The Martini Whisperer

Phil Ward doesn’t like much. He loves to stir gin with a splash of vermouth.

Phil Ward with a martini at the Long Island Bar. Photo: Hugo Yu
Phil Ward with a martini at the Long Island Bar. Photo: Hugo Yu
Phil Ward with a martini at the Long Island Bar. Photo: Hugo Yu

Sometime around 2017, Phil Ward invented the Beefsteak, a martini variant that is named for neither the tomato or the ritualized meat feast. Rather, it is another name for the shiso plant. The Long Island Bar, where Ward has bartended for nearly a decade, always has shiso on hand to garnish a house highball. At some point, Ward grabbed a few leaves, tore them up, and let them sit for a minute or two inside a mixture of gin and vermouth. He then strained out the leaves before serving the drink. Ward used to complete the cocktail by rubbing a shiso leaf along the rim of the glass, but now he sprays a shiso tincture over the surface of the drink. He calls the shiso the drink’s invisible garnish.

The Beefsteak martini is a rare drink that Ward named. “I hate naming drinks,” he says, adding one more item to an ever-growing list of martini-related ideas that he does not particularly like or enjoy: Espresso martinis (“If you want to get perky, do some cocaine”), martinis on the rocks (“Don’t horrify me, Robert”), a classic technique of rinsing a martini glass with vermouth before tossing it aside (“I’m not doing that stupid shit”), etc. This distaste for names is probably why another of his martini riffs is known only as “the grapefruit one.” It involves gin, bianco vermouth, orange bitters, and a discarded grapefruit twist — another invisible garnish.

One thing that Ward does not dislike is mixing cocktails. “I don’t know many bartenders who just plain enjoy making drinks the way Phil does,” says Victoria Stapleton, a Long Island Bar regular who works in book publishing. This is particularly true of the martini, which is Ward’s favorite drink to make (and, aside from an occasional gin rickey, the only drink he’ll make for himself at home). “It’s a tiny, tiny box to play in, and it’s really fun when you do something new and creative with it,” he says. “Something magical happens with three-quarters of an ounce of vermouth and three ounces of gin.” Sometime over the past few years, the Long Island Bar became known as a martini destination. Co-owner Toby Cecchini says that one-fourth of all orders — around 1,500 drinks per month — are martinis.

Ward has a lot to do with that, and he is forever tinkering with the blueprint for the drink. There is only one martini on the menu at the Long Island Bar (and it’s Cecchini’s recipe), but for people who know Ward, or at least know to ask, he’ll be happy to serve you his latest creation — especially if you first think you won’t like it.

Ward first served me “the grapefruit one” about a year ago. I prefer a lemon twist, and at the time the grapefruit irked me as an unnecessary deviation. But Ward has a way of wearing down his customers’ resistance. “I’ve started to appreciate the grapefruit twist more and more,” says Sarah Ott, another Ward guinea pig who leads a customer-service team for a fashion retailer. “I appreciate his ability to pair things that seem obvious but only after you taste them together.”

This martini moment is a surprising shift in Ward’s career. Until recently, he was one of the chief prophets of agave spirits. From 2009 to 2017, Ward ran the East Village bar Mayahuel, where every drink contained tequila, mezcal, or both. Among them was the Oaxaca old-fashioned, which Ward created during his time as the first head bartender at Death & Co., and is arguably the most famous of the modern mezcal cocktails.

Ward had effectively pigeonholed himself; he was the Agave Guy. “I guess everybody gets pinned in their little boxes,” he says, admitting that he nevertheless got a little sick of it. To decompress from the pressure of bar ownership, Ward began picking up shifts at Long Island Bar, which opened in 2013, where he first started to explore the martini’s many possibilities. “I feel there is no drink that does to you in one go what a gin martini does,” he says. “Your solar plexus is glowing. It’s just uncanny.”

There was a brief moment not long ago when it looked like Ward might have his own martini bar. Altar, in Crown Heights, was scheduled to open in March 2020, but the onset of the COVID pandemic prevented that from happening. Soon after, Ward decided that bar ownership wasn’t for him. So the martinis that would have been on the menu at Altar became off-menu items at Long Island Bar.

If you’d like to go to a bar where a Phil Ward martini is actually on the menu, you can still go to Altar. Yes, the same bar Ward was supposed to open before COVID but didn’t. It eventually opened without him, but he was asked to consult on a new cocktail menu. His Disco martini is as close as he’ll get to the gonzo cocktails served at other bars, and, despite the name, it sticks close to tradition: To start, it is ruby red because the gin is infused overnight with hibiscus leaves. The rest of the drink is Cocchi Americano and the inevitable discarded grapefruit twist. Though the cocktail looks like anything but a martini, Ward sees the hibiscus as nothing more than an additional botanical in what has always been a botanical-heavy drink.

He’ll do a similarly hued drink at Long Island Bar, a more recent invention called the Riddler because nobody can figure out what’s in it. (Ward insists people try his drinks before he’ll reveal the ingredients.) The drink is pale red, from five dashes of Angostura bitters, an ingredient no one associates with martinis. The rest of the cocktail is equal parts gin and Cocchi.

That drink has its fans, but Ward is not opposed to steering his customers’ tastes, too: Zoe, an occasional customer at the Long Island Bar who always arrives on roller blades, typically ordered a 50-50 martini made of vodka and olive brine when she first came in. Over the years, Ward slowly weaned her off the brine. “Now she’s completely converted,” Ward says. It only took three years.

Why not just offer Zoe a classic gin Martini from the start? “It’s like onions,” he explains. “You want your kid to know how good onions are. But you’re not going to hand them a raw onion. You’re going to chop it up and sauté it and put it in some mac and cheese or something.”

Dirty martinis, especially, are a sticking point for Ward: “My favorite is the extra-dirty martini drinker who wants it dry, no vermouth,” he says. “You’re not going to taste the fucking difference anyway. This drove me crazy, so one day I finally did it. To prove my point to myself, what I gave them was three ounces of vermouth and one ounce of olive brine.” So he gave them the martini with no gin or vodka in it. “I asked how it was,” Ward remembers. “He told me it was great.”

Ward doesn’t rule out the possibility that he will once again own a bar, and if it ever came to be, it would be small and called Strange Stirrings. “I just want it to be a little room with a bar maybe 12 seats and that’ll be it,” he says. “I love bartending — I don’t know why, because I hate people.”

The Bartending Legend With a Secret Martini Menu in His Head