Sam Ross of Milk & Honey Bar, New York at theloft

Sam Ross, of the prestigious Milk & Honey bar and 2011 American Bartender of the Year knows how to captivate his audience. Presenting to a group of elite bartenders at theloft in Sydney, he speaks of the Milk & Honey ethos and approaches the cocktail session as if the audience is a new member of staff at the esteemed New York bar.

Milk & Honey was opened on January 1st 2000 in Manhattan’s Lower East Side by Sasha Petraske, essentially as an antithesis to what was wrong with the New York bar scene at the time. Sam, an Australian from Melbourne, came on board in 2005.

Sam Ross at the Loft
Sam Ross, American Bartender of the Year 2011

The bar is “menu-less” and very technically driven, with a compendium of about 500 cocktails. Access is through a residential building with no signage, except M&H on the door with a camera above it and guests are buzzed in on arrival – a speakeasy bar culture to which Milk & Honey is often credited.

Sam Ross begins with the session by explaining that any cocktail can be traced back to five or six cocktail families, for example, the Sour, the Collins and the Gimlet. Speaking in ounces* instead of mls, he explains the simple formulas of balance between the spirit and the lemon/sugar components.

Sam Ross at the Loft

A Sour is in essence 2 oz spirit, ¾ oz lemon juice and ¾ oz sugar syrup, served up. A Traditional includes egg white, with bitters being optional whereas a Non-Traditional has no egg white. If this balance is kept, any 2 oz of spirit (or 1 oz of two spirits) can be used between the lemon and sugar components. ¼ oz of sugar or lemon over or under will alter the balance whereas ¼ oz of spirit won’t.

Sam Ross at the Loft
Traditional Rye Sour

He prepares a Traditional Rye Sour using an egg white and a splash of Antica as aromatic. He explains a “dry shake” technique (shaking without ice) invented by a Milk & Honey bartender, Christie Pope. When egg white is shaken with ice, it needs a longer time to emulsify it but shaking it for an extended time results in dilution and alters the drink.

Sam Ross at the Loft

The Collins is in essence a non-traditional (no egg white) Gin Sour with club soda and ice. The formula is 2 oz of spirit, ¾ oz lemon juice, ¾ oz simple syrup, ice and soda. The difference with a Sour is in the water content. Again, if shaken then strained over ice and served, it becomes too diluted.

As a rule, anything that is served on ice needs to be shaken less to prevent dilution as the water content should come from the club soda and not ice dilution.

Sam Ross at the Loft

A Fizz to a Collins is what a Tradition Sour is to a Non-Traditional Sour, which means it lacks the egg white component. Adding any fruit or a dash of bitters yields a cocktail with a different name.

Keeping with the basics of the cocktail families, a Gimlet is essentially a non-traditional Gin Sour with lime instead of lemon. Lime and lemon behave differently, the latter being more acidic, lime juice needs to be bumped up slightly in the ratio. The formula becomes 2 oz of Gin, 1 oz of lime juice and ¾ oz of simple syrup.

Sam Ross at the Loft

A traditional Gimlet is made with Rose’s Lime Juice. Sam prepared a Cherry Gimlet using 2 oz gin, 1 oz lime juice, ¾ oz simple syrup and muddled cherries.

Sam Ross at the Loft
Cherry Gimlet

The wash line is the level of the drink below the rim of the glass. If a cocktail is shaken for too long, the wash line will be right at the top, making it awkward to drink without spillage.

Sam speaks of dilution and stresses that it often gets overlooked in cocktails. A drink without ice will only get warm. It needs to be shaken long and hard to get it chilled. On the other side, a drink served with ice should not be shaken for too long.

Moving on to the next cocktail family, a Rickey is a Gimlet served long with club soda. The formula is 2 oz gin, 1 oz lime juice and ¾ syrup topped with soda. A Bennett is a classic Gimlet made with Angostura Bitters.

Sam Ross at the Loft

Sam Ross terms the next category as “peasant style drink”, eg, the Daiquiri and Caipirinha. These are regarded as rough spirits with the addition of a sweetener to counter it. They are still a variation of a Gimlet but with muddling lime with granular sugar, due to the bitterness from the skin of citrus.

6 lime chunks and 1 sugar cube to abraise the skin of citrus is the equivalent of 1 oz of lime juice. Adding ¾ oz of simple syrup and 2 oz of the spirit is the classic formula. Muddling at the end gives more wiggle and it’s easier than dry muddling. “Don’t pulverise the citrus,” he says. “It’s a gentle abuse of the lime.” Straw testing every drink is imperative when muddling citrus to ensure the correct balance.

Sam Ross at the Loft

A float of Laphroaig

Sam Ross is also renowned for his cocktail, The Penicillin, a whisky Sour with sweetened ginger juice and honey, and a float of a smoky whisky on top. “We don’t feel we invent drinks. We adapt them,” he explains as he makes his signature cocktail. Read how to make the Penicillin cocktail here.

Sam Ross at the Loft
The Penicillin

The Penicillin has 2 oz Blended Scotch like Famous Grouse, straight ginger juice stirred with granulated sugar, ¾ oz of honey as the sweetening agent, and a drizzle of a good Islay, providing a layer of smoke on top.

Sam Ross at the Loft
Rolls Royce, 2 oz gin, ½ oz Noilly Prat and ½ oz sweet vermouth

In the stirring drinks section such as the Martini and the Manhattan, as a rule at Milk & Honey, they stir anything that can be seen through.

There is a difference between shaking and stirring; both are chilling and diluting but they do it in different ways. Shaking is chilling and diluting but it is also aerating. Stirring is for heavy drinks that should be syrupy and silky on the tongue.

The Martini and the Manhattan generally follow the same formula: 2 oz spirit with 1 oz of modifier, usually a dry vermouth or a liqueur. A Perfect Martini means one that is made with half sweet vermouth and half dry vermouth.

Sam Ross at the Loft

Sam Ross at the Loft

Old Fashioned

When it comes to the Old Fashioned, Sam says that it is best to be served “slightly hot”, undiluted and under-stirred. At Milk & Honey, it is served using one big block of ice that sits at the bottom of the glass and above the wash line. A stirrer and an explanation are given with the drink. The first sip is undiluted and warm. After a stir, water gets into drink and improves the taste.

Sam Ross at the Loft
Bull Shots

The session with Sam Ross ends with a Bull Shot, made of equal parts beef bouillon and vodka, a drink traditionally consumed over lunch as it has no effect on the breath.

After tasting several of the cocktails demonstrated by Sam, the session concludes with questions from the audience. Curious to know what the latest drink that left a lasting impression on Sam, he speaks of the Jungle Bird, a tiki cocktail made with Blackstrap Rum, fresh lime, Campari and pineapple.

The session was sponsored by 666 Tasmanian Vodka, Westwinds Gin, Buffalo Trace, Pig’s Nose and Rittenhouse Rye.

Sam Ross at the Loft
Sam Ross – The Loft

The Sam Ross event was hosted by the Keystone Group at the Loft on Sunday 8 January 2012 – a highly enjoyable technical session which renews appreciation for the bartending profession and what into making a great cocktail.

For a photo album of the event, “Like” the Gourmantic Facebook page and tag.

Gourmantic attended the event as media guests. Photography by @MrGourmantic.

* 1 oz = 25 ml; 2 oz = 50 ml; ¾ oz = 20 ml

The Loft
3 Lime Street
Sydney 2000

About the author

Corinne Mossati

Corinne Mossati is a drinks writer, author of GROW YOUR OWN COCKTAIL GARDEN, SHRUBS & BOTANICAL SODAS and founder/editor of Gourmantic, Cocktails & Bars and The Gourmantic Garden. She has been writing extensively about spirits, cocktails, bars and cocktail gardening in more recent years. She is a spirits and cocktail competition judge, Icons of Whisky Australia nominee, contributor to Diageo Bar Academy, cocktail developer and is named in Australian Bartender Magazine's Top 100 Most Influential List. Her cocktail garden was featured on ABC TV’s Gardening Australia and has won several awards. She is a contributor to Real World Gardener radio program and is featured in several publications including Pip Magazine, Organic Gardener, Australian Bartender and Breathe (UK). Read the full bio here.