Meet the Newsmakers with Sweetwater Social’s Mixologists Tim Cooper and Justin Noel

Veteran Mixologists Tim Cooper (Goldbar) and Justin Noel (1534) have teamed up with Goldbar partners Shaun Rose and Udi Vaknin to open new subterranean lounge, Sweetwater Social on the corner of Bleecker and Broadway (643 Broadway). 

Located beneath the recently opened Bleecker Kitchen & Co., Sweetwater Social will be an ode to New York with classic neighborhood themed cocktails in an entertaining yet classy rec room inspired space. Fun, festive and flavorful are some words to describe the concept behind the recreational bar/lounge.  While mixologists will serve up a seasonal selection of cocktails from over 300 spirits, good times will be had by activities such as foosball and shuffleboard.  We recently sat down with the Sweetwater Duo in this month’s Meet the Newsmakers.

Give our readers a little background on both of your careers prior to joining Sweetwater Social. Why did you both want to become mixologists?

(TC): I would start by saying that before there was the term ‘mixologist’ there was the word bartender. I wanted to be a bartender. As a kid, I spent a good amount of time in bars with my dad & uncles playing video games, pool, and darts, whatever. And was always treated well by the bartender. I always appreciated how personable they were with me and how they seemed to dictate the energy in the room. As I grew up and became of age it was still always something I was fascinated by. I was working, as server in a hotel at the age of 20 and it happened to have one of the busiest bars in New York at the time.

And had some amazing bartenders. However, they often liked to call out from their mandatory day shift, which would allow me to beg the manager if I could cover it. I had no idea what I was doing but I figured if I could get behind the bar and be annoying, eventually they would teach me a few things, which was what happened. Although I rarely made drinks, I took great pride in setting up the bar and getting it ready for the busy night ahead. The other bartenders appreciated that and started to take me under their wing. Once that happened, there was no way I was ever leaving that bar again. Everything after that was just meeting the right people and applying some passion into what I did. Always keeping an open mind and taking different styles from others and tying them into my own. That’s the short version and I skipped over the ‘mixology’ part but to me the most important aspect to tell.

(JN) I have to be honest and say that I never really wanted to be a mixologist.  I started off in this business to be a bartender and never really knew where this road would lead.  Once I made it to New Zealand and saw all the fresh ingredients, the passion those bartenders had, and the cocktail culture I had not seen in Miami or Georgia at the time, I knew that I had to match my cocktail making skill sets with my passion and those guys passion and skill level.  I still think mixology is just one aspect of being a great bartender.

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Tim, you’re well versed in every aspect of mixology, from classic to molecular and you’ve coordinated numerous beverage programs for many well-known events. How have these skills and experiences helped you push the envelope when developing signature cocktails?

(TC) More than anything they’ve forced me to stay well rounded and think outside my own persona. Anytime I develop a cocktail I try to focus on how it fits for the guest who will be walking through that particular door. Not for me. The phrase I would use is ‘get in where you fit in’. Meaning, make sure what you’re doing is not over the head of the bartender executing the cocktail or most importantly the guest. What may work and sound appealing at one bar, might not work so well at another.

Justin, you’ve worked with several liquor brands as a mixologist and events coordinator and have been overseeing and developed the beverage program at the NoLiTa cocktail hotspot, 1534. How has your past experiences and knowledge reflect and transcend into the Sweetwater Social beverage program?

Working on beverage programs like Pranna, the Royalton, Breslin, and 1534 has really allowed me to creative and utilize different bartending techniques.  Having set all those venues up with a focus in mind was great.  When Sweetwater was being developed Tim and I wanted to utilize all those different styles of bartending and different techniques into one venue to showcase that we are well versed.  Working with different brands which all have different cocktail strategies also meant that drinks need to cultivated for a specific demographic or brand image.  This also allowed me to think about all the different types of people we really want to entertain and host at Sweetwater and thus create a vibe and menu that would appeal to all those different types.

You’ve both collaborated and developed Sweetwater Social’s distinctive cocktail program, a NYC Subway map offering a cocktail reminiscent of a particular NYC neighborhood. Explain this unique approach.

We simply wanted to create a fun template that represents New York City. Essentially we took ingredients and/or names that are unique to a particular neighborhood and placed them at specific subway stops throughout the city. As an example, our ‘Ivan Drago’ cocktail is placed at the Brighton Beach subway stop. Historically this is a pre-dominantly Russian neighborhood out in Brooklyn. The Ivan Drago is a Moscow Mule variation with the added element of having a ‘Russian Syrup’ (cloves, cardamom & cinnamon) incorporated into it. And then for all of the ‘Rocky’ fans out there, the name Ivan Drago comes from the boxing villain in the 4th movie installment.

