In true hipster fashion, we meet ironically. At a statue in Tompkins Square Park dedicated to stopping people from drinking: The Temperance statue and drinking fountain, installed as part of the Temperance Movement in an attempt to bring morality back to America during the late 1800s by driving people away from alcohol through hygienic clean water in drinking fountains. Alcohol was blamed for domestic abuse, poverty, all sorts of crime and any behavior they considered degenerative. Because water was often contaminated, alcohol was considered a safer alternative. It was a doomed endeavour considering the German Community, the very people who helped make beer become mainstream, lived adjacent to the park.
“I brought cupcakes,” our tour guide, Anna, says before we start pondering the meaning of life, our existence, and the role alcohol plays in our society today. “Boozy cupcakes,” she adds. And joy floats around. There are four other people in our group. Two Russians, who are flying back to Saint Petersburg the next day and two locals – Chris Condlin and Lisa Hin.
The two cupcakes from the Prohibition Bakery (9 Clinton Street) are baked in such a way that the alcohol doesn’t cook out. The Margarita, made with lime, fleur de sel, and triple sec, a slight hint of tequila, all the flavors blending together in an airy, delicious cupcake. But the Bees Knees is the crowd favourite. It’s made with gin, lemon, honey, and orange, but the crunch from the sprinkled bee pollen topping is what makes this an extra fun cupcake. An excellent way to start this New York Craft Cocktail Tour.
Since I’m flying to Miami this Father’s Day for a fiction workshop with Junot Diaz at VONA (woo hoo!), Sona hung with the kiddos and let me go on a pre-Father’s Day booze up in the East Village. I spend two and a half hours on the New York Craft Cocktail Tour from Urban Adventures, where I learn about the history of Prohibition in NYC and have three drinks, along with some good, mostly coherent conversation with new friends and our lovely tour guide, Anastasia Monaco (Anna).
There’s something about the 1920s and 1930s time period I find fascinating. It’s often represented in fiction and the movies as a very simple time, when in reality it was quite complicated. The world was undergoing some major changes, from social to the political, especially with racial politics, its repercussions still felt today: inspired by the American Revolution, a movement was gathering steam in the United States through the Ghadr party to end the century of British rule in India, partly triggered by the massacre of thousands at Jallianwallah Bagh in 1919, women in the U.S. finally got the right to vote in 1920, America adopted the one drop rule, also in 1920, to make sure mixed raced people previously identified by skin colour, who could pass for white were definitively classified as black, the Battle of Wounded Knee had taken place just eight years ago. Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh and Indian-American was in the U.S. Army when he had his U.S. citizenship revoked a second time because he wasn’t a “free white,” so he brought a monumental court case against the government in 1923, with the ruling that whiteness was defined by its “popular definition,” not anthropology or genetics. Italians, Germans, and the Irish hadn’t fully joined Club White yet, and were still considered immigrants.
But the most exciting subjects as a kid all centered around Prohibition, primarily because I grew up reading comic books, pulp fiction novels, and watching lots of films about Prohibition and by extension bootlegging, the roaring 20s, gangsters, jazz, the Harlem Renaissance. Before the tour, I knew vaguely that Prohibition created an underground economy that became mainstream, creating celebrities out of criminals and giving rise to organized crime. I knew terms like speakeasies because you can’t really walk through the East or West Village without being confronted with New York’s past in some way. But I didn’t truly grasp the enormity of how it shaped American culture. Prohibition was written into the constitution through the eighteenth amendment from 1920 all the way to 1933. The. Constitution.
I met the folks at Urban Adventures at the New York Travel Festival a few months ago where I facilitated a workshop at the Travel Unity Summit. They offered us a free tour that involved some cool bars, Prohibition history, and the Village. End of discussion. I never turn down free alcohol or food. Once, in New Orleans, I stood outside Pepper Palace with a broken mic, screaming, “Pepper Palace is awesome!” like a maniac all for a free bottle of hot sauce. The hot sauce was pretty damn good. That’s the sort of high ethical standards we like to embody on this site.
