We chatted with one of our favorite local bartenders, the Wantagh Inn’s Michael McNiff, to prepare for St. Patrick’s Day.
Long Island Pulse: We originally interviewed you about a year ago for our monthly series, Master Mixologist. Are you a local celebrity now? Michael McNiff:
I’ve always been. [Laughs.
] No, it’s been great. Everyone, not one person or a few friends, everyone that came into the bar has mentioned the article. It was really good for business. Even now, I’ll get a group of guys down at the end of the bar ordering a round of Irish Eyes and asking for extra cherries. They like to break my balls. But if the shoe was on the other foot, I’d be leading the ball breaking. It’s all in good fun.
Pulse: St. Patrick’s Day is only a few weeks away, so we wanted to ask you a few questions. Before that, though, you immigrated to America 20 years ago—
MM: Are we getting sentimental already?
Pulse: [Laughs.] Why did you aspire to live in the U.S.?
MM: Doesn’t everyone want to live in America? Growing up I had neighbors that immigrated to Cape Cod, to New York, I had a few friends that came to Long Island … I have an aunt and uncle that live in Baldwin. He’s a retired city cop and she was an accountant for a record label. I was coming here to visit them a lot in the ’80s and I was so amazed at how big everything was. I was constantly looking up at the sky. I remember she would take me to all the bars in Manhattan, and again, this is in the ’80s. It was interesting to say the least.
Pulse: What did you think?
MM: I remember thinking that all the actual bars inside, they were so loooong. And there was food at every one. That surprised me. When I bartended in Ireland, the only place to get food was in a hotel. In rural Ireland, the bar was there to drink. If you wanted food, you stayed home.
Pulse: What about St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland? How is it different than in the U.S.?
MM: Well, St. Patrick’s Day is a big religious day back in Ireland, a day of obligation. When I was a kid we’d wake up and go to mass, and then we’d go play golf. And then my old man would go to the bar with his friends. It was like a Sunday. But things are different now. There’re big parades in Dublin and all. But it’s still nothing like here. There’s three million Irish in Ireland and 35 million Irish-Americans here. The parade and everything we have in the city is crazy. It’s amazing.
Pulse: Do you go to the parade?
MM: I always work on St. Patrick’s Day. Aside from Thanksgiving, it’s the only day where everyone has to work. But we have our own fun here.
MM: It’s great. Everyone’s here for one reason: to be happy and drink together. Well, that’s two reasons. But it’s fun, and it’s busy as hell. Everyone is drinking pints of Guinness, Smithwick’s, Harp. A lot of Irish whiskeys, a lot of Irish coffees. And the singing … The Irish are very proud people. They love to represent their heritage.
Pulse: OK. We polled our staff for a few questions. First: What do you think of the “green beer” that emerges around the holiday?
MM: I don’t think of it. It’s a gimmick. The only thing that should be green at a bar is the Jameson that comes out of a green bottle. And money, of course.
Pulse: What are some things not to say to your bartender on St. Patrick’s Day?
MM: I can’t tell you any because then everyone’ll be doing it to me. My customers are reading this and they’re ready for some more ammo.
Pulse: That’s fair. Next: Do customers tip more on St. Patrick’s Day?
MM: I think they do, but our clientele is very generous to begin with. I feel very lucky to work here. It’ll be my 20th anniversary soon. It’s been great.
Pulse: Why should we visit you on St. Patrick’s Day?
MM: Because it’s the only day of the year I work from the day into the night. I’m getting too old to do that anymore. But seriously, the place is hopping all day. I guarantee you’ll have a great time. If not, shame on you.
Pulse: This is an interesting one: If you could have a drink with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?
MM: Easy. Bobby Sands. The day he died—May 5, 1981—I remember my dad made me climb up the pole outside our house to hang up a black flag. He was a great man. I’d love to sit with him and pick his brain. If you don’t know him, definitely Google him. A very important man to the history of Ireland. These are the people we toast on St. Patrick’s Day.
This interview has been edited and condensed.