This is a big stepping stone for Bar & Bowtie guys! For my first bartender interview, I had the pleasure of meeting and boozing it up with the famous Jesse Lehman of the Orient Express Bar in West Village. We discuss Jesse’s beginnings behind the bar as well as many more stories of him, his cocktails, and his experiences up to where he is now.
Every once in a while, you’ll meet someone who peaks your interest. In this case, for my first interview, I met a hell of a bartender who I can say is going to be one of my boys to go out and hit the town with when either of us isn’t behind our bars.
Jesse Lehman is the head bartender and program director of a hugely successful speakeasy tucked away in West Village. His confidence in his skills and looks, if I might add, make this guy one of the best people to see behind a bar because he’ll make sure you enjoy every second you’re at the bar.
Time to booze it up with Jesse Lehman.
You can’t start any sort of interview at a bar without a drink and Jesse had an awesome story to share with this first cocktail.
Just a little hint,
There’s coffee in this first cocktail!
How do you like your cocktails usually?
I like my cocktails very spirit heavy. Vieux Carre’s, Old Fashion’s, etc. Having a cocktail wouldn’t be without the spirit and I think that resembles much in what I like to drink.
An Evening in San Juan
Very cool coffee-infused cocktail created by Jesse Lehman and a fellow bartender of his in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
- 2 Oz Bourbon
- 1 Oz Cynar
- 1 Oz House-Made Cold Brew Coffee
In mixing tin, add all ingredients over ice.
Shake rigorously to gather the foam from the coffee.
Strain into coupe glass.
Garnish with (3) coffee beans.
What’s the story behind this cocktail?
This is one I actually co-created with a fellow bartender of mine in Puerto Rico, San Juan actually. Great cocktail scene down there by the way. This place called Factoria if you ever get a chance to make it down there. It’s a lot like the Lower East Side, everyone’s tatted up, kinda hip. You know, I thought everyone was gonna be in Tommy Bahama shirts and drinking tiki cocktails but it was a nice surprise. We were messing around with our favorite ingredients, just throwing stuff together and we came up with coffee, cynar, and bourbon. Here, we use a house-made cold brew coffee so the flavor is more intense and easier than doing espresso, obviously. Believe it or not, it was actually on the menu for a little bit. And down there, it was also on the menu under the name of, “La Pistola!” Funny, the cocktail was on both menu’s at the same time.
How would you describe the bar program here at Orient Express?
So, I’ve been here for about two years and running it a year ago. What I love about the program here is that the staff is small. It’s small because all of our bartenders come from a very cocktail heavy environment in the past. Our guy Shian here, was involved with the programs over at the Irving and Raines Law Room. We all have a good eye AND taste for how a drink should be as well as having the ability to create something to your taste profile.
How did you get into the bar business?
My mom, she ran a catering company growing up, so I was “in the biz,” right out of the womb. It’s funny actually, I hated it, HATED it. I’ve done every job at a restaurant because of her business besides being on a kitchen line. I never enjoyed it til I got a job behind a real bar. I got a barback job in Philly and thought that was the hardest job to have at a bar. It was a high-volume margarita place with an outdoor patio, so you can imagine I was running around during the summer. I was batching cocktails, carrying kegs up the stairs, running around in 90 degree heat in the heart of downtown Philly. It was terrible. And then, I came to NYC and scored a job at Hotel Americano. I met this wonderful lady, the head bartender Leah who is now working at the Lafayette. She put me under her wing and let me ask as many questions as I wanted. One day, we were slammed and I was serving. Instead I jumped behind the bar and took over. From there, instead of getting in trouble, they gave me a shot. From then on, I was in.
Out of all the bars you’ve worked at, is this your favorite?
Yes, yes it is! It’s a funny story. The way I came here, I had another bartender I knew who runs, The Claudia. It’s a gorgeous bar, you should definitely shoot there and check it out. I used to come here to drink with him, like after work and shoot the shit. I met Shyan and a couple of the other guys here. We made friends quickly. I’d come from a very corporate heavy cocktail environment where there was little to no creativity from any of the guys ACTUALLY behind the bar and this was like a total dream. I was looking for another job at the time but I really wanted THIS job. The day they called me, I walked right out of my other gig and came straight here. I’ve been here ever since.