Here are the highlights of the New York Craft Cocktail Tour:
- Learn how prohibition shaped NYC, and the speakeasies and gangsters who influenced the city’s cocktail culture
- Discover new spirits from local micro-distilleries
- Find the best tucked-away places to grab a drink in New York’s East Village
- Learn how bartenders are revolutionizing cocktails in America with fresh, artisanal ingredients
1. William Barnacle Tavern (80 St. Marks Place): Absinthe!
The first place we walk to is William Barnacle Tavern. There’s a long bar with stools, two medium-sized windows in front are the only large light source. The specialties are absinthe and scotch. Before sitting down, Anna takes us into the adjacent room, the original site of the speakeasy which houses a theater and the Museum of the American Gangster. It’s empty. We sit down. The stage has an exposed brick wall. She tells us about a gangster named Frank Hoffman and how the term speakeasy came about, as well as a quick history of the the tavern named after a local homeless Navy man. Hoffman saved 12 million dollars that he thought he would have to pay the government back when Prohibition was over. When he realized he wouldn’t have to pay it back, he and his girlfriend take out the 10 million dollars and his bodyguard promptly murders them both in an alley. Nobody knows about the extra two million until it is found by the previous tenant. When Lorcan Otway, the current owner, is a child, his father owns the building and Otway sees this tenant bring out two million dollars from the safe, and a love of the building’s history begins.
We go to back to the bar, which specializes in absinthe and whiskey thanks to Lorcan Otway. It’s nice and quiet, designed for people to drink and have conversations with each other. The bartender prepares the absinthe – a bottle of Absinthe Ordinairé and tells us its history and the role the Temperance Movement played in vilifying this perfectly harmless drink. He pours the absinthe into four glasses, places a spoon with a sugar cube on top. Then calmly sets it on fire as he continues answering questions, including mine about its hallucinagenic properties. He tells us it’s a myth, that studies have conclusively found it never was hallucinogenic. He moves the glasses to an ice-water fountain on the end of the bar. He explains that this process is more for tradition, that the drops of ice water are intended to not disturb the absinthe, so muddling or stirring are taboo in the traditional preparation of absinthe. The slow drips extinguish the flame and make the absinthe appear almost milky.
We drink. I’m pretty sure Sona would have found it too absinthy. I enjoy the flavor, but then I love aniseed and herbal flavors. I am a bit disappointed that it doesn’t make me hallucinate, go on a murderous rampage, or want to eat my own arm. This is nothing like Moulin Rouge. It is refreshing. The sugar cube, fire, and ice drip seem like theatrics, because it doesn’t really add or detract from the flavor as far as I can tell. Next time, I’ll try it straight and see how much more intense the flavor gets. I enjoy the simplicity of the drink. It’s high proof, a heavy anise flavor with wormwood being its main ingredient, illegal in the U.S. all the way until 2007 when scientists conclusively proved that absinthe never had psychedelic properties. The bartender tells us the particular bottle we’re drinking is French and made by a guy whose surname happened to be Ordinairé, but it is by no means an ordinary bottle. “If his name was Smith, we’d be drinking Absinthe Smith,” he says. It’s a nice introduction to the world of absinthe. Most good absinthe, the bartender adds, currently comes from France or Switzerland. We raise our glasses, gently clink them, and Lisa toasts, “To the French or the Swiss,” which really should be the toast for any occasion, no matter the context.
2. Mayahuel (304 East 6th Street): Randy Cocktail – Reposado Tequila, Mezcal, ginger, lime
Two blocks over, we’re at our next spot, Mayahuel. We’re told it’s a tequila and mezcal bar, which seems to be the opposite of the quiet vibe of a speakeasy. I imagine an explosion of colors, sombreros, a Mexican fiesta. Instead, we walk into a dimly lit room, a bar to left, little nooks on the right, a narrow staircase. The only source of brightness comes from the lit up bottles of tequila and mezcal. We head towards the nook that has a spread of some much needed snacks: spicy popcorn and the crunchy tortilla chips, guacamole and three kinds of salsa are absolutely fantastic. Everything packs heat.
The bartender preps our drinks in a shaker and talks to us about tequila and mezcal. The entire concept of the bar is intriguing. Its aim is to bring tequila out of the myopic cultural space it inhabits now, where it is used to quickly get drunk through shots and only used in drinks like the margarita unlike something like whiskey or bourbon or gin that is meant to be savored, sipped. Mezcal has an incredibly long history of being distilled in North America, going back hundreds of years, and the niche tequila has found in America is being challenged. The drink prepared for us is the Randy Cocktail, Mayahuel’s much better interpretation of the margarita.
