COCKTAIL-ing in Manhattan
Photos and article by Virginia Miller
Back in my beloved New York, home of my teenage years. Until just a few years ago, it was the place I’d come home to for the holidays when my parents still lived in New Jersey.
Despite only a couple lovely days out of a ten-day visit in late May through early June (the rest were either pouring rain or sweltering hot and suffocating), my last research trip visiting friends and family, involved dozens of restaurants and cocktail bars, plays and treks through Eataly for espresso and rooftop beers.
Here’s a list of drink standouts – and the overrated – from this trip (highlights in food and dining here):
Two of my best bar experiences all year were in New York City at bars with now-changed circumstances: one is The Beagle, which sadly just closed, where Tom Richter churned out of some of the great understated drinks in all of NYC in a relaxed setting tinged with Old World elegance. Richter also happens to be a genius with the often forgettable category of beer cocktails, crafting winners like the Hop Over, mixing a hoppy IPA, lemon, Bols Genever, orange flower water, and house Velvet Falernum, or Smog Cutter, combining mezcal, Negro Modelo, ginger, tonic and lime, garnished with a cucumber. I miss the Beagle.
The second is Saxon + Parole under Naren Young. Young recently came on board at Empellon, no doubt even better under his watch. When he was in charge of the menu at Saxon (along with The Daily and other bars), each drink, like a Celery Gimlet, sounded straightforward. But Young’s cocktails are among the finest examples of nuance and balance that I have tasted anywhere. They exhibit complexity and robust flavor in plainclothes. As a master of balance, I’d drink at whichever bar Young is crafting cocktails.
AMOR Y AMARGO, East Village
Amor y Amargo is what I’d want out of an amaro bar. A beautifully bitter respite in the former Carteles sandwich shop that was once the entrance to neighboring bar Cienfuegos, the space is tiny, intimate, welcoming. With a broad selection of amari, bitters and bitter liqueurs, there’s a range of cocktail possibilities, and a wealth of”bitter knowledge from former chef, now Beverage Director at Amor, Sother Teague.
THE DAILY, Nolita
The Daily, managed by Naren Young when I last visited (who now runs the bar at Empellon, see below), is an urban respite with a straightforward, daily changing cocktail menu and welcoming, skilled bartenders. There’s one cocktail to choose in each category like bottled, up, “on the rock” and frothy. Start with the likes of a bag of house chili “cracker jack” and an Orchard Sidecar lush with Poire Williams (pear liqueur), Calvados, fresh apple and lemon.
THE DEAD RABBIT, Financial District
The Dead Rabbit is as special as you’ve heard. Though the raves and accolades in this, its first year, have been excessive, there really is no bar like it, with a cocktail geek’s attention to detail and history. Reading through the book that is the cocktail menu is an event in itself – and how I wish for a copy on my bookshelf. Recipes from as far back as the 1600 and 1700′s come with stories, history and artwork, best perused over classic punches served in teacups.
The atmosphere of the intimate, upstairs bar is the second high point besides the menu: low ceilings, candelight and hurricane lamps, an upright piano played soothingly in the background by a local pianist, a bronzed eagle atop the bar and paintings of figures in colonial history lining the walls.
Cocktails can be uneven (like the candied medicine taste of a Kilrain mixing Rhum J.M., Rabarbaro Zucca, raspberry cordial, Dead Rabbit Orinoco bitters, rhubarb root tincture and mint, topped with berries), particularly given the extensive drink selection, but there are thoughtful high points like an Evening Daisy of nettle tea-infused Jameson Black Barrel Irish Whiskey, Chase elderflower liqueur, lime, fennel syrup, dashes of Pernod absinthe and cucumber soda. It’s both refreshing and nuanced.
EVELYN, A DRINKERY, East Village
An East Village gem, Evelyn: A Drinkery is all about punches ($7 small – love this option; $11 large), phosphates charged with Co2 (same pricing), and egg creams ($9), both with and without booze. The two-room, candelit space invites lingering while bright, rosy concoctions like Neverland Ranch, a phosphate combining Bombay Sapphire gin, crème de cacao, house beet shrub, orange and lemon, go down all to easy.
In addition, there’s cocktails, “Twisted Classics”, long drinks ($12 each), and stirred and boozy cocktails ($14), making it one of the more playful, fun menus in Manhattan, exemplified in their “Drinking Language” terminology (e.g. “If the bartender doesn’t say ‘hello’, ‘hey’, ‘how’s it going’, or offer some sort of greeting, call him/her out on it.”)
