Bartender Chat: Shafer Hall of Mongoose vs. Cobra on Shots and Beers and Redheads

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If you've ever been to Mongoose vs. Cobra, the funky beer bar across from Leon's in Midtown, you probably already know Shafer Hall. The affable redhead is there all the time, mixing cocktails, pouring beers and chatting with anyone with an interesting word to say.

Hall is a partner in the business along with owners Mike Sammons and Ian Rosenberg, so he has a vested interest in keeping the customers happy, which he does with his penchant for storytelling and mad mixing skills. Because MvsC is known for its craft beer selection, Hall is a fan of incorporating beer into cocktails, combining the traditional "shot and a beer" into one drink.

Oh, and if you've seen Mongoose vs. Cobra in the Yellow Pages while looking for a go-cart dealership, yeah...it's the same place. And it's Hall's fault if you're confused.

"Somehow we got put in the Yellow Pages as a go-cart dealership," Hall says, "so we get phone calls all the time that are like, 'Hey, could I buy an engine and not buy the go-cart?' Or 'Do you have wheels?' We just laugh and tell them we're a bar."

When he wonders aloud how the misidentification happened, a coworker gently reminds him that it was probably his own doing.

"There's an old drag racing rivalry between the snake and the mongoose," Hall says, recalling how it happened, "so I think I was talking about that on a radio show and said something like, 'Yeah, just tell everyone we sell go-carts!' I mean, it's cool. We haven't asked them to change it or anything.

Keep reading for more of Hall's unique perspectives on life and drinking.

How did you get started bartending? I was filling in for a buddy at a bar in Brooklyn. He was leaving town and didn't have anyone to cover his shift, so he was like, "C'mon, man. You can do this." So I gave it a shot, and that was 15 years ago.

So you worked one night and they just told you to keep coming back? Yep. They said we had a lot of fun, so I got a regular shift. I still had a day job, but I did that twice a week for about a year. And then one of my buddies opened an Irish bar in the Village (Greenwich, not Rice), and when he did that, I went there full time. I was there about 10 years, and then I came here to open this place with Mike (Sammons) and Ian (Rosenberg). Mike and I went to college together. We've been best friends since we were 18.

If you weren't bartending, what would you be doing? I'd probably be editing and writing for some magazine or tech company. I'd be writing and editing to pay the bills. That's what I was doing before. I was a literature major. I still write poems.

This story continues on the next page.

What's one of your favorite drinks to make? I like making the Red-Headed Stranger a lot. Boilermakers are great. Pretty much anything that combines beer and booze, because that's the way we like to drink anyway. You can have a shot and a beer in a glass, you can have a beer and then drink a shot, have a shot and then drink a beer...

What's one of your favorite ingredients to use? I assume beer...? Yeah, we like to make those beer cocktails. I guess I tend to lean toward bourbon a little bit, but really we just like malt.

Is there any drink you just hate to make? No, nothing like that. If it's a slower evening, then you're just chatting with people while they're making drinks, and that's fine. If it's busy, you just put your head down and make drinks. The only time you get frustrated is when someone orders seven drinks at once. You just have to turn to the other bartenders and be like, "I'm gonna be out of the game for a solid 12 minutes here. Keep an eye on the bar."

A person walks into the bar and orders _________. He or she has just earned your undying admiration. The people who come in and order the Red-Headed Stranger every time tend to be my favorite customers, for whatever reason.

Tell me about the Red-Headed Stranger. Well, it's a song by Willie Nelson. I didn't even think about that. Is that OK that you're going to publish us singing his song? If it's not, I want a copy of the cease and desist letter!

What's one of the weirdest or coolest or craziest things that's happened while you've been working here? I feel like we should probably stick with the weird/cool side of things, not crazy...But there have been people who I knew in New York wander in here not knowing I work here, so that's cool. The Lion King fashion show was pretty weird and cool.

(Hall's coworker Corey Walton chimed in)

That was when The Lion King was in town, and a couple of them approached me about doing an event, like an after party for the cast and crew. And then it evolved into a fashion show. It was like barbed wire-wrapped dresses with cheetah print. It was pretty cool.

What's one thing that you wish people understood about bartending that they might not? I guess the thing that I wish everyone would remember is that we were all bar patrons once, too. That's why we took this job--because we like to hang around and talk and have fun at the bar. I always think my best experiences at the bar are when I engage the bartender. And there are times when the bartender doesn't want to be engaged, and that's fine. But that's when everybody is going to have the most fun--when everybody's together. I don't want people to be so intimidated by the space between us. We're all together.

What's your favorite thing about being a bartender? Yeah, that's the thing. Talking to people. Having a job that I can do in a bar.

Your favorite thing isn't drinking while you're at work? There are lots of jobs where you get to do that.

I'm drinking while I'm working right now! See? There you go.

If you could have a drink with anyone living, dead or fictional, who would it be? Willie Nelson, hands down. Even though he doesn't drink. I guess he'd have a protein shake and a joint. I would love to tell him about the Red-Headed Stranger. He's a fellow red head, and I've been a big fan of his since I was a kid. He's more than just a musician. He's more than just an iconic character. He has literary context, he's an activist. There are 8,000 things you could talk about with him other than just music. Plus, I hear he tells really good jokes.

Below, check out the video of Hall making--and singing about!--the Red-Headed Stranger cocktail, while Stacy Gouty plays the guitar.

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