In this edition of Mixology Spirit we feature our first bartender from New York City. Christopher Lee is a talented actor, bartender and owner of the East Village’s historic Parkside Lounge, a drinking establishment that has been a fixture on Houston Street for 110 years. The bar’s history includes storied rumors of being home to illegal activities, being a mafia hangout, and even ghost sightings. Today, Parkside Lounge creates its own history by offering great local beers and crafting great, classic cocktails made from high-quality, carefully selected ingredients. As we chatted with Christopher, he built us a variation of a Corpse Reviver he named, Corpse Reviver Part Deux. The French tip-of-the-hat reference is inspired by his addition of Green Chartreuse, which provides a unique herbal character to the drink’s nose and finish. Check out the recipe and history of the cocktail at the end of the post.
Litchfield Distillery: Where do you work and what is your role?
Christopher: I work at the Parkside Lounge, where I’ve been the Operating Partner since 2009. I have been a bartender in New York City since 1998 when I arrived fresh out of Loyola University looking to make it as an actor in the Big Apple.
Litchfield Distillery: How did you come to take ownership of the Parkside Lounge?
Christopher: As I mentioned, I came here with lofty ambitions of becoming a successful actor. Like so many actors before me, I started bartending to make ends meet. I was lucky to secure employment at some great establishments and to work for bosses who were supportive of my acting pursuits. But once an actor lands a role, it means not being available to work behind the bar as much. So that can create a little tension. After several years, I thought owning my own place could provide more security, stability and allow me to control my own schedule. I live just up the street from Parkside Lounge, and as fate would have it, after pursuing a job here and getting to know the owner, I was able to broach the subject of buying the place.
The Parkside Lounge has been a fixture in New York City for 110 years and it’s a privilege to be a steward of its past, present and future. I have a passion for the big city nightlife because it’s such a big part of New York. It’s why people move here, visit here, and vacation here. It’s cool to play a small role in shaping the overall culture of New York City’s nightlife.
Litchfield Distillery: Did you have a particular vision for Parkside Lounge once you took over?
Christopher: Being from Louisiana, my inspiration for the bar was to imagine a guy from New York City moving down to the Gulf Coast who never gets the chance to move back north. I’m after a Gulf Coast vibe with a New York City mentality. I describe the place as a “neo-dive bar.” I didn’t want to lose the rock ‘n roll vibe that’s been a part of the culture for so long. The front bar hasn’t been renovated since the 1950’s and it intentionally looks dated; even if we were to get things like art prints in the future, I’d want them to at least look like they came from that era. I wanted to maintain the nostalgic feeling that originated back in the day when customers walked in here looking for a good pint of beer or a couple fingers of whiskey.
Litchfield Distillery: What advice do you wish you had received before opening your own bar?
Christopher: I was totally unprepared for the amount of plumbing work, construction work, flooring work, painting…the most ridiculous and unusual problems you can ever imagine… I even had to consider things like water pressure – fortunately, we’re lucky with our water in NYC and may not ever need something like these commercial water treatment products, but water is definitely one thing that we can’t do without here so it’s important we keep tabs on it, just in case. And even if we don’t have to worry about water, there’s still always something always pops up when you least expect it and at the worst moment. I had no idea what was required for the upkeep of the bar and how much of my time it would demand. Keeping the establishment up and running day-to-day requires more meetings and phone calls than I ever would have imagined. I feel like I’m on the Millennium Falcon when Han and Chewy are on top of the ship trying to make a repair under a time crunch with lasers firing from all directions. I feel like that one or twice a week!
Litchfield Distillery: So if you started bartending to earn money while pursuing acting, when did you realize you really loved making cocktails?
Christopher: My first bartender gig was at Drover’s. I just arrived in New York City a couple months prior. A few months into the job, the restaurant was designing a winter dessert menu. The chef was developing out of the kitchen and they wanted to add new complementary cocktails to serve from the bar. Word of what we were doing caught wind with Time Out New York and they really liked it. So, they came in and photographed our drinks. It was really cool. I was barely in the city for six months and I had cocktails featured in magazines with people responding positively to what I was doing. I’ve been hooked ever since.
Litchfield Distillery: Since the days of your first bartending gig, cocktail culture has exploded. What about mixology do you enjoy the most?
Christopher: What I love about cocktail culture is that it’s something people do together. It brings people together by promoting conversation. It’s something humans have been doing forever. Think about it, the ancient Egyptians drank beer. I recently read that beer-making equipment was found in an Israeli cave, estimated to be 13,000 years old. So, it’s been a part of “us” for a long, long time. When you’re making cocktails, deriving inspiration from such rich history, and putting a lot of thought into your work, you have the ability to create a positive experience that can live on with someone for many years.
Litchfield Distillery: What is Parkside Lounge’s approach to making consistent, outstanding cocktails?
Christopher: We focus on “fast cocktails” made with the best ingredients and the right amount of ingredients. We don’t want our team to get jammed up because they’re making drinks that take 10 or more minutes to build. We make sure we have the right bitters, the right fresh-squeezed juices, for example. We get our Ginger Ale from Blenheim in South Carolina. It’s simply amazing. That Ginger Ale with the right rum, the right bitters, and freshly squeezed lime juice…well, you end up with our Dark & Stormy, one of the best you’ll find anywhere.