Intriguing cocktails include Daisy Ferrigno (Oxley gin, Green Chartreuse, pineapple, jalapeno syrup, lime, cilantro, served up), Improved Hit By A Car Number 2 (Fidencio Classico Mezcal, Tequila Ocho Plata, Green Chartreuse, Aperol, chipotle agave, lime, grapefruit bitters, served up), and my favorite, the savory, vibrant Mo F*#King Way (El Jimador Blanco Tequila, Benedictine, chipotle agave, Memphis BBQ bitters, passion fruit, lemon, Perrier, cayenne).
PDT, East Village
In a few short years, PDT is legend in the cocktail world, thanks to Jim Meehan. But for those of us who spend every day in restaurants and bars around the world, fighting through people pushing into a phone booth in a hot dog shop, Crif Dogs, trying to get into this famed “speakeasy” is far more work than we have time for to get a drink. However, if you happen to find yourself in the intimate bar, as I did upon my first return visit in years, I’d encourage you to go off-menu and ask for a flip (meaning it includes a whole egg) or a beer cocktail. While menu cocktails didn’t quite enchant, those two categories did.
Head Bartender Jeff Bell crafted a beauty when I asked for something using house-infused Four Roses bourbon, smoky with Benton’s incomparable Tennessee ham, which they use in their popular house Old Fashioned. Wittily named Nose to Cock-tail, he mixed the bourbon with lemon, orange, demerara syrup, and whole egg to decadent perfection. Ditto with a Black Flip using Brooklyn Brewery chocolate stout as a base with whole egg. Another beer cocktail highlight? Beer Cassis combining Ommegang Witte beer, the bitter-sweet of Byrrh Quinquina, and Caledonia elderberry cordial.
POURING RIBBONS, East Village
Sadly, my photos did not turn out from my visit to Pouring Ribbons but it is one of NYC’s great bar newcomers since fall 2012. Once you deal with yet another speakeasy-doorman scenario, head upstairs to a chill, roomy space where the cocktail menu is famously charted by taste profiles: refreshing to spirituous, comforting to adventurous.
Cocktails please with approachable but not-too-simplistic combinations - like Gentleman’s Agreement ($14), mixing Beefeater gin, lime, like Spanish citrus-vanilla Licor 43 and cinnamon bitters with a five-spice salt rim. The unique feature of the bar, however, is the extensive Chartreuse selection, some of it dating back to the 1940′s. My Chartreuse flight, thoughtfully selected by bartender Otis Steven Florence, included a 15 year old V.E.P. Liqueur Fabrique Par Les Peres Chartreux (green 54%, yellow 42%) and the now-defunct Sussex Green Chartreuse with fascinating notes of ginseng, heavy chamomile and fresh-cut grass.
THE RUM HOUSE, Times Square
The best thing to happen to Times Square in ages? The Rum House. This classic bar was revamped by the crew behind Ward III back in 2011, entirely to its benefit. While maintaining a dim, “lived in”, Old World feel, the spirits – particularly the rum – selection is stellar and the cocktails vastly improved. A heavenly respite from the madness of Times Square and the tourist throngs outside, its a true cocktail haven that feels like stepping onto an old movie set. Here, over a luxurious Negroni Leoni ($16), mixing Santa Teresa 1796 Solera rum, Ilegal Mezcal, sweet vermouth and Campari, I feel as if I’m in the Manhattan of old, comfortable in my vintage dresses, open to intriguing conversations with strangers at the bar, soon to become friends.
BIRRERIA at EATALY, Flatiron
No, this isn’t about cocktails. It’s all about a stunning rooftop bar in view of the Flatiron building and the Manhattan skyline, idyllic on a warm day. Cask-conditioned beers ($10 a pint) and wines (like Bastianich wines on tap, $12-18) are the drinks on offer.
Best of all, beers are brewed rooftop in glistening gold tanks (“made 30 feet from where you sit”), are unfiltered and unpasteurized, naturally carbonated, and served at traditional cellar temps of 50-55 F. I enjoyed Wanda (chestnut mild ale), Giuseppina (Italian-American IPA), and Patrizia (American dry stout brewed with Wellfleet oysters from Matthew Shellfish Co.)
BOOKER & DAX, East Village
Despite the molecular raves (I ever long for the experimental side of cooking and cocktails to be prevalent in the mix next to classic and straightforward) and though I loved Dave Arnold‘s cocktails at national events, I was a bit disappointed in my experience at Booker and Dax. Much like my visit a few years ago to its already legendary parent restaurant Momofuku Ssam next door, things sounded better than tasted.