What is your go-to, guilt free, vacation cocktail? Both on a beach and in the freezing cold.
It’s all subjective but if it’s freezing cold, Vieux Carre. It’s a classic New Orleans cocktail, a twist on the Manhattan but on the rocks. Instead of the usual, it’s cognac, rye, sweet vermouth, and benedictine. I’ll make you one! — reply finished after cocktail recipe —
Classic New Orlean’s cocktail with a twist, made famous by Jesse Lehman of the Orient Express Cocktail Bar.
- 1 Oz Barrel Aged Rye Whiskey
- 1 Oz Cognac
- 1 Oz Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth
- 1 Dash Angostura
- 1 Dash Peychaud’s
- 1 Bar Spoon Dom Benedictine
In rocks glass, add all ingredients EXCEPT Benedictine.
Add big block ice.
Add bar spoon of Dom Benedictine.
Garnish with Orange peel.
— continued from earlier question — If I’m on a beach somewhere, I’d have an, “Old Cuban.” Hands down. It’s like a Mojito but not as basic. Aged rum, add bitters, and top it off with champagne. Delicious.
What’s the FIRST booze you ever had?
Wow. Um, hmmm. The first booze I ever had was actually, in middle school. I was in 8th grade at a college frat party. My older brother was in a frat and invited me. It was some terrible beer. He was like, “you have to drink beer fast to get drunk!” So I end up slamming like three or four shitty beers. Actually had a great time and came back to my 8th grade buddies and told them, “**** high school, college is where it’s at!”
Tell me about some of your boozy vacations.
I try to go at least once a year. Two years ago, I went to Australia and I was blown away. I almost didn’t come back, everyone there is just beautiful. Everyone was a beautiful sun-tanned god. My favorite place was Melbourne. I describe it as if New York and Venice Beach had a baby together. Besides the accents, it was beach but still had that urban vibe. The cocktail scene was amazing. Sydney was great as well, it reminded me of San Francisco. I’ve also done a few wine tours through the Eastern Islands. I’m a huge wine nerd believe it or not.
I’ve been told Australian’s don’t know how to drink, can you confirm or deny?
Whoever told you that is a lie! I dated an Australian girl for about 4 years. She was barely up to my shoulders and she could drink me under the table like nobodies business.
How much does alcohol have an influence on your dating life?
Put it this way, I actually had this conversation not too long ago. I’m not even sure I would know what it would be like to go on a regular date or meet someone not from this side of the bar, while I was single of course. On actual dates, alcohol is always present. It just relaxes the nerves for both people, not just me.
What kind of bartender are you?
When I first started, there was this Friday night. I was running around, bussing tables, working extra hard, trying to make a good impression. Sam, the old person in charge, pulls me in the back and tells me this. “You eat what you want, you drink what you want, and if anyone gives you shit, you kick them out. Just relax and enjoy your job.” I asked myself at the time if this was a test because if it was, I was going to fail. Since then, I’ve always had the mentality of good cocktails, AMAZING customer service and friendliness, but also not too, as Australians would say, wanky. Like, not too up your own ass. I wouldn’t call myself a mixologist, I’m just a bartender. There are multiple facets to this job behind the bar and making a drink is just one of those facets.
Out of all of the “big name” cocktails bars in the city, other than your own, which is your favorite?
This is gonna be subjective again but, Raines Law Room. The program is the best in New York City. There’s two actually. The one downtown is a bit younger, you can meet a girl/guy and get your dance on but the one in Midtown, that’s the spot. It’s split into four different rooms but there’s only one bar between the multiple rooms. Even if it’s high volume, they can take their time to make a cocktail. It’s better to go with a bunch of friends of a date than to interact with the bartenders. It’s one of those bars where you can open their menu, close your eyes, and pick one. You’ll love it.
What is your hangover remedy?
