Q&A: Brian Evans, head bartender, Sunday In Brooklyn

Brian Evans of Sunday in Brooklyn

Brian Evans is head bartender, Sunday In Brooklyn restaurant in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section.

Better Bartending: What was your first bartending job?

Brian Evans: I would most certainly consider my first coffee shop gig as a barista to be my first, actual bartending job back when I was fresh out of high school in Fort Smith, AR.

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Learning how to construct coffee beverages while chatting up guests and regulars at a fast pace made my transition into the cocktail world wonderfully smooth in terms of hospitality and social aptitude. I began serving up beer, wine, and sake at a refined Thai restaurant called Sway in Austin, TX, back in 2012. We did not have a liquor license; however, the wine knowledge I gained and became certified toward gave me a much more firm backbone in deciphering flavor nuances and relating them to guests’ wants.

I didn’t start crafting cocktails until 2015, during my time at Marta and Union Square Hospitality in New York. From there, my interest in “mixology” and the history of cocktails began to take flight.

BB: You recently joined Sunday In Brooklyn after working at some top New York restaurants; what have you learned from some of those places?

BE: Marta was the first New York restaurant to take me under their wing. Through my managers John Livanos and Erik Lombardo, I learned the fundamentals of mixing drinks.

It goes without saying, but working for Union Square Hospitality forever shapes the way you approach hospitality—from the verbiage to the body language, to providing comfort and care for your guests as well as your teammates, and taking ownership of your specified role. No matter what walk of restaurant service you choose, hospitality comes first. These are irreversible cornerstones I’ll take with me in whatever restaurant or career choice I pursue.

After Marta, I joined Major Food Group and tended bar at Satina in the Meatpacking District. Here, I learned how to have fun with the art of drink making—everything from visual appeal and vibrant ingredients to just showing people a damn good time. Between these two juggernaut restaurant groups, I also took on part-time roles at Leuca (NoHo Hospitality) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Betony in Midtown Manhattan, where I learned even more about refined approaches to hospitality.

BB: How does the Brooklyn bar/cocktail scene differ from Manhattan?

BE: Brooklyn’s dining scene is obviously more casual, more adventurous and less ceremonious than Manhattan. The neighborhood vibe is inescapable and always pulsating. You can feel it in the guests and their likely willingness to put their trust in your hands as a server, bartender, or chef.

Cocktail bars are fewer and further between in Brooklyn compared to Manhattan, but hotspots such as Maison Premiere, Leyenda, and Grand Army make for some of my all-time favorite drinking experiences by perfecting the balance of being refined refuges in a neighborhood setting.

Through creating a cocktail list for Sunday in Brooklyn, I’ve learned that guests dining and drinking in Brooklyn want to be shown something new but in a familiar setting. I’ve seen great success in introducing Brooklyn guests to certain spirits and cocktail styles they’ve never tasted or heard of, whereas it felt like the majority of guests in a Manhattan setting rarely break out of their “Vodka & Sodas,” “Whiskey Neats,” or “Spicy Skinny Margaritas” bubbles.

BB: You take an innovative, fun approach to cocktails and drink vessels. Your Tokyo Bodega sake cocktail, for instance, comes in a small beaker set in a rice bowl on pebble ice, with a Miller Hi-Life pony an upended into the ice. Why do you serve it this way, and how do customers get to the beer without spilling it?

BE: People drink with their eyes. That initial visual “wow” factor can trigger up an immediate Pavlovian response, and it’s oftentimes the most unforgettable experience with any dish or drink.

I was inspired by two specific things: the fun, celebratory experience of drinking a Sake Bomb and a frozen Margarita I had back in Texas that was served “Bulldog-style,” with a baby Corona beer flipped upside down into the drink and where the cocktail’s flavor would transform as gravity would allow more beer into the Margarita.

Through a rice bowl filled with pebbled ice, these two worlds collided and the Tokyo Bodega was born—junmai-ginjo sake blended with elderflower and vanilla, topped with the dive-bar elegance of a pony Miller High Life. The best way I describe to this drink to guests is that it’s either a Reverse Sake Bomb or a nice, refreshing Shandy cocktail, depending on how fast they choose to drink it.

I instruct staff to pour half of the sake from the beaker into the ice, and let the guest drink from a straw directly from the bowl, allowing the beer to slowly release as it is being consumed. The puzzlement on the faces of guests is priceless!

BB: The Havana Honey Bear cocktail (amaro Montenegro, amontillado sherry, pineapple, lime, cumin honey) is served in a honey bear squeeze bottle. Where do you get the honey bear bottles from, and do guests steal them?

BE: Initially, I had wanted to purchase several honey-bear squeeze bottles filled with honey, use up the honey, then re-use the empty bottles as the cocktail vessels. A major potential problem there is that certain honey brands likely trademark certain honey-bear bottle colors and designs, and I feared we’d surely run into some legal issues down the road.

Luckily, Amazon sells empty, unlabeled honey-bear bottles in 12-packs. We all had a hunch this cocktail would go over well visually, so we stocked up nicely. We haven’t run into a noticeable issue of guests stealing the bottles, but we have given a few away as a parting gift to delighted guests who’ve asked. It’s funny to think that something so simple and so familiar can brighten up a drinking and dining experience.

BB: What’s been the best-selling cocktail at Sunday In Brooklyn since you’ve been there?

BE: Our house Bloody Mary, the “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” has taken weekend brunch by storm ever since it hit the menu far before my time as head bartender. I left that recipe untouched because it’s too damn good and has helped shaped the restaurant as a brunch destination.

Since I took on the cocktail menu, the Havana Honeybear undoubtedly been my most successful contribution, especially in a brunch setting, since it’s visually playful and is a tropically refreshing blend of low-ABV spirits. During dinner, the “No Cigar” cocktail has been the most consistent and frequently sold. It’s essentially a Manhattan riff with cherry and black peppe—perfect for the night-time crowd wanting something spirit-forward and delightfully intriguing.

BB: What’s your favorite cocktail/beverage at the moment?

BE: Ever since traveling to Spain last summer, I’ve grown a continuous craving for tonic-based cocktails, specifically sweet vermouth and tonic. I was recently turned on to lo-fi aperitifs when I began working at Sunday in Brooklyn. Both their sweet and dry vermouth styles are luxurious with Fever Tree tonic and a squeeze of lime.

Vermouth-tonics are the perfect low-ABV sipper, and they taste like cherry cola for grown folks! Aside from that, I’m always in the mood for a Daiquiri or anything rum-based.