Renato Ziraschi Celebrates Fifty Years Behind the Bar

by Myscha Theirault

A mere 69 years young, Renato Ziraschi began pouring cocktails in the Big Apple back in 1962. Which makes 2012 his fiftieth year behind the bar. That’s right. Fifty years. Born near Parma, Italy in a small town called Bardi, he arrived in New York by boat in 1960. Renato says he’ll never forget the moment he saw the Lady Liberty for the first time. “It was an unbelievable sight to see the Statue of Liberty from the boat when I arrived. That sight is still in my mind after all these years. It was truly unbelievable, especially for a kid from the countryside.”

As you can imagine, hanging in for a half century will teach you a thing or two about the biz. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Ziraschi by phone regarding his thoughts, observations, lessons learned and yes, his favorite cocktail. Here’s what he had to say.

MT: Fifty years behind the bar is certainly impressive. What sort of trends have you witnessed in the industry as far as the types of things people like to order?

RZ: “Well, of course today it’s all about the fancy martinis and mixed drinks. But those weren’t around when I started. Back then a basic bourbon was one of the most popular drinks. Also, a martini was just a martini. Gin. Vermouth. Olives. That was it. Now it seems there are thousands of different martini recipes out there.”

Another big change Renato has witnessed is the shift from long, multiple-martini lunches to leisurely pre-dinner cocktails enjoyed after work. “There really are no lunch martinis anymore. Before dinner drinks are the big trend now.”

MT: What sorts of cocktails are currently the most popular?

RZ: Vodka cocktails and wine are the big sellers now. There’s not so much going on with the darker liquids.

MT: You’ve enjoyed five decades behind the bar now. Which one was the wackiest?

RZ: Well, the sixties were a wild time. Especially the late sixties. Lots of wild parties with people overdoing it. It was a fun time. I enjoyed it. In the early seventies things slowed down, and then picked back up again a bit in the eighties. But the sixties were the wildest.

MT: Martinis: Shaken or stirred?

RZ: Stirred. Absolutely. I never shake a martini unless a customer requests it. Shaking leaves ice crystals that can water down the drink. Stirring keeps the cocktail pure and results in a stronger beverage.

MT: We all want the customers to stay as long as possible. How do you make yours comfortable enough to sit and sip?

RZ: Be yourself. Don’t try too hard to be impressive. Keep it real and let the customer drive the pace of the experience. I like people and I like to make them relax. Being nice doesn’t cost me anything and I like what I’m doing. I like to see customers get what they want.

MT: This seems to be a popular line of work to get into. Do you have any top tips for new bartenders?

RZ: I’ll tell you, too many people come in and want a job as a bartender, but they’re not really interested in serving people or making this their career. They want to schedule it around another career like acting or something. The people who will be successful in this line of work are those who truly want to make this their career of choice.

MT: Mixing drinks for a living for so long would lead anyone to a favorite drink. What’s yours?

RZ: You know, I actually don’t drink a whole lot other than wine. But when I do want a nice drink, I enjoy a Negroni. I always take very special care when I pour a Negroni. It’s made with equal parts of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari with a twist of orange.

MT: Are there any spirits you feel are better enjoyed on their own than with any sort of mixer?

RZ: Yes. A good single-malt Scotch is better to drink neat than practically anything else.

Renato Ziraschi is currently practicing his craft behind the bar at SD26 in New York City. When asked what he might like to do next with his life, Ziraschi’s pretty content to stay right where he is. “I like what I do. I love tending bar and wouldn’t do anything else for work, even for a million dollars. Someday, I might like a little more time to work in the back yard with my tomatoes, but not yet. I’m pretty satisfied right where I am.” 

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