Okay, easy. I stole this one from Anthony Bourdain. If anyone could cure a hangover, it was this guy. Actually, I’ll give you two. 1. Pedialite Popsicles. Just freeze that orange bottle in an ice box and voile! You rehydrate faster if you drink slow and most people just chug the bottle. Freezing it into popsicles ensures you’ll get it right. 2. Anthony’s remedy that works involves slamming back a Coca-Cola. That get’s the sugar intake back then you eat the spiciest ramen you can get your hands on and sweat it all out. I don’t know if it works for everyone but it works for me.
Pet-peeve behind the bar?
I think it’s when a customer asks me to make a custom cocktail without giving me enough information because they’re indecisive. For example, we have an option on our menu for “Bartender’s Choice.” I LOVE making cocktails for my guests. Even if we’re slammed, I don’t mind slowing down and making something out of the norm. Ever. I need a spirit base…I need a flavor profile, citrus, bitter, sweet…If you ask me to surprise you, you’re gonna get our worst whiskey neat!
Where do you see the cocktail game going now as we’re getting into 2019?
I think, I’ve noticed tiki cocktails coming back to life again and just more mixology type cocktails. I’d say people are going out for craft cocktails more now than it’s ever been since I’ve been doing it. There are speakeasy’s everywhere in the city and I think it’ll keep growing more and more as people start to get more educated.
Is that Ryan Reynold’s gin?
Yes it is! I’m not usually a gin guy, more a whiskey guy but let’s take a shot! You be the judge if it’s any good or not. I hope Ryan get’s to see this article. #ryanreynolds. I’ll make you an Aviation cocktail since we’re talking about it!
What are your favorite spirits?
My first bar I worked at that I mentioned earlier was a Tequila/margarita bar. They had over a hundred different tequilas. During my time there, they gave us tastings pretty regularly. Since that, I’ve been into tequila. Soon after, I graduated to mezcal and got that smokiness. I shared that with my friends who asked if I like even more smoke. That’s how I got into whiskey. Tequila and whiskey are definitely my two favorites.
What’s been the most popular drink this Winter?
It’s so funny. It’s been the same for the last few years or so and Vogue actually did an article on the damn thing. Oh, you know what, I’ll make you one. It’s our play on the Penicillin cocktail. So, I’m sure you know what it is. The way WE do it, instead of scotch for the smokiness, we use mezcal instead.
Vogue did a piece of this famous Penicillin twist made by Jesse Lehman of the Orient Express Cocktail Bar.
- 1.75 Oz Bourbon
- 1 Oz Mezcal
- 1 Oz Lemon Juice
- 0.5 Oz Agave Nectar
- Top W/ House-Made Ginger Soda
In mixing tin, add all ingredients over ice.
Top with house-made ginger soda.
Fine strain into rocks glass w/ big ice cube.
Garnish with candied ginger.
What would you say is “good” money in New York for a bartender? Honestly.
I’d say if you’re working a club, at least during peek days, Thursday-Saturday, you could walk out of there with $400-$500 plus. BUT. You’re not leaving til the suns up. A cocktail spot, like Employee’s Only and the Dead Rabbit, you’re probably looking at around $300 on a Saturday, maybe less. It’s not about what you make per shift, it’s about what you make the whole week.
Do you see yourself leaving anytime soon?
I got into the bar gig as a part time situation. I’m a trained actor and there’s this joke thats always stuck with me. What do you call a room full of unemployed actors? A restaurant in New York city. Listen, I could be over at Marquee or some other big name club slinging cocktails til 4am but I wouldn’t have the quality of life I have. I work with a bunch of amazing people. Unless you can put me in the next James Bond movie by the end of summer, you’re gonna have to drag me out of here with a pick-axe.
If you could have a drink with someone not alive right now, who would it be?
I’d have to say Humphrey Bogart. I know it sounds a bit off but I’m an actor and he’s an OLD-SCHOOL actor. I grew up watching old black and white film. He seems like the kinda guy to sit over a cocktail and cigar in a small speakeasy.
I hope you all enjoyed this AMAZING interview with program manager and head bartender of the Orient Express Cocktail Bar in West Village!
Do you and your friends a favor and swing by to see this guy! Let him know you read his article for an awesome “bartenders choice” cocktail!
325 W 11th St, New York, NY 10014
Until next time guys,
“10/10 would recommend, Yancy……OUT!”