Bartender of the Month - February 2019: Joey Vargas, American

Joey Vargas, is the beverage director at American Whiskey in New York City, but the Brooklyn native isn't simply serving craft cocktails. The 35-year-old Brooklyn native shows his creativity in a variety of ways, including naming some drinks (unironically!) after Taylor Swift.

When he isn't behind the bar, you can find Joey hanging with his dog Jonas or sipping whiskey at his favorite bar (if not drinking Negronis at Attaboy).

The next time you have a concert, sports game or another event to go to at Madison Square Garden, pop into American Whiskey and say "Hi" to  Joey, Liquor Lab's February 2019 Bartender of the Month.

What’s your drink of choice (to drink)?

Oh gosh, thats such a tough question. I’m going to go with my favorite three drinks. The Montecarlo, the Daiquiri and the Paloma.

What's your drink of choice (to make)?

A Dark 'n Stormy. I think people forget how amazing this drink actually is. Especially when it’s made with ginger syrup instead of ginger beer.

How did you start your career?

I was always the guest asking the bartender what I should be drinking. I loved food and drink culture. So, it was a no brainer to me after school to get involved in the restaurant industry. I served the tables for a year or so, barbacked for two nights and got asked if I’d like to bartend.

When and how did you become involved with American Whiskey?

In 2013, I was working in a cocktail bar called The Beagle. The Beagle was honestly one of the best bars I had ever worked in. Sadly as NYC goes, it closed. I announced my free agency and was told about this really interesting concept that really hadn’t been done yet in NYC. A bar that has TVs and shows the [sports] game, but with a craft cocktail program and a very intense spirits list. Sounded like a dream come true! I was blown away by it, and I knew we had something special from day two.

We know you love Taylor Swift and the Jonas brothers. How has their music impacted your career and life?

Oh gosh, Taylor. So in 2011, I saw her perform on the "Speak Now" tour and I thought she was amazing. I was seriously blown away. Like have you heard “Mean”? How could you not be hooked? I remember singing Taylor songs behind the bar at John Dory Oyster bar and guests would be like, "Really?" I just love how fun her music is and how she doesn’t take her self too seriously, which is a good mantra to remember in the bar/restaurant industry. It’s just booze and food. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Have fun with it and make people smile.

So, of course, I’ve named a few cocktails in honor of Taylor: The “Take me Swiftly” (Rye Whiskey, Apricot, Honey, Lime, Sparking wine) and the “Tall and Handsome” (Rum, Pineapple, Vermouth, Cinnamon, Citrus, Absinthe float). Which happen to be two of my favorite drinks I’ve created.

Now, Nicky J, I do love too. But for the record, my amazing bulldog Jonas is not named after the Jonas brothers. He’s named after the song “My name is Jonas”, by Weezer, which is one of my favorite songs to sing along to.

What's the most popular misconception you've heard about whiskey, cocktails or the industry, in general?

Not all of us are doing this until we figure out what we really want to do. To some of us, hospitality is not only a career, but it makes us happy. So, sit back and enjoy the ride.

When you have a night off, where are you drinking and what are you ordering there? For a cocktail?

I’m at Attaboy drinking a Negroni yelling about fantasy baseball or something silly. But, more often than not I’m drinking a watery domestic beer and a neat whiskey at Lucky Dog with my lucky dog Jonas Ramone Vargas. 

Tell us about some people in the industry who inspire you. What makes them unique?

Honestly, I’ve gotten to meet and work with or befriend some of the most amazing people due to the industry. Jesse Vida, Jordan Schwartz, Matt Tripoli, Sarah Morrissey, Tom Richter. Working with Tom'r changed my life. He not only taught me so much about balancing and crafting a cocktail, but more importantly, he taught me about hospitality. I remember coming into work hungover or just not in a great mood, and I’d look over at Tom smiling ear to ear, making everyone feel special at his bar. I’d just laugh at myself and made sure to shake it off. But there are so many hard working, driven, good people in this industry. It really is amazing.

American Whiskey is located super close to Madison Square Garden. Are you a Rangers/Knicks fan originally or have the fans swayed you either way?

I’m not a huge hockey fan. Everyone who knows me knows I’m huge baseball guy. Lets Go Mets! #LGM. But, I do find myself rooting for the Rangers. So many of my friends are huge Ranger fans and have taken me to a game. It really is a amazing experience.

If a drink was named after you, what would it be called, what’s in it and why?

It would definitely be named “Golden Bear”. My nickname is Joey Bear and after living in San Francisco for as long as I did, California will always kind of be home. As far as whats in it, I would say: Rye Whiskey, Benedictine, Bitters. Yes, I know thats a Monte Carlo. But you already know it’s my favorite drink, ha.

Anything else you’d like to add about bartending/mixology and what you’re excited about in the industry?

The bar industry is a lot like NYC: a melting pot. I love meeting and learning from people from different backgrounds and cultures. I’ve learned so many flavors and ingredients from places I’ve never been or would have had experienced. It’s pretty cool. I guess I’m just excited to learn more and see what the next generation comes up with!