Our Epic NYC Cocktail Weekend, October 2018Oct 16, 2018
I really like cocktails. They're the closest thing I have to a hobby.
Cocktails have undergone a breathtaking revival in the last 20-30 years, and a really high concentration of the people and places that contributed to the cocktail revolution are in New York City. I've been reading about them for a decade or more, all the while building up an intense desire to go there and experience what it's all like for myself.
Laurel and I had our first child twelve years ago, though, and travelling gets a lot more complicated with kids—especially if what you want to do on your trip is go to a ton of bars. So I mostly put that dream on the shelf...but then! Our friend Jenn, who lives in Brooklyn, told us her plan to move back to Seattle around the end of the year, and we realized that the kids were old enough for a long stay with their grandparents, and that we'd be fools if we didn't take this last chance to go visit her.
This, then, is my recap of how a small group of determined middle-aged drinks nerds tried their very best to hit every essential cocktail bar in NYC in just over two days.
Some Advice #
This kind of thing could be rough on your health, particularly if you are approaching a Distinguished Age like we are. As you read this, keep in mind that we did several things to make it through this without (too much) suffering:
- We drank at least one glass of water for every alcoholic drink;
- We walked a long way between bars, which both gave us a reality check on how impaired we were, as well as time to metabolize the alcohol;
- We left a few drinks unfinished, particularly at the end of the night;
- We were very careful to line our stomachs with food.
If you're going to try to do a similar whirlwind tour, keep safety in mind and please be careful.
Friday Night #
After flying for a million hours, we got into town at dinner time and had Crack Pie at Milk Bar, which did not live up to the name at all. We met up with Jenn and stowed our stuff at her place in Red Hook, and then headed out to Pizza Moto and had a couple of nice pies. We walked across the BQE, and saw this keyhole view of the Statue of Liberty:
From there, we walked to Seaborne. The bar's origin story is tragic, but the place itself is cozy, and I instantly loved it. I had a Red Hook Clipper, which if I recall correctly is a sour with pomegranate. Jenn had a Right Hand, which is a rum Negroni. Both were delicious and balanced really well. For our second round we went bartender's choice, and I got a Juan Lockwood, which is basically a tequila/mezcal Old Fashioned. I'd never heard of it, and it was great.
The bar has water fountains at every table, which was apparently Sasha Petraske's design, and is absolutely brilliant. The purpose was to reduce labor and enable a single bartender to handle the entire bar alone, but it also means your guests can hydrate like mad (see Some Advice, above).
When settling up, I got to talk to the bartender a little, and it turned out he was from Oregon and had lived in Seattle for a while. He was a super nice guy.
After that, we headed home to bed, on the theory that we needed to really pace ourself if we were going to make it throught the next couple of days. On balance, I think this was wise.
We got up at a leisurely hour (marathon athletes need their recovery time) and had some yogurt. Jenn had recently left the job of head yogurt maker at White Moustache, so we were eating her handiwork and it was awesome.
Then we walked across the BQE and up to Clover Club for brunch, which tragically was closed for a bar mitzvah, denying us our first drink of the day and putting the whole timetable at jeopardy. Nevertheless, we strolled into Gowanus, admiring the scenic canal, and had brunch at Claro.
Claro is a Oaxacan place with a gigantic mezcal selection. I tried a glass of tepache, which I'd never heard of before.
Tepache is a fermented drink made from the peel and rind of pineapple, and turns out to be fucking delicious. It's low-alcohol by itself, so the restaurant helpfully offers to add a shot of mezcal to it for you. I was frankly scared to have any unplanned drinks, as my liver was pretty well booked up for the entire trip, so I skipped the breakfast mezcal.
By this point we'd been walking around for quite a while, so we went back home to gear up for our first real night out and our only fancy dinner.
We took the subway into Manhattan and got to Pegu Club by 6:30, early enough that we could still get a table.
