Casting is among the most important elements behind the success of any movie or theater production. Imagine if someone other than Humphrey Bogart was cast as the lead in “Casablanca” or anyone other than Sean Connery played James Bond. Obviously, casting the right person in the right role is essential to the success of a movie or a business.
Such is the case with Jonathan Pogash and New York City’s famed Hospitality Holdings. Pogash — known far and wide as the Cocktail Guru — is a self-made man who has brought a new level of panache and sophistication to the beverage programs of Hospitality Holdings’ portfolio of ultra-elegant venues. For its part, the high-profile company has provided Pogash with a creative platform to showcase his considerable talents and one of the best gigs in the business. Frankly, it’s the role of a lifetime.
Pogash’s meteroric ascension to celebrity status began when he attended Gaz Regan’s two-day immersion program called “Cocktails in the Country.” After a weekend studying mixology with the preeminent authority of all things beverage, Pogash returned to New York City, where he worked his way onto the barback staff at the famous Russian Tea Room.
“The beverage program there had been developed by none other than Steven Olson,” Pogash says. “I barbacked for a summer, after which I was promoted to day bartender. Several months later, I moved up to bartending nights. Then 9/11 hit, and the Russian Tea Room closed.”
Pogash introduced himself to bar extraordinaire Albert Trummer, who at the time was running the bar program at Town Restaurant in the Chambers Hotel — now Ma Peche. It was there that Pogash was encouraged to put into practice what Regan had taught him about making cocktails with fresh fruits, juices, purees and seasonal ingredients. Soon his creations were being promoted on cocktail menus around town.
“I eventually bartended at several other places after Town,” he says. “One of the turning points in my career was getting the opportunity of bartending at the Flatiron Lounge for Julie Reiner. While working there, I learned all about modern and classic bar technique, how to use quality spirits and unique ingredients. It was a real eye-opener.”
In 2005, Mark Grossich, owner and chief executive officer of Hospitality Holdings, hired Pogash to create the beverage menu for the soon-to-open Bookmarks Lounge, the rooftop bar at the Library Hotel perched 14 floors above the sidewalks of Manhattan. After getting Bookmarks off the ground, Pogash was asked to revamp the existing beverage menus at The Campbell Apartment, The World Bar and The Carnegie Club. Soon he was named the company’s director of cocktail development and tasked to develop specialties for Madison & Vine, a bistro and wine bar at the Library Hotel and The Empire Room in the Empire State Building. In addition to creating cocktails for special events and changing each venue’s menus on a seasonal basis, Pogash is responsible for training and educating the various bartending staffs. All told it’s more than a full-time gig.
Over the years, Pogash has developed a keen sense for what beverage operators need to do to be successful. He thinks cutting corners on the quality of their beverages is the biggest mistake managers and owners can make.
“I’m a staunch proponent of the cocktail philosophy that beverage operations generate higher revenues using fresh ingredients,” he says. “It’s occasionally a hard sell in as much as the upfront cost of switching over to fresh juices and seasonal ingredients is high. You’ll never find pre-mixes and artificially flavored juices and sour mixes behind the bar at a top-notch cocktail lounge.”
The industry-wide recognition he’s received has helped Pogash build a thriving beverage consultancy. Among those he’s helped is Ventura’s Offshore Cafe, located in Northfield, N.J., minutes from Atlantic City.
“It's an unlikely location for an upscale cocktail haunt,” he says. “South Jersey is not exactly known for their high-quality beverages. The owners approached me a year and half ago to consult on a revamp of their entire cocktail program. I switched them over to a fresh-juice program — removing all artificial juices and syrups — developed a dozen seasonal specialties cocktails and worked with the bartenders to enhance their knowledge and skill set. Their beverage sales continue increasing to this day.”
Pogash adds that much of the credit belongs to Ventura’s management team.
“It’s a really talented staff, and they’ve fully embraced the concept of promoting fresh, seasonal drinks,” he says. “Frankly, without an enthusiastic management staff in place, it’s hard to imagine the program would have growth as significantly as it has. That pretty much holds true for just about anywhere.”
In his spare time, Pogash produces the Cocktail Guru’s Newsletter, creates signature drinks for special events and operates a company called Wedding Cocktail Design, which, true to its name, affords him the opportunity of crafting cocktails tailor-made for people’s nuptials.
For the moment, it’s safe to presume that he will be spending time at home. His wife Megan just gave birth to their son Benjamin. Mother and baby guru are doing well.