Among the many reasons for excitement about the new restaurant Prime 109 – the team, the space, the food – it is easy to overlook the bar. And yet, for Charlottesville cocktail enthusiasts, the opening of a bar like Prime 109’s would by itself be cause for celebration. While our bar scene has its fair share of homegrown talent, never has someone come to Charlottesville with experience in top cocktail bars like Prime 109’s Abraham Hawkins.
Who is Abraham Hawkins?
In 2005, while living in New York, Abraham Hawkins visited a new West Village bar that friends had recommended to him. The bar was Little Branch, the first offshoot of Milk & Honey for late cocktail bar pioneer Sasha Petraske. Hawkins had never been to a serious cocktail bar before, and was hooked. “How could anyone resist?” says Hawkins. “Like so many others, I was captivated immediately by the environment, their confidence in what they were doing, the style and the substance.”
Hawkins was so taken by Little Branch that he sought a job there. But, first he had to train. His mentor was Petraske protege Richie Boccato:
Every Wednesday for a few months I came in at four, which was the call time for the opening bartender. I spent the three hours before opening cutting all the ice – popping and filling molds and chopping rocks – and setting up the two bar stations for service, which were the opening bartender’s duties. Then Richie would come in (with all of his tedious work done) and start working the point station where I would stand at his bar all night long, watching him work, asking him questions about his process, listening to his explanations, and reading and drinking my way through what must have been the entire Little Branch spec book – their compendium of adapted and modern classics. It was a real treat, and gave me more than a small leg up when I started getting behind the stick myself at that bar.
Hawkins’ education continued on the job, learning from his peers at Little Branch. Of his many mentors, none was more influential than Petraske, the “father of the modern cocktail bar” whose New York Times obituary credits him with restoring “lost luster to the venerable cocktail.” Hawkins agrees: “Petraske did more for modern cocktail culture than anyone else. And, I was there to see it all happen, and make it happen in the ways I was able to contribute.”
Hawkins’ biggest contribution was helping Boccato create the bar Dutch Kills, a Petraske project that opened in 2009. Hawkins calls it one of his proudest achievements. “It was and continues to be one of the world’s greatest cocktail bars,” says Hawkins. And, he is not exaggerating. In addition to routinely making lists of New York’s best, Dutch Kills won Best International Bar at the Bartender’s Choice Awards in Sweden.
Ice Ice Baby
After more than a decade at some of New York’s best cocktail bars, Hawkins came to Charlottesville in 2016 in search of something new. With Prime 109, he has found exactly that — the chance to build his own bar from the ground up. In doing so, the biggest lesson Hawkins brings with him from his New York schooling is the importance of attention to detail. But, the attention to detail must be for a substantive purpose in enhancing guests’ experience, not just for show.
For customers, Hawkins concedes, the difference between purposeful attention to detail and pure show may not always be clear. Take bars’ ice programs, which many may view as a pretentious gimmick. “I know that hearing the words ‘ice program’ makes people roll their eyes,” says Hawkins. “I feel the same. It reeks of the kind of elitist pretension that alienates people from cocktail bars, and that’s the last thing I want.”
But, Hawkins explains, ice programs are an essential part of the very best cocktail bars, many of which devote hours every day to preparing ice and cutting it into various shapes. Dutch Kills was a pioneer in this regard, Hawkins says – one of the first bars known to use hand cut large format ice, broken down in house. After initially outsourcing the large blocks, Dutch Kills now makes all of its ice onsite.
Why all the effort? Because of how ice influences a drink, says Hawkins. The two vital factors are temperature and water content. “Using different types of ice, and applying the technique that they allow, both in the preparation and service of drinks,” Hawkins says, “gives you more control over these factors.” Petraske once explained ice’s importance:
Imagine it’s a hot summer day and you’ve been working outdoors. You crack open an ice-cold bottle of Coke. Unbeatable. Now, leave that same bottle of Coke open at room temperature until it’s warm and flat. Undrinkable. Yet we haven’t changed the recipe or the chemical composition of it at all.
The Prime 109 Bar will have large format “flawless” ice for down drinks, Hawkins says, and will also shake drinks with big ice instead of standard-sized cubes, which enables chilling a drink without watering it down. The type of ice in guests’ glass will depend on their order. Tall drinks, for example “will be served on spears of ice that fit the glass like a dream,” Hawkins says. “Not just beautiful, these larger and tailored formats of ice allow for the preparation of drinks that have optimal temperature and water content, and give drinks a longer lifespan in the glass, staying cold without getting too quickly over-diluted.”
The Prime 109 Bar
It’s not just ice. Hawkins plans to bring the same attention to detail to all aspects of serving guests, and without pretense. “My bartending philosophy is rooted in the fact that we are here for our guests first and foremost, not to satisfy our own egos,” Hawkins says. A thirteen-page training manual that Hawkins drafted for Prime 109 Bar staff begins with a quote from his mentor Petraske.
We are craftsmen. We are not artists, nor ‘mixologists’, nor bar chefs. Just bartenders, doing something that, although quite simple, few bars can manage to do. We make cocktails as well as can be made, and that should not be such a big deal.
Indeed, much of the Prime 109 cocktail menu is classics, done well. A House Martini, House Manhattan, and House Old Fashioned. “No bartender worth their salt is beyond the basics,” Hawkins’ training manual reads. “And, a bartender without absolute and unquestionable reverence for the basics has nothing to build on.” In Petraske’s posthumous book Regarding Cocktails, Hawkins described Petraske’s commitment to quality, which Hawkins seeks to emulate:
Sasha’s pursuit of quality was relentless. If there was a problem with one of the drinks in a round, the whole round would be thrown out and begun again. Every drink had to be perfect and they all had to go out together. What mattered always was quietly and unobtrusively doing our part—not for applause or personal gain, but simply because it was the right way to do things.
One of Hawkins’ favorite classics from the Prime 109 menu is the Bramble – lemon, sugar, blackberries, and gin. “Simple, fresh, and beautiful,” says Hawkins.
The menu also borrows from Hawkins’ mentors, like the Cobble Hill – dry vermouth, amaro montenegro, rye, and bruised cucumber – conceived as a “summertime Manhattan” by Milk & Honey alum Sam Ross. “Strange and brilliant,” says Hawkins. Another is Boccato’s An American Trilogy – demerara sugar, Apple Jack, and rye.
And, for those with a sweet tooth, Hawkins likes the Cafe Con Leche – Goslings rum, Lolita, sugar, cream, egg yolk, and nutmeg. “F-ing delicious, excuse my French,” says Hawkins.
But, Hawkins’ favorite way to order is his favorite way to take orders, too: “bartender’s choice.” At Dutch Kills, he says, more than 80% of the drinks were ordered this way. To this end, Hawkins’ manual urges staff to expand their repertoires, and commit them to memory. “The more you know,” the manual says, “the more options you have for both satisfying specific demands and making honed recommendations to guests.” Also vital is grasping the basic framework of the essential cocktails – i.e. the drinks which are the theme on which others are a variation. Just as the five “mother” sauces of classical French cooking are foundations that yield countless variations, Hawkins says, so it is with cocktails. You might add bitters to a Gimlet to make a Bennett, or blackberries to a Gin Fix to make a Bramble, says Hawkins. “The possibilities are vast but become focused and relatable in relation to the basics that root them.”
The Prime 109 Bar opens soon.