Audrey Saunders opened this groundbreaking bar in 2005, after learning the trade from Dale DeGroff, who was the 1980's godfather of essentially the entire modern cocktail movement. It takes its name from the 1880's club in Rangoon and the classic cocktail that was invented there in the 1920's. Many of the other bars we visited were started by bartenders who got their start here.
Of course, I had to have a Pegu Club. It was lovely--really nicely balanced, and beautifully garnished. I failed to take a picture of it, unfortunately; I don't remember if I just forgot, or if I was feeling self-conscious about looking like an Instagram douchebag.
We also wolfed down some deviled eggs, sliders, and satay to power us through the next few destinations before our 9pm dinner. I had a moment of regret that we couldn't stay there longer, but I got over it and we set off for Death & Co.
Death & Co had a long waitlist at that point, so we gave them our number and diverted ourselves to Pouring Ribbons. Pouring Ribbons started in 2012, run by a team of people including Joaquín Simó, who was referred to as the "nice one" when he worked at Death & Co. We walked right in and immediately got attention from a really friendly server, who helped walk us through the complicated but amazing list. The list had 16 drinks, following a "trashy TV" theme; we tried 3, and wished we had time to come back and work through the whole menu.
I had the Buffy the Vampire Slayer (natch), which has a couple kinds of bourbon, sherry, coconut, and coffee. It mostly tasted of coconut, and was fucking awesome. Laurel had Keeping Up With The Kardashians, which had sumac-infused Cocchi Americano among other things, and was dispensed from a camera lens. Jenn had a Walker, Texas Ranger, which had mesquite-smoked whiskey and brisket-spiced Shiner Bock.
It was getting close to our dinner reservation time, so we left and stopped quickly into the Old Town Bar and Restaurant. It's distinctly different from the rest of the places we went on this trip--just a really cool, old, unpretentious bar for people who want a drink, not a startender kind of joint. I had a Manhattan, and was asked if I wanted it up or on the rocks; that kind of a place.
Only just now, doing minimal research for this blog post, did I discover that part of the video for House of Pain's "Jump Around" was filmed here, and now I wish I'd taken a bunch more pictures. I have a long strange history with that song, which merits a whole separate blog post. But I digress.
From there we went to Gramercy Tavern for dinner, and had a moment of deep guilt as we walked into a profoundly fancy restaurant full of rich people while outside, a homeless woman was wailing that she was hungry. Several passersby stopped and helped, which made us feel a tiny bit less terrible.
I hadn't realized until reading A Proper Drink that Gramercy Tavern had played a pretty important role in the cocktail revolution also; Jim Meehan worked there, among other things. We had a pretty great meal, although I've certainly had better food for less money. The service was amazing, although I think I'd call Canlis even better in that regard.
The dessert was pretty fantastic, and they gave us a complimentary glass of champagne and an extra little coconut cake to celebrate Jenn's going away.
We were probably a little unusual among their customers in that we barely had anything to drink; I was so laser-focused on trying every notable cocktail I could that it didn't even occur to me to have a glass of wine. It strikes me that it's pretty weird to eat at such an iconic restaurant and be mostly thinking about what bars you're going to go to next, but such is the nature of this weird hobby.
Afterward, we stopped by the Raines Law Room but couldn't get in, so we went to Existing Conditions. Existing Conditions was opened by some of the same people who opened PDT, and is known for some fancy science techniques and their old soda vending machines filled with bottled cocktails, which you can buy from if you want to avoid the bar lines.
I had a Banana Justino, which I had to ask the (extremely nice) server what it was; it turns out to be rum and bananas mixed with enzymes and centrifuged, producing a clarified drink with a profoundly pure and delicious banana flavor. Banana isn't a flavor I usually go for in drinks, but this was amazing.
Jenn had a Waffle Turkey 101, which is waffle-infused bourbon and maple syrup. Laurel wasn't super into the flavors on offer and just had a glass of sparkling wine. On the way out I thanked the guy at the front; later I realized that this was Don Lee, who opened PDT and was the person who popularized fat-washing in the Blanton's Old-Fashioned, which I made once.
At this point it was pretty late, so we hopped in a rideshare and made our way back to Red Hook. We'd made it through four bars in one night, which is a hell of a lot for me as an old-ass man; I downed a couple of pints of water and went to bed, slightly dreading how I might feel the next morning.
In the end, we all woke up feeling great. While we'd hit four bars and a restaurant, it had been over the course of six hours, and we'd paced ourselves well.
Proud of ourselves, we immediately celebrated by having a brunch cocktail at Clover Club. Clover Club is one of Julie Reiner's bars; she was another of Dale DeGroff's disciples and also ran the Flatiron Lounge, way back in 2003. I had a Clover Club to complete my hat trick of eponymous cocktails; it's a Gin Sour with vermouth, egg white and raspberry. I'd made them before myself, but this was significantly more delicious, and it turns out they'd figured out a better way to make the raspberry syrup that avoids cooking it.
Laurel had a Champagne Cobbler, which is a class of drink you don't see much these days. In its heyday these were mostly done with sherry; I think I like the champagne version better.
We also had a delicious brunch. If I lived in Brooklyn I would want to be here every single day. The bar is really classically beautiful, too, with tin ceilings and an ornate back bar.
From there, we went on a walk through Brooklyn Bridge Park, roped Jenn's friend Bronagh into joining us (little did she realize what she was getting into) and then took the water taxi into Manhattan, grabbed coffee and a pastry and then were the very first people of the day to show up at Blacktail, right after they opened.
Blacktail is inspired by American bars in Cuba during Prohibition, and was founded by the same people who founded Dead Rabbit, which we'll talk more about in a moment. It's maybe the fanciest-looking bar we visited during the entire trip, which made me skeptical that the drinks would be all that.
My skepticism was ill-founded, though--I ordered a Daiquiri, and it was one of the most perfect drinks I've ever tasted. The Daiquiri only has three ingredients (white rum, lime, and sugar), but it's amazing how much room that leaves for a bartender to dial in the ratios and perfect the technique. At home I typically use Beachbum Berry's Latitude 29 Daiquiri recipe, which is fantastic, but where that drink is a little more acid, this one was more sweet, in a way that made it velvety and comforting. I'm hoping I can find the recipe online.
Our bartender was super nice, and as we settled our bill we discovered that she'd lived in Seattle for a long time, and was planning on moving back to start her own bar there. We lobbied for West Seattle; we'll see what she decides. Our other bartender turned out to be the super nice server we'd had at Existing Conditions the night before, and he remembered all of the drinks we'd had.
From there, we went to Dead Rabbit, walking past an storefront inexplicably named HIRSUTE.
Dead Rabbit was founded by a couple of guys from Belfast, and has three separate floors, each narrow and friendly. The bottom floor is a sawdust-floored taproom, the second floor is a craft cocktail parlor, and the third floor is overflow for when the other floors get full.
There was a wait for the parlor, so we went up the steep stairs to the top floor. Just as we were about to order a flight of Irish whiskeys, our parlor table opened up, so we headed back down. The menu there is a little bizarre; it's a hyper-violent Scarface-like comic book, with bloody imagery interspersed with lists of really complicated drinks.
When I say "complicated," it's frequently difficult to figure out what the hell they're going to taste like. I ended up with a Done & Dusted, which contains pisco, Scottish gin, gentian, miso, yuzu, green apple, and lemon. In the end there was just a tiny bit of miso for a subtle saltiness, and it was really really good.
We weren't done for the night by any means, though. Jenn had helpfully made a reservation at Please Don't Tell, which was maybe the first modern speakeasy-style bar. It has no sign; patrons walk into a hot dog joint called Crif Dogs, enter a phone booth and dial a 1 on the rotary phone, which serves as the doorbell. This kind of thing intimidates me enough that I'd almost skipped it on my list; as it was, the host didn't hear the first couple of times I dialed, so I stood for a really awkwardly long time in the booth, wondering if they were watching me on a hidden camera, and if they'd decided I wasn't cool enough to let in.
In the end, they finally opened up and there was a corner table waiting for us. The place is decorated with whimsical taxidermy and shattered mirrors; I had a Paddington, which is named after one of the taxidermied animals and contains marmalade. Jenn had a Shark, which was blue and creamy and delicious; Laurel had a Shipshape, which I can't remember the ingredients for. I had to get the Blanton's Old-Fashioned as a second round; I couldn't really finish it as I was definitely feeling the effects of all this drinking and we still had places to go, but it was nice to see how it was made in the place where it started.
We also had a very nice conversation with our server about the importance of proper spelling.
From there, we went back to Death & Co, thinking we'd have no problem getting in late on a Sunday; alas, we were third on the waitlist. The doorman was incredibly friendly and had the coolest glasses I saw in the city; he counseled us to go to Amor y Amargo, which was just down the block and was on my list anyway, so we followed his advice.
Amor y Amargo ("Love and Bitter") is a bar that specializes in bitters of all kinds. I had a Skal Vala, which has amber vermouth, aquavit, Old Tom gin and apple bitters; Laurel had a River Run, which has currant balsam, bianco vermouth, Cocchi Rosa and ginger bitters. Laurel's was the best, very jammy, but I liked mine too.
Just after we got our drinks, the doorman at Death & Co texted to say our table was ready, which was sort of unfortunate timing. So we slammed the remaining 2/3 of our glasses, which probably cost us later, and went back up the block.
Death & Co is one of the darkest bars I've ever seen. The menu is pretty complicated, too, and the lack of light makes it even harder to navigate it and figure out your order. Laurel had a Hummingbird, Jenn had a Lonesome Crowded West, and I had a Day of the Dove, which had Scotch, Madeira, citrus, and ras el hanout. Given how influential this bar has been, it probably deserved better than to be experienced after 48 hours of continuous drinking and a slammed drink immediately before; I'd be interested in going there sometime to start a night.
We probably should have stopped there, but there was one last place on my list that was on the way back to Red Hook, so we headed to Tooker Alley. It was cozy and almost empty; just us and one other group of dudes getting up to no good at 1am on a Sunday. I got a Hi Falutin' because you don't see Swedish Punsch in drinks very often; I think I liked it, but I was really running out of steam and sobriety at this point, so I didn't finish it. I tried to lobby my compatriots into going to Harlem to get a chopped cheese, but they (thankfully) were having none of that.
And that should have been the end of the night, but when I paid the check our server said "You all have been so nice; can I offer you a round of free shots," to which I burst out laughing. We explained all the places we'd been, and she and the bartender were impressed. They told us about four other places we could go (Grand Army, Long Island Bar, Leyenda and Maison Premier), and if we'd had another day I would have given it a try.
At this point I felt that it would be rude to turn down a shot, even given what we'd been up to, but I talked her into a lower-proof Cynar shot instead of whiskey, and I am proud to have ended the night on at least a slightly-wise decision.
It was a proud moment for me, though; I didn't think we'd get through nearly that many places, and to wrap up the whole trip by impressing a couple of 20-something NYC cocktail professionals made me feel pretty chuffed.
And then we went home, I drank three pints of desperation water, and we went to bed, and woke up the next morning only mildly hungover, for which I was grateful. And we had bagels and met a very snuggly deli cat, and said goodbye (for now) to Jenn and had Shake Shack at JFK.
And then I spent the entire flight back reading A Proper Drink and realizing just how interconnected all these places were, and getting a sense for the history I'd just staggered through, and I fell in love with cocktails all over again...
...although I don't think I want to actually drink another one for maybe two weeks. Good lord.
Tale of the Tape #
In 2½ days, we hit 12 bars (and Gramercy Tavern), sampled roughly 40 drinks between the group of us, went essentially everyplace that I'd heard about in town, met at least one bartender I'd heard of, pet two cats, walked more than 24 miles, and got to have an unbelievably dense and satisfying survey of cocktail history. I only wish I could come back for two weeks and spend a couple of days at each of these bars, really getting to know people and working my way through their menus.
If you liked this, you're welcome to read more of my blatherings.