Taking an Artisanal Stance at the Bar, and Following Through
By John Henry

One of the benefits of working the street is feeling the trends and talent emerge from the ground up. It’s an organic gut sense that you just don’t get poring over sales spread sheets in fluorescently lit offices. Being out on the street I have had the fortune seeing talented folks arriving in New York, create a following behind someone else’s bar, carve a nice cocktail and service niche for themselves; and then in turn venture off on their own as successful bar owners and business people. Jim Meehan and Julie Reiner come immediately to mind. It was great to spot their talent way back when, watch their careers grow and now see what great things they have done for themselves, those they have mentored and their contribution to our industry overall.

As the industry continues to grow I feel a new generation of industry proprietor is emerging–one who is very individual, true to their values and putting their vision into play with passion and commitment–both in food, and now in beverage. And I am glad to say that among them are some very special women leading the movement.

Earlier this autumn I sat with one of those new and special leaders, Tasha Garcia Gibson, at Tipsy Parson (156 9th Ave., NYC www.tipsyparson.com). Tasha and her partner, Julie Taras Wallach own Tipsy Parson and Little Giant, their other restaurant down on the Lower East Side. At both places Tasha oversees the beverage program while Julie concentrates on the food. A quick look at their well curated back bar and it’s evident that they don’t run a typical beverage program.  Still, it’s a comprehensive selection despite the fact that Tasha takes a stand against ordering from the two local major distributors, Empire and Southern Wine and Spirits. We spoke in general about the state of the business overall and, more specifically, Tipsy Parson’s embrace of local and artisanal beverages and how it is practiced.

Julie and Tasha began with a 32 seat restaurant Little Giant on the LES some seven years back. I was fortunate enough to meet them in the jittery days before their opening. (Sadly, it was at the closing night bash for the sorely missed West Village institution, Grange Hall) These are the little giant gals who could. Little Giant on Orchard at Broome remains a neighborhood and critical favorite and the place where mixology star Brian Miller got his start, no less. Julie and Tasha have now earned the ranks of industry talent and insiders themselves. They are delightfully DIY—even in creating their own Tipsy Parson logo and design. Tasha is the kind of partner who calls a staff member “baby doll” as they fill the sugar bowls together. Their specialty at Tipsy Parson is upscale comfort food and the service atmosphere in the air here clearly comforts.

Since its opening ten months ago the bar at Tipsy Parson also specializes in local and artisanal spirits, wine and beverage as no other. They live and breathe it. They simply say no to any brands distributed by the two big giants. No Maker’s Mark, no St. Germain, no Plymouth, no Tito’s Vodka, and no Milagro. Yes to Hirsch and Old Potrero, Junipero Gin and Siembra Azul. While they make an exception for a specialty item like Campari and occasionally for seasonal items like Pimms or Goslings (essential to the true Dark and Stormy cocktail on the summer cocktail list), these gals truly tow the smaller distributor and artisanal product line. Case in point, Tuthilltown from Gardiner, New York has been a locally favored artisanal whiskey line, but now that the brand has moved to Empire Merchants a substitute line of whiskey needs to be found as a replacement. I asked Tasha, point blank, why go so hardcore this way? She responds, “Why buy veggies at C Town when you can go to the greenmarket.” Point well tipped.

That hardcore attitude stems from the experiences, and the relationships that the sales representatives from the smaller distributors bring to the Tipsy Parson equation. These reps become part of the family and, in turn, they appreciate and support the business (and without asking for placement favors on non-appropriate new items). Together they embrace the brand building process which these cherished brands afford. It becomes organic. What of any additional costs of not buying major brand on their volume deals? Garcia Gibson declares it “a wash, explaining that it’s simply part of their “whole sum” approach to the business.

So how does this approach to business process trickle down to the treasured new customer walking in? Garcia Gibson notes, “When talking a drink order from a customer, it may take a few minutes to explain, say if they order a Grey Goose, but you develop a rapport and a position of trust as a server/bar staff. You begin a dialogue.”

That shared discussion is what the warm staff and comfort beverages of Tipsy Parson are all about. When they believe in a new artisanal product hitting the market they are proud to showcase it. Garcia Gibson remarks, “When deciding what new goes up on the back bar, we choose spirits by a process of discovery. Astor Wines has been a great resource. The word gets around too. We explore. And we tend to build cocktails from the elements of the unique base spirit on up.”

I had to tip my own hat after looking up from the unique beverage menu and perusing their back bar before I headed back out to the street. Tipsy Parson offers a refreshing respite from the standard bar; there is something whole about it.

I wish more of us behind the bar would go our own ways. Stay committed and true to our individual vision and values. Then, in turn, practice and showcase what we preach with the customer , our purveyors and the local community in everything we do. This wave of “individual, local and artisanal” commitment is coming on strong in our industry. May Julie and Tasha inspire us all.

Amen, Parson, amen.