In the case of a Lechuga ($14), a mix of gin, lemon, and bibb lettuce freeze-dried then muddled into powder, the end result is little flavor. I guess I should have expected that with bibb lettuce, but I was hoping for vegetal notes in a fresh, clean cocktail. It tasted like icy water with a backbone of gin. Likewise, a BDX Marg, sounded delightful, combining mezcal, yellow Chartreuse, Cointreau, and lime served over shave ice (a nod to Hawaii and Japan), but tasted more icy than nuanced. The cocktail that worked for me was surprisingly the sweetest and best as dessert, a Banana Justino. Merely two ingredients – Zacapa 23 rum and bananas – are run through a centrifuge, yielding a thick elixir, sweet and bracing.
CASA MEZCAL, LES (Lower East Side)
Charming, funky Oaxacan decor (Day of the Dead paraphernalia, colorful lights and artwork) and friendly service goes a long way in making Casa Mezcal a worthwhile stop, though I haven’t eaten here so can’t vouch for the food. Mezcal cocktails aren’t exactly noteworthy, especially given the average $14 and up price tag. But they are good and the mezcal selection strong (menu grouped by agave plant varietal). Over mid-afternoon cocktails with grasshopper salt, it feels as if I’m right back in Oaxaca.
EMPELLON, East Village
With one of my two best bar experiences of my 20+ bars this visit being Saxon + Parole under Naren Young (see above), I am eager to return to Empellon Cocina, no doubt even better under his watch. That being said, there were already some players on the menu, particularly a rosy, beet and reposado tequila cocktail, tinged with mezcal smoke, alive with ginger, vanilla, lemon.
ELSA, East Village
Settling in to my East Village apartment rental directly above Elsa, I was pleased to have a charming, intimate bar downstairs, replete with vintage touches (like old books used as check holders and Victoriana-style menus). I was less thrilled, however, with only big brand liquor behind the bar – given their “craft” style, there was a nary a smaller brand to be found – and solid but not memorable cocktails. Black Book ($12) sounded lovely, mixing bourbon, rhubarb rose water reduction, cucumber, Aperol, and lime rhubarb bitter. But as with all the cocktails I tried here, the more vegetal, herbal I hoped would shine, were barely discernible.
MILK & HONEY, LES (Lower East Side)
As essentially the speakeasy that launched the speakeasy trend of the past decade plus way back in 2000 (if you’re not counting Angel’s Share, a favorite haunt of mine in the ’90′s with hidden cocktail bar upstairs through an Asian restaurant), I will always have a soft spot for the original Milk and Honey through a dingy door on a sketchy, Lower East Side block. That’s all gone now as LES is plenty gentrified, while the original, dim, dive-y space is now Attaboy, a similar bar from the same owners.
The new Milk & Honey reminds me a bit of Dutch Kills in Queens or The Varnish in LA or any other derivative spot across the country, with elegant, understated, Prohibition-era decor. That is to say, I don’t find it particularly original or memorable – but when in the Flatiron District, the swank location of M&H is a solid stop for well-made cocktails and doo-wop over the sound system, as was the case on my last visit.
PRESERVE 24, LES (Lower East Side)
Having just opened when I rented a nearby apartment, Preserve 24 is most notable for its Jules Verne-esque, old world look. Circa 1800′s underwater diving equipment, beer taps made from piano pedals, an eclectic mishmash of woods and antiques in a two-floor, multi-room space are delightful.
I haven’t tried the food, but the cocktails are lovely in concept and solid, if not as balanced/nuanced as I would hope for, like a Compass Rose ($13) mixing pisco, bourbon, Green Chartreuse, house strawberry rhubarb preserves and Peychaud’s bitters, or a smoky-soft El Hecho combining mezcal, velvet falernum, lime and parsley honey.
THE WAYLAND, East Village
Though it can be a bit too noisy to talk, the glow over over rustic wood floors, vintage ceramics and glassware is all-encompassing at The Wayland. Their famed Garden Variety Margarita ($11) is really is all that, laden with blanco tequila, ginger, lime, agave nectar, smoked sea salt and beautiful use of kale. Not merely trendy, I could happily do more kale cocktails. Another winning mix? Indian Summer ($11), combining Ford’s Gin, lime, curry, cilantro and chili salt. Hail to refreshing, savory cocktails!
WHITEHALL, West Village
Impressive as Whitehall’s gin collection is, the understated cocktails don’t quite showcase the beautiful botanical spirit.
They are simple, understated, yes, but also forgettable, even soft and muddled in terms of flavor. Too bad, as the cool, white ceramic walls and relaxed bar staff make it an inviting place to pop in while in the West Village.