Wolfgang Attenborough Gonzalez will be two years old in January. His father, Jonathan Orlando Gonzales, will be 33 next month. Chatting with Dad, the new head bartender at Whiskey Down, a classic diner that just opened on Main Street in Farmingdale, I found it hard to concentrate on the thing I was there to chat with him about: his renowned bartending skills.
Gonzalez the Elder was born in Levittown (to Salvadoran parents who fled the country’s civil war in the 1970s) and raised in Baldwin. Until recently, he and his wife, Gabrielle (née Bebbino), worked at Blackbird Kitchen & Cocktails in Wantagh; he was behind the bar, she served on the restaurant side. And although I wanted to know more about how Wolfgang Attenborough got his name, we had to get back to the subject at hand: booze.
“I knew I wanted to tend bar early on. I was 17 and working as a bus boy in Rockville Centre when my boss let me experiment with making drinks for the fun of it,” he said, adding, “I found it effortless. I understood the basics of what made a drink a drink. It wasn’t as complicated as cooking, which has so many variables, like temperature and constant adjustments for flavor and taste.” When he came of legal drinking age, 21, he was off and running the show behind the bar, in what he called his first break.
"I found it effortless. I understood the basics of what made a drink a drink."Jonathan Orlando Gonzales
Since he mentioned cooking, I thought I’d bring up Marcella Hazan, the late Italian cookbook writer who once said that following a recipe was for her like being in prison. Gonzalez’s round and beaming face, framed by a thick but neatly trimmed beard, lit up: “You’ve got to learn the basics, but don’t let them be the final note in your symphony.”
Aside from the mechanics of bartending, I wanted to know what he liked best about his job. “Getting to know people through the drinks they choose—a very personal thing, like being fussy about how you like your eggs,” he said.
Gin drinkers, I learned, are more outgoing and open to trying new things. Scotch lovers tend to be subdued, and you can “see the poet in their eyes or the broken prize-fighter inside.” As for rye, “old-school Americana.”
In a variation of “what’s my sign?” I asked if he could guess my favorite cocktail. “Negroni?” he said. OK, I had already dropped a big hint that I liked gin and Campari, so that wasn’t so difficult. “In a rocks glass with one cube of ice and an orange slice,” he added.
“Yes, yes, yes,” I cried. “That’s just how I like it—but with a peel, not a slice.”
“I used to do a peel,” he said. “Now I prefer a slice.” Who was I to argue? Especially at this jazzy new diner, created by a Gen Y brother- sister team (John and Alyson Kanaras), who come from a diner-owning family. Tending bar in a joint with a 21st-century attitude—chicken paillard or disco fries, anyone?—Gonzalez surely knows best.
What’s his favorite drink to make? The Attenborough. “I’m a huge fan of the British naturalist David Attenborough,” Gonzalez said. “He’s my hero. I created a cocktail named for him, with gin, yellow Chartreuse, honey and lemon.” Hmm, I’m feeling a bit more clued in about his child’s name.
Also on the Most Popular list: Bossa Nova Baby, with Tito’s vodka, passion fruit, vanilla and a splash of prosecco; and Holy Lola, a mix of tequila, East Marion lavender—yes, from the lavender farm on the North Fork—lime juice and Cointreau.
There was one drink on the menu—with gin, Amontillado sherry, prosecco, allspice and honey—I wasn’t sure I’d like at all, but I knew I would love to order it, shouting across the bar: “Hey, Jonathan, gimme a Pirate Queen of the Galapagos. And another Negroni.” (Well, no, not really. I don’t think I should have another Negroni.)
Tending bar is 45 percent alcohol, 55 percent hospitality, Gonzales said. “There are regulars who tell me everything that’s going on in their lives. Others want to be left alone. What I love is getting like-minded people together, even if they’re a few stools away. That’s an art that has fallen by the wayside.”
What’s the best thing a customer can do? “Smile.”
How does Gonzalez handle the idiots? “There are plenty, and I can be just as obnoxious as they are.”
Difference between a highball and a cocktail? “The former is a tall drink with soda water and usually whiskey. A cocktail is basically sugar, bitters and spirits. The Old Fashioned is considered the first cocktail. All others proceed from that. Today, ‘cocktail’ refers to drinks mixed in different ways, but it’s also the umbrella term for all drinks, from fizzes on up to highballs.”
With only a few more items on my punch list, I asked if Gonzalez could make me a Sidecar or a Pink Lady, as if “highball” wasn’t enough to prove I could recall an era when my parents used to order those very things. “I don’t do a lot of Sidecars, but I would make you a Pink Squirrel, my version of a Pink Lady.”
On the profession of bartending, he said it drives him crazy when fellow bartenders “let their egos take over. You want to be a brand, a star. You want to be Billy Joel. The customers just want to hear his songs.”
Catch Gonzalez while you can. He’s got plans to open a bar of his own and just signed a lease on a place in Lindenhurst. He’s already got a name for it: “Hunter & Thief.” And a design director in mind: “Gabby, my wife.” Speaking of names, I almost forgot to ask about Wolfgang’s. “Mozart, my favorite composer.”
I need to get over to Whiskey Down Diner, maybe on some dark and stormy night. Winter’s icy breath will soon sweep across our land, and nothing brings out the Rocky in my soul like snow and ice. Ice cubes, even. With an Attenborough cocktail. And a two-year-old Wolfgang on the side. When is Take Your Child to Work Day next year, anyway?
RECIPE: THE ATTENBOROUGH
Gonzalez named this drink—equal parts gin, yellow Chartreuse, honey and lemon—after the natural historian David Attenborough because he wanted to bring attention to bees. Yellow Chartreuse, by the way, is a mellow, slightly sweet liqueur that’s wonderful with gin. Gonzalez uses the modern mixologist’s technique of double-straining the drink to remove any bits of ice that would dilute the drink. It also gives a shaken drink a more velvety mouthfeel.
Makes one drink
FOR THE HONEY SYRUP
1⁄4 cup clover honey (wildflower works well, too, said Gonzalez, but clover has a cleaner flavor)
1⁄4 cup hot water
Combine the honey and hot water, stirring until thoroughly combined. Set aside and let cool.
FOR THE DRINK
1 oz Fords gin (or your favorite brand)
1 oz honey syrup (see above)
1 oz strained fresh lemon juice
1 oz yellow Chartreuse liqueur
A piece of lemon peel, for garnish
Put the gin, honey syrup, lemon juice and Chartreuse into a cocktail shaker. Add the ice, close the shaker and shake vigorously for about 12 seconds. Strain with a traditional strainer, then a fine tea strainer into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the lemon peel, twisting to express the oils into the drink, then drop the peel into the drink.
-Jonathan Orlando Gonzalez