We took a similar approach with our Bloody Mary. When I first arrived in the City, Bloody Marys were something that “just happened” on Sundays. No one really seemed to care how they were made; just grab some Tabasco, tomato juice and throw it all together in a glass. Whereas down south, where I grew up, the Bloody Mary is very important to an establishment’s identity. I have a secret formula for our Bloody Mary mix here at Parkside that folks really love. At the end of the day, we just don’t “throw together” a drink. We build thoughtful cocktails made with carefully curated ingredients and focus on craftsmanship every step of the way.
Litchfield Distillery: What’s your favorite memory of the best cocktail you’ve ever had?
Christopher: For me, location plays a huge role in making a cocktail memorable. A great memory of mine is a drink invented for my wedding called the Waterson Canon, inspired by Waterson Hall where my wife and I got married. It was the best day of my life, and I still remember every small detail about that special day, especially the wedding night. That was a particular highlight and it was made even better by the fact that we experimented with certain sex toys before deciding to avoid not overusing it so we can feel the full benefits of that particular toy. I’m not going to go into detail, but all you need to know is that my wedding was truly the most perfect time of my life. We were in the middle of nowhere, in the hills of East Texas and it was going to be a hot May wedding. So, we knew we needed a cocktail that would be refreshing. We rented two frozen margarita machines and made sure to secure fresh-squeezed lime juice, really good tequila and everything else required. Down in Texas, folks love their Iced Tea, so we decided to add a float of unsweetened tea on top. A margarita can get a bit too sweet, especially if you’re enjoying more than one. The unsweetened tea helped cut the sweetness while adding a layer of complexity that was just out-of-this-world good. I can close my eyes and still taste that drink.
Litchfield Distillery: Why the mention of “Canon” in the cocktail name?
Christopher: [Laughing] In Texas, you can pretty much do anything you want when you’re out in the woods. We brought in a canon to fire off at the end of the wedding ceremony. When the time came for, “You may kiss the bride,” my friends set the thing off. Boom!
Litchfield Distillery: What does The Spirit of Hard Work mean to you?
Christopher: I remember my first year in New York. I just graduated from college and thought by moving to the big city, I’d become this famous actor that performed on Broadway–that it would all blow up in a big, exciting way. Of course, it didn’t work out that way, at least not right away. It was really hard. I recall speaking to my cousin around that time and he offered up some Zen-like advice. “One thing everyone has to do in the morning is get up and go to work. Just get up and go to work,” he said. Whatever that means, whatever that requires, just get up and go get the job done. It really stuck with me.
When it comes to hard work, New York City responds to people who roll up their sleeves and work their tail off. If you’re 21 years old and want a bartending job here in New York, it’s really, really hard to land one. It’s extremely competitive and everyone wants those jobs. But, if you pound the pavement, you’re going to get that job. You will. It’s just a matter of time. Persistence, perseverance, being able to take the lumps along the way, rejection–it’s all part of doing the hard work.
I’d add that making cocktails involves many of the same traits. Trying to create something new means you are going to fail a lot. Nothing is going to be perfect the first time out, or the second. You have to be willing to learn and be comfortable with failure the first time out of the gate. That is a special kind of hard work–emotional hard work, if you will. It can be really difficult to let go of your ego and take other people’s feedback and criticism to heart. Alas, nothing is ever easy. That’s why greatness usually happens when someone is willing to do the extra work required to create something special.
How to make the Corpse Reviver–Part Deux:
- Wick (i.e., rinse inside of glass) a chilled coupe of martini glass with Green Chartreuse and dump it. Set aside.
- Add remaining ingredients into a shaker with ice and shake.
- Strain into the prepared glass.
- Express Lemon Oils and garnish with Lemon Peel.
A Brief History on The Corpse Reviver:
Via Wikipedia: The Corpse Reviver family of named cocktails are sometimes drunk as alcoholic hangover “cures,” of potency or characteristics to, tongue-in-cheek, be able to revive even a dead person. Some Corpse Reviver cocktail recipes have been lost to time, but several variations commonly thought of with ties to the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel remain, especially those espoused by Harry Craddock that originally date back to at least 1930 and are still being made. Many “reviver” variations exist and the word is sometimes used as a generic moniker for any morning after cocktail.
The Corpse Reviver №2 as described in the Savoy Cocktail Book is the most commonly drunk of the corpse revivers, and consists of equal parts gin, lemon juice, curaçao(commonly Cointreau), Kina Lillet, and a dash of absinthe. The dash of absinthe can either be added to the mix before shaking, or added to the cocktail glass and moved around until the glass has been coated with a layer of absinthe to give a subtle absinthe aroma and flavor to the drink.
The Savoy №2 recipe noted that “Four of these taken in swift succession will un-revive the corpse again.”
About Mixology Spirit:
Mixology Spirit is a Litchfield Distillery blog series dedicated to sharing the stories of creative and passionate mixologists who embody The Spirit Of Hard Work . Think you got what it takes to be featured? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2020 Litchfield Distillery. Photography & Editing Credits: Tony Vengrove