If you’ve found yourself in a bar over the past few years you might have noticed that gin is back in a big way. After a long lull, during which even its most classic preparation—the martini—had devolved into a vehicle for vodka, the craft movement catapulted the British-born spirit back towards relevance. Jared Brown has as much to do with this revival as anyone. The master distiller for London’s own Sipsmith, he lobbied Parliament to overturn a two-hundred-year-old ban on small batch production in the UK. It was an improbable campaign by any measure, but even more so when you consider Brown’s status as an American ex-pat. His formative years, throughout the ‘80s and into the mid-’90s, were spent rambling through the five boroughs, collecting memories to sustain several lifetimes. In fact, he’s in the running for most interesting New Yorker you’ve never heard of. Here, Observer talks with Brown to gain a better sense of how the gin genius of today was molded by the Gotham of yesteryear.
Observer: When did you first move to the city, and what gainful employment did you find after you arrived?
Jared Brown: I arrived in New York City in 1985—a week before my 21st birthday. I was starting work as a desk clerk at the Essex House on Central Park South. It was still the official hotel for Saturday Night Live at the time. I was used to Dan Ackroyd coming in late, in costume, to dodge the fans: as an electrician, plumber, security guard.
I’d seen his Julia Child skit and found the reservation under her name. I quickly bumped the booking to his favorite suite, 1807, and passed the key over the desk. Minutes later, ‘he’ was back in front of me: “I am sure I was only booked for a room, and this is a gorgeous suite.” Words I imagine Aykroyd has yet to say in this lifetime. It wasn’t Aykroyd, it actually was Julia, and I’d mistaken her for him in drag.
“Would you accept the upgrade from a huge fan,” I managed to stammer. “Your cookbook is the most stained and abused in my kitchen,” I told her truthfully.
The next day she stopped by the desk and asked which dishes I had liked. I rattled off seven I loved and three I recipes I was struggling with. She patiently talked me through them. She stayed a few more times, and each time helped me further with cooking tips, and cocktail tips as well. She was a truly remarkable person.
Any other standout recollections from these first few months in New York?
Climbing the Essex House sign was a good memory. I won’t go into details of how that came about, but the view was spectacular from there.
When did you migrate towards the world of food and beverage?
When the hotel closed for renovations in 1990, I was already studying food and hospitality management at NYU. I became a waiter at the Rainbow Room, worked my way through every position in the trade up to a regular guest chef gig at the Athletic and Swim Club at The Equitable. I got a job as bartender at Café Centro on the Upper East Side. This led to management work in a number of restaurants owned by the same small group.
Then I was hired to wait tables at Dimitri’s Café on Spring Street. The morning after, the manager quit. Dimitri asked my name, told me the manager thought I could take over, tossed me the keys and left. I didn’t know at the time, but he really left: he hailed a taxi out front, took it to JFK and went to Greece.
So you worked your way up to management quite quickly?
Yes. Suddenly, my girlfriend Cari and I had our own little SoHo café. We couldn’t make up the months of back rent, but for the 3-4 months before the sheriff padlocked it, we revamped the place and got it booming. It was one of those times that really deserves to become a film, someday. Moments flash back like when Cari put dish liquid in the commercial dishwasher, filling the cellar chest deep in foam. Someone raced to the liquor store for a magnum of cheap chardonnay. I grabbed the boom box. We had a staff rave until the foam subsided.
I launched a catering company around this time as well. Our first call was from a Japanese company. Did I cook Japanese food? I was too broke to say “no,” so I grabbed the cookbooks, called my sister and ended up with a repeat Japanese catering customer.
[Soon thereafter] I met my wife, Anistatia. That’s another story. But the short version: she hired me to help her throw a 55-person sit-down dinner in her loft at 67 East 11th Street. I went back the next day and asked her to marry me. She was in publishing, and that first week I started working with her. She became president of the New York Art Directors Annual, the book and competition side of the New York Art Directors Club, for a couple of years. She quickly convinced me to stop cooking as, like many chefs, I was a personality problem on legs after a day in the kitchen.
Were you rubbing elbows with any other prominent New Yorkers at this time?
At one point Anistatia’s office was above Les Halles. She smoked. Tony Bourdain smoked. I would just keep her company when she went to smoke, and we would all hang out off to the side from Les Halles. It was also a great spot for steak tartare. Arriving back a few weeks after his death I stayed in a hotel around the corner. The heartfelt tributes posted on the facade were as heartbreaking as his loss.
Moonlighting in the ’80s as a party promoter, I did events at places like Club Paradise and 6 Bond and a bunch whose names I can’t recall.
