Astoria Characters: The Cocktail Curator

When you’ve just finished an overnight shift, 9 in the morning feels like an exceedingly unseemly hour.

Which is why Alex Mouzakitis keeps apologizing; he got off at 5:30 a.m. after working 15 hours and hasn’t had much sleep.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Alex is a co-owner of HandCraft Kitchen & Cocktails in Manhattan.

He has his Mets cap pulled down over his somnolent eyes and worries when he takes it off that he has hat hair. (He doesn’t; his tresses looked professionally tousled.)

He’s not going to lie, he’s more worried about his mouth than his head. He’s not sure he can string a sentence together. (He easily finds his nouns and verbs.)

Alex needs a drink. Not the kind of fancy cocktails he conjures up for his Gramercy Park bar, HandCraft Kitchen & Cocktails.

He needs coffee, please. He takes a gulp. OK, he’s ready to go.

Alex has been in the hospitality business since he was 16. Growing up in North Massapequa, Long Island, he started serving tables at Friendly’s while he was in high school.

“I was making a lot of money,” he says. “That was a motivating factor.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Alex is from Long Island.

By the time he was at Stony Brook University working on a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Alex was bartending at TGI Friday’s. Again, to make money.

He found that he enjoyed talking to people so much that when he graduated, he decided to stay behind the bar.

Five years ago, he got a job at Astoria’s William Hallet on 30th Avenue.

That’s when his life really changed.

Before long, he was managing the bar, which is where he met his wife (she was an occasional customer) and reconnected with a friend who became one of HandCraft’s partners.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He’s never been to bartending school.

Personally and professionally, things progressed, or as Alex says, “fell into my lap,” and the two sectors of his life dovetailed in 2015.

“We opened HandCraft, and I got married a week later,” he says. “For the honeymoon, I left for a month – we went to Las Vegas, California, Hawaii and Japan. We also made a stop in Amsterdam so we could shorten a 10-hour flight.”

The HandCraft idea, he says, was to create a bar that served high-quality cocktails in an unintimidating atmosphere.

“We wanted it to be approachable,” he says, “especially for those who have never ordered cocktails.”

The menu divides the cocktails into categories: Punches (like bourbon and rose sangria), Classics (remember the Old Fashioned and the Salty Dog?), Dad Drinks (think Grasshopper and Harvey Wallbanger) and Alex’s seasonal sets of witty wet-your-whistle creations.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Alex has a degree in psychology.

Alex, who disdains the word mixologist, considers himself a beverage curator. He developed a taste for cocktails and a knack for designing them while on the job.

“I never went to bartending school,” he says. “I was just instantly good at it. My process is really simple. It’s what I like.”

Take his Kiwi Strawberry Gimblet, which is made of vodka infused in house with the two fruits and lime juice.

“This was based on flavors that I remembered from when I was a kid,” he says. “I remembered drinking Snapple’s Strawberry Kiwi and thinking it was too sweet. So I made the Kiwi Strawberry Gimlet with that in mind.”

Sometimes Alex’s ideas bubble up in his brain and flow like Champagne. Sometimes, he has to keep trying and tweaking until he gets a taste worth toasting.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

On his days off, he stops in for a drink at local bars.

“One of my favorite things to do is to use what’s on hand,” he says. “I go to the refrigerator and see what we have – it’s visual inspiration.”

His Harvest Moon — mezcal, ancho reyes, blood orange syrup, cayenne pepper, jalapeno, egg white and lime — is HandCraft’s signature staple.

It came into being when Alex got the idea to pair agave-based spirits like tequila and mezcal with blood-orange juice, which he happens to like a lot.

“The name came afterward,” he says. “It just seemed appropriate. They work well together.”

Berry Lemonade — Smirnoff vodka or tequila, blackberry/blueberry shrub and lemonade – takes a little more prep.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Goofing around on the street.

Alex ferments the shrub – apple cider vinegar, honey, blueberries and blackberries – for three weeks in the refrigerator.

It’s typical for Alex to put in 60- to 80-hour weeks at HandCraft; even when he’s not at the bar, he’s always thinking about the business.

“My wife and I like to travel and go out,” he says. “I’m always checking out cocktails at other bars.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Contemplating his next cocktail.

When he’s in Astoria and not in bed, he stops in at local spots for a drink.

“I don’t have anything fancy,” he says. “Just a shot or a beer.”

Although Alex is far too busy to think about his future in anything other than general terms, he does intuitively know that HandCraft has enough legs to become a successful brand.

“We designed it to be a franchise,” he says. “My wife’s from California and wants to go back. Five years from now, maybe I’ll be running a West Coast branch.”

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. It’s a free, public event.

Support Astoria Characters at GoFundMe.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhing@gmail.com; @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling