June 26th, 2009

Ben Sandrof


Bartender profile
By the time I first encountered Ben Sandrof, a few years ago when he was working at the Charles Hotel’s chichi lounge, Noir, he had already done time at a few other high-end restaurants around Harvard Square, most notably Upstairs on the Square. His first bartending job, however, was in a Monterey, California, pub called the Britannia Arms. That is where, he says, “I learned to be fast.” In a not-uncommon trajectory, Sandrof started out in the restaurant industry with thoughts of becoming a talent in the kitchen, only to morph into a talent behind the bar.

Learning the fundamentals of speed is crucial for any bartender, but it has particular importance at Sandrof’s current place of employment, Drink. “Banging out” craft cocktails — with custom ice, muddled fresh herbs, house-made bitters and flawless technique, and with only the customer’s whim as a guide — is kind of a contradictory phrase, but it describes what Sandrof does at this marquee watering hole. I favor the nights when the place is bustling but not insane, and he has a few minutes to pour me a sample of milk punch he made, or tell me that he happens to be the grandson of Benjamin Ferris, the late Harvard doctor who pioneered air-pollution research.

My first impression of Sandrof was that “he’s a suave guy, which I mean in the good sense, i.e. ‘effortlessly gracious.'” That assessment holds. He is confident — some might say cocky — in his skills, which has yielded only good results for this customer. I give him the vaguest outlines of what I feel like drinking, and somehow he manages to set something exquisite down on my bar napkin every time.

Lincoln, MA.

Past bartending jobs
Upstairs on the Square, Middlesex Lounge, Noir, No. 9 Park, Drink.

Favorite bar in Boston other than your own
Eastern Standard.

The drink you most like to make
Mint Julep.

The drink you least like to make
Dirty __________.

Most beloved bartending book
Jerry Thomas’ Bar-Tenders Guide.

If you weren’t a bartender, you’d be…
Out in the woods somewhere trying to distill whiskey.

People drink too much…
Flavored vodka.

People don’t drink enough…

Drink for a rainy day
Rum Old Fashioned.

Least appreciated alcoholic beverage in Boston
Anything with tiki inspiration.

Most overrated alcoholic beverage in Boston
Anything that ends with -tini that is not a proper Martini.

The best thing about drinking in Boston
The cocktail culture is expanding rapidly. We have lots of creative bartenders.

The worst thing about drinking in Boston
Public transportation stops before the bars close.

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6 Responses to “Ben Sandrof”

  1. JAX

    i love you man!

  2. MC Slim JB

    Yet another person of quality deservedly recognized by this site. It is fun to sit in his section at Drink on a busy weekend night with the bar four deep, and watch him deal with numbnut orders for that cucumber vodka “martini” that is so awesome when they make it at The Living Room, or Champagne and Coke. He has a magical way of dissuading people from their horrible, horrible ideas. Excellent taste in music, too.

  3. Arnold

    MC, your post is a good example as to why (though I would bet good money on that the powers that be would not allow it as it would detract from the overall plan) Drink, as the only example of such an establishment in the Boston area, should not get “four deep.”

    I hear the NYC institutions set limits, and I know the DC establishments certainly enforce such rules.

    This board and others holds Drink up to be the equal if not better than other institutions, but until I know that I cannot show up on a night that four deep is possible in a place where the idea is interaction with the bartender/mixologist, then I think Drink will never enter the top tier of national cocktail establishments.

    If “four deep” is even possible, how can it compete with a similar establishment in another city where they make their own bitters; craft original drinks along the lines of traditional recipes; but allow only a crowd which permits easy communication with those behind the bar?

  4. MC Slim JB

    It’s true that those frenzied periods are the worst possible time to go to Drink; I have not been back during peak weekend hours since what I now refer to as the Cucumber Vodka Martini Incident. And yet Ben and Co. were still managing to make me and my crew some fine cocktails. We felt well cared for; we just didn’t take our usual five minutes to leisurely discuss options.

    Clearly most of the crowd there in those super-busy windows does not understand what the place is about. But I’m not sure I’d instruct Drink in this economy to turn those folks away. We’re not Manhattan, with the sheer numbers of connoisseur drinkers to support multiple craft bars with headcount limits. There’s still plenty of Boston consumer evangelizing and educating on craft cocktails to do.

    At their best, I’d put what the bartenders in our elite establishments are doing up against the top tier nationwide (based on my experiences in NY, LA and SF; I haven’t been to DC’s finer places yet). But as everywhere, intelligent drinkers have to pick their spots: avoid Drink at peak weekend hours, Eastern Standard an hour before a game at Fenway, etc. This isn’t that hard; I’d estimate those crush periods represent maybe 10% of the time they’re open. With any luck, enough folks here will catch on that our craft cocktail bars will have the luxury of turning people away.

  5. ljclark

    Drink is great bar, but also a bold experiment, as Eastern Standard was in 2005. It took ES a while to educate its clientele in the ways of the cocktail bar; once people “got it,” they embraced it. I know I can’t sit and chat with the bartenders when I go in there an hour before a Sox game, but I know I can get a really good drink in a reasonable amount of time. Drink is a bit different, true — more craft-y and intimate — but weekends in popular bars are tough. I’ve been in Pegu Club and the Flatiron Lounge in NYC on a Saturday night and seen the same crowds who don’t quite get what’s going on with the menu but wanted to check out that cool bar they heard about. These are the people that bartenders like Ben will convert to sophisticates — to the benefit of us all.

  6. Laura

    No more Ben at Drink?? I hope he is enjoying his time out from behind the bar. He is the reason I love classic cocktails. I went to Drink in June and a few short months later i own bottles of bitters, Chartreuse, absinthe, and rye and have a “small” cocktail habit. I hope the Boston scene keeps growing and changing people into cocktail lovers.

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