as proprietor Giuseppe González. Fortunately, he was relatively kind!
Painkiller is located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and in its short life to-date (they just celebrated their one year anniversary earlier this month), it already has a reputation. Ask anyone who has been there about their Painkiller experience and more likely than not, they remember simply that they enjoyed it; not much else! But Painkiller has also established their reputation as a world-class cocktail bar, particularly in the tiki style. Not a surprise, given the pedigree of owning partners Giuseppe González (Flatiron Lounge, Clover Club) and Richard Boccato (Little Branch, Dutch Kills).
So after years at such well established and respected cocktail bars, why did Giuseppe and Richard take the risk of going off on their own, and more importantly, why did they choose tiki?
Giuseppe says the answer is simple: tiki has no rules. While the Painkiller staff show real reverence for the classic cocktails that play by the rules (Giuseppe is the first to admit that his go-to cocktail is an Old Fashioned), tiki opens up the playing field to new possibilities for professional development and creativity. Giuseppe and Richard also note a real parallel between tiki’s original island culture and the culture of our own island of Manhattan, along with a desire in both places to find escapes. Escape is indeed delivered in the form of some very unique cocktails.
It’s also clear that these cocktails are no ordinary tiki. First of all, a great deal of thought has gone into every aspect of the cocktail’s preparation. During the Behind the Bar session, Giuseppe showered us with the details that have been considered, from blending speed to dilution rates. And he’s put proverbial pen-to-paper by documenting his research on the Painkiller blog. (In reading the Research section, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Giuseppe studied neurobiology at Cornell.)
The other clue that you’re not in any ordinary tiki bar is the menu, which includes over 100 drinks of various tiki styles – frozens, daiquiris, strongs, and so on. (See image left; Full PDF via Grub Street).
Among the many interesting choices that Giuseppe walked us through during his session: The NYPD Blue – a frozen mango daiquiri with a Blue Hawaiian float; The Jet Pilot – Jamaican rum, Puerto Rican rum, 151 rum, grapefruit, lime, cinnamon syrup, falernum, bitters and absinthe; and Painkiller’s signature pina coladas including silver rum, cream of coconut, and LOTS of pineapple.
Given the volume and strength of the rum flying around behind the bar at Painkiller (some of the drinks in the “Strong” category contain the alcohol equivalent of 3-5 ordinary cocktails), I had braced for leaving Painkiller in pretty bad shape. (Let’s be honest; it’s happened before.) But again, Giuseppe was kind to us, sharing enough to give us a taste of his unique style of tiki while keeping us sober enough to enjoy his stories – including both his own personal and professional history, as well as those lying at the genesis of Painkiller. I left the session with a much greater appreciation of his goals and aspirations in creating such a unique bar program, along with a gut full of pina colada and a novelty plastic seahorse garnish as a souvenir. All-in-all, pretty big win for me.