Q&A: Drink Lightly Author Natasha David - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Q&A: Drink Lightly Author Natasha David

Bartender Natasha David (our Imbibe 75 2020 Bartender of the Year) is a creative pillar of New York’s cocktail scene, having logged time at spots like Maison Premiere and Mayahuel before opening her own bar. A much-beloved cocktail den on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Nitecap was the embodiment of David’s playful approach to cocktail culture and a platform that showcased her drink-creation chops. In her new book, Drink Lightly: A Lighter Take on Serious Cocktails (out this April from Clarkson Potter), David explores her favorite approach to drinks with 100 new recipes for low- and no-alcohol cocktails. We caught up with Natasha David to talk about the creation of the book, how the closure of Nitecap altered her perspective, and why, when it comes to drinks, “serious” and “joyful” don’t have to be mutually exclusive. 

Imbibe: What inspired the idea for the new book? 

Natasha David: I didn’t think a book was in the realm of possibilities for me, so I didn’t even ponder that idea. But I have a friend who works in the publishing world who suggested I write a book. I started thinking about it and took a few meetings, and through those meetings I discovered what I definitely didn’t want to do: I knew I didn’t just want it to be another über-serious cocktail book and conversely didn’t want it to be gimmicky. Less “I’m commanding you to do this,” and more inviting. I wanted to show that one could take craft seriously while simultaneously having fun.

At the end of the day, drinking and drinking culture and bars and restaurants—obviously it’s serious and I take it seriously, it’s how I make my living and I study it—but this is supposed to be fun, right? We’re supposed to enjoy it. So I really wanted that element of fun to come through.

And on the other side, I’m an artist and I express myself creatively, and this is how I’ve learned to channel my creativity. I wanted the book to be beautiful to look at.

Why did you want to highlight low-ABV and spirit-free drinks?

I have to acknowledge that obviously this style of [low-ABV] drinking is trendy right now, but that wasn’t the driving force behind it. I’ve always enjoyed that style of drinking. [See her favorite nightcap recipe: Reverse Manhattan.] This isn’t a book about Nitecap, but it’s heavily influenced by the lenses that I saw the world through when I was running that bar. Low-ABV drinking to me is just the most joyful way of drinking because your judgment isn’t clouded and you can be social. Because the heart of this book is really about community and interaction and building connections. I’d say about 10 percent are Nitecap recipes, and the other 90 percent are drinks I came up with for the book. That was my Covid project.

Due to Covid shutdowns, you unfortunately had to permanently close Nitecap; how did that experience impact you?

Natasha David: I was in the very beginning stages of the book when Covid hit. I had this idea of writing this book about joy, and then, well, who had any joy in them! I had a very hard time even being creative and coming up with recipes. Thankfully my editor let me step away from the project for about six months while I got to grieve and make my way back into the world. I think if it hadn’t been for the fact that I have a family and two kids, and a reason why I have to keep going every single day, it would have been much harder. I was able to find joy in other ways.

We were in a very strict Covid bubble and separate from our friends and community, so even the process of shutting the bar down was very isolating because all the staff wanted to come and help, but it felt too risky to expose my family, especially as this was right at the beginning of the pandemic and we had so much less information.

But in the end, the thing that got me back into the spirit of writing this book was the outreach from people—it was so extraordinary. People were so supportive long after we announced the bar was going to close. We had all these ridiculous legal bills, and I tried to sell off every single trinket in the bar to pay the fees. People were contacting me from the other side of the world wanting to buy something to support us. That is the memory I am left with—knowing that so many people were rallying behind us.

You also operate You and Me Cocktails, a consultancy with your husband, Jeremy Oertel. How was that impacted by the pandemic?

During the pandemic, the first thing people cut was their cocktail consultants, so it was a pretty grim few months. But as soon as life started picking up again, most of our previous projects picked us back up. We’re taking things a little slowly right now and being a little pickier about our projects, but we have some fun things coming down the road. It’s a great way to stay involved and be creative in so many different ways, because they’re not your properties so you get to help express someone else’s vision through your own point of view, which is always interesting.

Do you find that the past two years have changed how you think or feel about hospitality?

Completely. Well, yes and no. Completely in the sense that I have ultimatums now, whereas before I always had goals of being the kind of business owner who could make sure their staff had benefits and a higher living wage—they were things I didn’t know how to implement with the sort of “normal” business structure of a bar.

I think the motivation now is that I’m not going to open another business of my own until I can figure out how to do it, which might mean a more unconventional approach. And I know I’m going to do it and I can’t wait to open another bar, but it won’t happen until those are things I know I can guarantee everyone who works there. It won’t be New York City this time around. I’ve been living upstate for the last four years, and these are my new stomping grounds where I’m making new roots. Eventually there will be something in this part of the world.

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