I bumped into Jack Klugman one night on 49th Street outside a stage door. He was there alone in a windbreaker and fishing hat next to a huge poster of Tony Randall, who was starring in M. Butterfly. Jack was waiting for Tony, and we talked for a while about a very random connection: my English teacher, at retirement age when I had her, was his when she started out and had told us a load of stories about his misbehavior. He admitted to all of it. Then, randomly, shortly after he passed away I ran into Tony Randall on a 5th Avenue bus. We got talking and I told him about that night, which he loved.
I was stage diving at CBGB when an all-black thrash metal band played there. The drummer was one of my roommates in Harlem. Later that night we got chucked out of Kiev, a 24-hour East Village Ukranian restaurant when the band burst into an a cappella cover of Conjunction Junction from Schoolhouse Rock, and the waitress panicked.
Were you fond of the theatre?
I remember seeing Peter O’Toole in Pygmalion on Broadway. He was very drunk. He got the giggles. They overwhelmed him. He collapsed onto a settee, then fell and rolled toward the edge of the stage in paroxysms of laughter. The rest of the cast was paralyzed in horror. He bounced back up, delivered his next line flawlessly, looked at the actor who was supposed to respond but was now doing a reasonable impression of a goldfish out of water, but it didn’t matter as all of us in the audience leapt to our feet and gave him a standing ovation for what was and still is my fondest memory of any live theatrical performance.
Did you ever get into Studio 54?
First time I tried to go to Studio 54, the line was hundreds-long and all of them looked cooler than me in my khakis and navy blazer. So I went around the corner and had a slice. I bought six pizzas, went back and said, “Delivery for the VIP room.” Some guy about the size of Andre the Giant parted the crowd all the way up, where I put the pizzas down on tables. Everywhere I dropped a pizza, someone bought me a drink. The pizzas were actually cheaper than the drinks.
What were some of your standout dining experiences in NYC during your time here?
Keen’s. Sit at the bar. Have a martini and a prime rib. Life doesn’t get much better. Veselka: Borscht and potato pancakes. Any Korean restaurant on 32nd street at any hour of the night. One time I was having dinner at Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, with a huge metal bowl of chicken livers and a syrup dispenser of schmaltz to start. Looking down the long table at my midwestern Canadian cousin discovering this cuisine, eating half of the livers and all the schmaltz straight from the bowl with a large wooden spoon. From what I hear, his subsequent heart surgery went well.
Did you work in any bars in the city?
I opened the Double Seven [in the Meatpacking district] with Sasha Petraske. Anistatia and I were brought in as menu and concept consultants, while Sasha created the drinks program. It was a sad day when that project finished as we had such fun with the Double Seven essentially as our private bar and Sasha mixing for us.
Any other last memories from this time period?
I have so many wonderful memories of life in NYC, from walking Manhattan top to bottom repeatedly and taking a different route each time, to Sunday waffles at the Cupcake Cafe shortly after it opened its first little Hell’s Kitchen shop, to dancing at The World, Area, Studio 54, The Roxy, Mars, Red Zone, Limelight, Save The Robot, Paradiso to name a few.
[I once] skateboarded 7th Ave, from 59th to Canal—it’s actually all downhill and was a great run. Also, I couldn’t always afford the subway when I lived on Avenue B, and borrowed my roommate’s board for the trips home from work.
Why did you ever leave?
[Anistatia and I] ended up with a three-year project in the south of France directing the renovation and archiving of the collection in Exposition Universelle des Vins et Spiritueux, a museum of wines and spirits created in 1958 by Paul Ricard, founder of Pernod Ricard.
Nowadays, Brown doesn’t make it back to New York nearly as much as he’d like. “Once or twice a year, if I’m lucky,” he says. But upon any return he’s quick to sit at the bar at Keens Steakhouse, where he can be found with martini in hand and prime rib on the plate. He also still appreciates the borscht and potato pancakes at Veselka, as well as Katz’s, Russ and Daughters, Zabar’s. “Yeah, absence makes the heart go tourist,” he admits.
The brand he helped start was acquired by Beam Suntory in December of 2016. One of the world’s largest liquor companies, they’ve upped distribution across the city. So now you can find bottles of Sipsmith in many of the bars, restaurants and bottleshops that Brown once frequented during his New York heyday.
Brown is back in the city for a visit, ostensibly to push his product at Bar Convent Brooklyn—an outsized trade show at the Brooklyn EXPO Center in Greenpoint. But it’s likely just an excuse for him to return to these crowded streets he once called home. “I’ll walk anywhere in New York,” he says. “There’s nowhere else like it in the world—nowhere with so much energy per square block.” And the gin and tonics aren’t too shabby, either.