How often will Sweetwater Social change their cocktail menu? And how do you choose what cocktail to lose or to add?

We’ll be changing the menu seasonally. We haven’t decided on what will stay and what will go. Demand & seasonality of ingredients will determine that decision. We may even completely change the subway template as well. Ideally we plan to have a rotating template that exists as an ode to New York.

Is there an “in season” for certain cocktails? If cocktail trends change, is it possible that there’s also a change in what the different generations are thirsting for?

(TC) There’s absolutely an in season, especially for certain fruits & herbs. Quite simply for both taste reasons and price. Trying to put a cocktail with berries on the menu in the dead of winter just doesn’t make sense. The berries won’t taste all that good and they’ll be incredibly expensive at that. As for generations and what they’re thirsting for, Whiskey & Agave based spirits are on fire right now. We’re flying through American Whiskey in particular. There is just so much more out there in the way of spirits, ingredients and education. You’ll still get the die-hard vodka drinkers but there is a definite shift within what people are drinking from when I first started bartending.

(JN) Some cocktails such as flips or toddies are far more suited for the colder weather.  Also the drinking trends of generations change as well.   We have seen this with each decade.  The 80’s had their drinks, 90’s had its popular drinks as well.  This current decade might come to be the decade of the old-fashioned or barrel aged cocktail.  Stirred and boozy seems to be what this current generation is thirsting for.

What type of ice cube does Sweetwater use in their cocktails?

We are using 3-4 different types of ice including, 2 x 2 inch ice cubes and crushed ice from Koldraft with Hoshizaki cubes & pellet ice.

Since the start of both your careers, what are some the changes you noticed in bartending and mixology?

(TC) This could get really long winded (insert laughter here). There are so many things. Number one is the use of fresh ingredients. It was a rarity to find places that used fresh juices when I was bartending 15 years ago. Now the majority of places in New York do. Now a days, a Restaurant would be considered a dinosaur if they tried to open without some type of culinary cocktail program. It’s become a demand. Overall, there is just so much more information and spirits out now. When I was first bartending it was typical to see 2 or 3 gins behind the bar. Now you’ll see 10 at the minimum. There has been an explosion of craft brands from both the beer and spirit world, which has really changed the game. We’re in the golden age of the cocktail at the moment and there is just so much information out now, where as 10 years ago it was minimal.

(JN) From then to now there have been massive changes in bartending.  The culture has changed, bartenders are far more knowledgeable, the cocktails are always evolving and becoming more and more advanced compared to when I first started.  Yes, the classics still prevail and are usually the backbone for all of us, but the game has changed and the craft has been taken far more seriously than it was 20 years ago. 

What’s one bit of advise you can give to younger mixologists who are trying to make a name for themselves in this industry?

(TC) Stay humble, work hard and don’t get ahead of yourself. Too many young bartenders are trying to run before they walk. Be observant and pick up techniques from other bartenders who’ve been doing this longer than you have. Stop trying to pick up things from so called celebrity mixologists only. The most useful tools I’ve picked up over the years are from bartenders that nobody knows of. Just because you’ve memorized 500 different classic cocktail specs doesn’t mean you’re a good bartender. It means you have a good memory. With that said, the one aspect I really find to be missing from many of the young bartenders that I’m meeting today is a lack of speed. There is no sense of urgency all too often. If an appetizer from the kitchen is coming out quicker than your cocktail, then we’ve got problems. Moral of this story: sense of urgency and hustle is a must!

(JN) Personality and work ethnic, that's all I have to say.  People look at a bunch of these guys who have been able to make success for themselves and see some even become celebrities in our community.  They think it’s easy to get to that point.  What they forget is that when we all started, if you had a career in bartending before 2003, we had to make our own sour mix, cut our own fruit, and bring in our own special ingredients if we wanted.  I didn’t have barback for the first 3 years of my bartending career.  I had to do everything.  I also realized when I moved back to NYC that if you want people to take notice you have to be good at the little things and that means having a great work ethic that you try to instill in the staff you work with.  Being personable is what will bring people’s attention to what you do.  Once you get noticed and people bring opportunities you need to continue showing that same work ethic to the table.