Drink Up is a bi-monthly column created by Swig contributor Kristen Oliveri. In the column, she speaks to the world’s leading mixologists, bartenders, wine makers, beer makers, sippers and taste-testers who provide insights into where you try your next drink and what it should be.
Logan Ronkainen is a force to be reckoned with in New York City’s explosive cocktail scene. This trained-chef-turned-cocktail maestro has been heading up the bar program at Trattoria Il Mulino in New York’s Flatiron district for the last few years. He has not only crafted an Italian cocktail list to die for but has also established Wednesday night Punch & Pie events that have quickly become an industry cult favorite. Ronkainen sits down with Swig Contributor Kristen Oliveri to talk about the evolution of Punch & Pie and how he vows to further the modern cocktail trend.
Q: What is your professional background and how did you get into the beverage space?
A: I actually started in restaurants as a dishwasher at The Library Restaurant & Brew Pub in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I eventually managed the kitchen then went onto serving and bartending. I was learning as I went along. From there I fell in love with hospitality and restaurants and moved to upstate New York to pursue an education in culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America. It was life-changing and provided me with some great opportunities as a chef afterwards. I helped open up a small restaurant as the Executive Chef in the Catskill region of New York State, not far from Woodstock.
Unfortunately or luckily—depending on how you look at it— I was working with an inexperienced restaurateur. I ended up picking up all the pieces of the restaurant from the front of the house, to the kitchen, to the creative direction, etc. After falling in love with all of the operations, I decided to pursue restaurant management. I moved over to The Rhinecliff Hotel on the Hudson River near Rhinebeck to work under James Chapman. He became my mentor and educated me on what it truly means to be hospitable while he was running one of the most beautiful, romantic and guest-driven boutique hotels, wedding/event space and restaurant space I’ve ever experienced.
While I was there I started playing around behind the bar and paying attention to modern cocktail trends in New York City and Boston. I wondered why we couldn’t do the same thing ourselves and sought out some help and direction from Paul Maloney over at Stockade in Kingston, New York. He opened one of the first cocktail bars in the Hudson Valley and guided me on my path to where I am now by recommending bars, mentors and simply giving me a direction on how to host a good time over carefully crafted cocktails.
Q: You’ve launched a program at Trattoria Il Mulino in New York City known as Punch & Pie. Can you tell us about the event, what types of liquor brands you work with and your overall visions for the series?
A: Punch & Pie started as a night for me to hang out with my friends and eat pizza. Now, it’s turned into a pop-up pizza/cocktail party. It all started because I was closing the restaurant as a favor for the managers to give them a bit of a break. I simply figured, if I’m closing, I might as well keep it open really late. We kept the pizza oven going till 2am and I found excuses to throw a party every Wednesday. At first, we just did a few special cocktails and pizza and then we started having guest bartenders. We even tried out some live music and a comedy show. We really choose our themes based on our friends and things guests wanted to experience. People use it for their birthday celebrations or holiday gatherings.
We try and transform the vibe of the entire space to fit each week’s theme. We did a special Punch & Pie for Thanksgiving with house made turkey decor where we carved and served a few whole turkeys at the bar alongside all the fixings. For Christmas our gift to everyone was wrapping the entire bar in wrapping paper, bows, lights and candy canes. I know it sounds cheesy, but that’s how we make it a magical night! I’m currently working on taking it abroad to some other great locations.
Q: What are a few of your latest cocktail creations and what do they include?
A: I am always trying to incorporate more Amaros and Vermouths into everyday cocktails. My most favorite as of late would be my Patio Pounder featuring Ilegal Mezcal, Aperol, fresh lime and lime cordial. It’s simple, thirst quenching and addicting.
Most recently I was inspired by my trip to a tiny little bar called Coffee Shop San Simon in Antigua, Guatemala. I was really inspired to play around some more with adult toys like power tools, blowtorches, etc. They blew my mind making their own glassware, candies and doing so simplistically! I’d love to do more of that.
Q: The restaurant has an amazing variety of Amaros, Fernets, Cynar, etc. How do you stock your bar and find the best of the best to serve to your customers?
I buy any and all Italian Amaros I can get my hands on. Even if I don’t like them, I figure I’ll find an audience for it or a way to use it eventually. Take Elisir Novasolus, for example; it’s probably the lightest most unexpected bitter ever. At first sip you’re like, “Oh, this isn’t so bad…. OOOAOAHHH,” and it completely dries out your mouth with a tannin bomb that no amount of sand paper can get rid of (in a good way, of course). I’ve grown to love it as a “bartender handshake,” a few drops in a cocktail to add some depth, or just an example in the education of a customer on how bitter one Amaro can get.
Q: What are some of the most innovative cocktail events going on throughout the year that you’re involved with?
A: I guess it depends on your definition of innovative. There are always events, new and old, pushing the envelope as to what is going on in the cocktail world. The most serious? I’d have to say probably the Diageo World Class cocktail competition. The most fun? Swig & Swine pig roast and punch events. The most educational? Any city’s cocktail week (Manhattan, Portland, Tales of the Cocktail, etc.) which offer a great time and are truly engaging with in-depth classes on all aspects of the cocktail world–from bartending, to brand ambassadorship, to starting a liquor company.
Some of my favorite events have been quite exclusive, to bartenders/influencers and involved trips to Antigua, Guatemala to Cafe No Se with Ilegal Mezcal or Tiki By the Sea in southern New Jersey with Avua Cachaca. Both of which offered immersed experiences of the history, culture and origination of the particular styles of mezcal and rum, respectively.
Q: What’s your favorite guilty pleasure cocktail?
A: What I like to call the “Brosé:” a grapefruit mimosa or a mezcal and fresh grapefruit juice. It has to be fresh squeezed.
Q: You were featured in a bartender calendar once (meow!). Can you tell us about that?
A: Yaguara Cachaca put together a calendar to raise money for testicular cancer awareness where they found a bartender for each month who would have a (*gasp*) Brazilian wax and pose for the calendar. It was all for a good cause, and something I’d never do again. That is, the Brazilian wax part. I’d pose mostly nude for any *good* cause.
Q: What’s next for you and the cocktail program at Trattoria Il Mulino?
A: As for Trattoria Il Mulino, restaurant bars all have limits to their concepts. I don’t see myself evolving the program much more from where it is today. There’s always small ways to improve, new Amaros to obtain, new cocktail names to grab your attention (Morning Dickel anyone?). But the foundation is pretty much set in stone. If I want to do something more creative or different that’s where Punch & Pie comes in handy or the possibility of opening up other restaurants and bars.
As for me, I am currently expanding Punch & Pie and doing more and more pop-up cocktail events, traveling, working on restaurant and bar concepts, and so on. Punch & Pie is where I find enjoyment and fulfillment, and also work with the very best of bartenders. This is where I am able to share my love for cocktails, plus I can bring people together through art and music, among other things.
Top image via Dan Sternick