The Hooch Life

Epiphany: Learning to Love Gin

Photo by Nick Stevens

Think you don’t like gin? Neither did bartender Liam Wager until serendipity showed him how great gin can be.

“My first cocktail experience was a disaster with a Bombay Sapphire Martini — a terrible Bombay Sapphire Martini — while I was at a college orientation event,” explains suspender-clad Liam Wager from across the marble bar at the Fat Goose, a new restaurant in the hopping hipster-filled Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he’s the resident bartender and head of the cocktail program.

“Bombay Sapphire is a really intense flavor, and I really consider it to be a gin lover’s gin. I got wasted, and it was a negative experience, but somehow I came out of it really wanting to know more about gin. I was strangely intrigued.”

Descended from a long line of barmen and trained to tap kegs and pour beers, Wager emerged from his early bar stint inexperienced about spirits, and for the longest time had a great distaste for gin, the juniper-heavy alcohol that’s a favorite of British gentlemen and Snoop Dogg. “My uncle is a bartender, and my father is a bartender,” continues Wager, who has a discerning palate, but no tolerance for cocktail snobbery. “This sounds glamorous, but since I grew up in a small town, I was a dive bar bartender.”

Still curiously seduced, yet intimidated by the power of gin, it wasn’t until Wager became the manager of the East Village wiener-centric institution Crif Dogs that he would serendipitously rekindle his love-hate affair with the spirit, and spearhead his own cocktail career.

It just so happened that Crif Dogs was in close proximity to Please Don’t Tell (or PDT to those in the know), a top-secret modern speakeasy that pays homage to Prohibition-era cocktails. On slow shifts at his high-end hot dog stand, Liam would mosey over to PDT, which is where his impromptu education on cocktailing began. “I had every single drink on their menu for two-and-a-half years. Every. Single. Drink. I would just go in and sit at the bar, and the bartenders began to teach me a lot about cocktails.”

On one of his impromptu spirit lessons at PDT, Wager began discussing his tortured relationship with gin. “I told the boys at PDT that I wanted to understand gin,” remembers the busy bartender while virulently stirring a golden-hued concoction. “They made me a classic Martinez, and I was blown away by how well-balanced it was and how it was incredibly easy to drink, but still boozy in a good way.”

One drink was all it took — he was hooked. So much so that Wager asked the PDT staff to deconstruct the drink for him so he could taste all of the individual components and understand the unique flavor harmony. Thanks to this unofficial cocktail education, Liam Wager discovered the art of drink-making and the versatility of a once-loathed spirit.

“I learned that bartending becomes more than just recognizing that you like something or don’t like something. You begin to understand the ‘why’ behind liking or not liking something. That is the art behind what we do.”

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The Hooch Life Guide to American Whiskey