From molecular mixology to biodegradable glassware, New York bartender Rael Petit knows what we’ll be drinking in 50 years.
Rael Petit is one of the most exciting bartenders working in New York today. He’s known not just for his unique cocktail creations — platinum-colored drinks that move on their own, drinks served with ice spheres and gold leaf, drinks featuring liquors infused with everything from bacon to tamarind — but also for his expertise in the bar and restaurant industry.
For our Future of Dining month, we asked Petit to mix us up the Fernet-Branca cocktail of the future. Although he’s done molecular mixology, manipulated drinks enzymatically, and played around with lasers and glow-in-the-dark liqueurs, Petit believes that the cocktails of tomorrow won’t involve so much trickery. Instead, he sees the future of drinking as eco-friendly and sustainable, harkening back to and respecting nature, focusing on fresh artisanal ingredients, biodegradable utensils, and recycled and reused glassware. Watch as he mixes up a spicy and satisfying cocktail featuring homemade thyme syrup and a flamed garnish in a very sustainable “glass.”
Petit moved to New York from Switzerland when he was just 19. What started out as a summer vacation has turned into a 15-year stay. He had no real idea of what he wanted to do when he first got to the city, but he ended up in the kitchen of a restaurant in Union Square, which eventually led to his learning just about every facet of the hospitality industry. He went on to open his own restaurant, which later led to the creation of his bar and cocktail consulting company. Some people spend their entire lives trying to belong somewhere, so it’s a bit incredible how quickly Petit’s comfort in a new country came to him.
photo by Elyssa Goodman
The day I met up with Petit in Bushwick, Brooklyn, he treated me to a sample of his cocktail-making abilities. He seems as at home behind the dark wooden bar as others are in, well, their homes. Inspired by everything from travel (he has been to 85 countries) to running (he is a marathoner and ultramarathoner and uses running as a way to see new cities), Petit pulls all of his knowledge together when he’s crafting a drink. Creating a new cocktail takes him about 20 to 25 minutes. Longer than that, he says, and he feels like he’s going in the wrong direction. Watching him work, it’s clear how deep his knowledge of flavors and bar chemistry goes. Petit says it all comes naturally to him at this point in his career. “After a couple years, you figure out what exactly what balances out,” he says. “Sometimes you can even come up with recipes without tasting them. After a while, you don’t even think about it anymore.”
photo from Petit's Instagram
Some of Petit’s cocktails are inspired by the time he spent owning an art gallery, a pop-up style space he had for two years. After seeing how street artists manipulated stencils, he was curious to try that in cocktail form. He started to top drinks served in coupe or martini glasses with vibrant, colorful designs he made on his own or in collaboration with other artists. Petit also adds artistic flair to his garnishes, placing a stamp or logo onto ice cubes, or making edible platinum chips as part of a $1,000 cocktail he developed a few years ago, for which all proceeds went to charity. “It’s always a little different,” he says. “Even if I just utilize an orange upside-down with rosemary, those are things I learned from seeing art pieces.”
Petit is always invigorated by the prospect of creating something new, especially if it’s difficult or unusual. “Anytime somebody gives me a challenge, I usually always say yes,” he says with a smile. “That’s how you find the cocktails that you would never think of creating.” Some unusual drinks he’s made in the last few months include taking a blowtorch to a dehydrated lime wheel to top a cocktail featuring homemade curry bitters; a drink that contained red brussels sprouts extract; a glowing cocktail inspired by the Fête des Lumières in Lyon, France; and a tiki cocktail that incorporates homemade aloe vera and edelweiss cordials. His drinks come in all manner of colors and even textures, but for Petit, the taste must equal the presentation. “As long as the drinks are balanced, that’s what matters the most,” he says. “You can go with the craziest garnishes, but you always have to make sure your product tastes as good as what you see.”
photo from Petit's Instagram
Yet with all the tricks and glamour Petit’s cocktails have picked up based on his travels, one of his greatest inspirations is still New York City, where so many cultures get mixed together. “I don’t need to go too far to try something from Burma or anywhere else,” he says. There’s a deli in Bushwick where he can find the Swiss iced tea he used to drink growing up, and in Queens he can get Filipino food that’s as authentic as if his mother made it. Being able to find all these things and more gives him opportunities to experiment with international ingredients without straying far from home.
Petit has managed to create a very fulfilling life as a bartender — one that allows him to mix in all the things that inspire him: traveling, running, art, and the victory of a personal challenge. How strange that it all came as a surprise and started by accident. “I had no clue I was gonna do this,” he says. “It just fell in my lap, and I fell in love with the industry.” With all the thought and care Petit puts into his drinks, that love really shows.