Unlike the margarita, its goal is not to mask the flavor of tequila with other ingredients, but to have it stand out. It is made with reposado tequila, mezcal, ginger, and lime. The ginger adds almost a spiciness to it. I happen to love ginger, and enjoyed this drink so much I forgot to take a photo of it!
I did, however, take this marvelous selfie above of me sipping my drink, somewhere off-camera, while Chris googles what the Agave plant looks like to show the two Russians. It’s the one in blinding white. On his cellphone.
Astor Wines and Sprits (304 Lafayette Street)
We take a break after walking a few more blocks to Astor Wines and Spirits, also part of the tour. And they had whiskey tasting! On the way, Anna tells us some interesting stories about places like the KGB Bar, local gangsters like Lucky Luciano, how beer became linked with baseball during Prohibition, and some of the strategies gangsters used to keep from getting arrested. One of them was to only supply tonic water, lemon, and glasses, while someone else brought the alcohol. Another was to sell tickets using something random as a front and the bonus would be the alcohol as a secret addition. Needless to say, it was a lovely walk.
When describing this place, huge is an understatement. Even massive doesn’t do it justice. It’s 11,000 square feet with selections of every alcohol you can think of, from wines to sakis to beer to whiskies, with several great quality whiskeys available exclusively here. Over 5500 labels! And yes, they had free tastings! Prices were pretty reasonable. We walked around with Anna and she talked about some of the local whiskies, including one named Moonshine that I had the opportunity to try at the New York Travel Festival’s Cocktail Hour.
But the real draw was a bottle of Solbeso, priced at $34.99 for a 750 ml bottle. It’s not a rum, or a whiskey, or a gin, and definitely not a wine even though fruit is involved. And that’s what’s most exciting about it. It’s a new thing altogether and currently only sold in Miami and New York City. Here’s what was written about it on a sign at Astor Wines:
Solbeso Cacao Fruit Spirit. Solbeso is the first ever spirit of its kind. Distilled exclusively from 100% Cacao fruit, the aromas at first are decadent and floral with notes of orange blossom, geranium, and rose with hints of lavender and honeydew. The palate is clean ad bright with fresh acidity that carries the flavors of melon, berries and vanilla.
The South Americans know what to do with cacao beans. They’ve been doing it for centuries, even making local alcohol from it. The cacao bean is discarded after the pods are used to make chocolate, but it’s still a delicious, fleshy fruit that nobody really does anything on a large scale with, similar to the plight of the fruit surrounding the coffee bean. We’ve never been on a cacao plantation, but have been twice to coffee plantations, in South India and in Hawaii. The coffee fruit is tangy, creamy, crunchy, with a citrus burst at the end. Fantastic is what it is. So this marketing guy is on some cacao plantation in Peru and sees these piles of discarded fruit and comes up with an idea to market a new type of alcohol to America. The last place we go in the West Village is one of the bars that serves Solbeso.
3. Wise Men (355 Bowery): Pulp Fiction – Solbeso, Cynar
We’re brought over four glasses of a drink called Pulp fiction made with two main ingredients: Solbeso and Cynor. Cynor is an artichoke Italian liqueur made from several herbs and plants, the most dominant of which is the artichoke. It tastes nothing like artichoke. It comes in a glass filled with a few ice-cubes and an orange peel. It’s definitely an acquired taste. It’s bitter, which some people in our group – ahem – didn’t find that compelling and probably just wanted a damn margarita at this point. I quite liked the drinks though. Before leaving, Anna recommended a dumpling place which I’ll have to try very soon called Fried Dumpling in Chinatown that only sells pork dumplings – $1 for five!
Clearly the party wasn’t over. After the tour ended, we all went out for dumplings at a mediocre dumpling joint a block over on Christopher Street. Chris was the only one adventurous enough to try the worst thing on the menu I felt compelled to order: chocolate dumplings made with bananas and chocolate syrup. They’re not as bad as the chocolate cornflakes I had in Goa several years ago where chocolate syrup was squirted onto cornflakes, or the countless misses I’ve had over the years, but this came close. If a Chinese restaurant offers dumplings with the word, Kung fu in it for no reason, or chocolate filled dumplings, do not slowly back away, run for it. Downstairs is a joint called The Spot. Get your Asian inspired dessert there. You can’t get chocolate dumplings though. I checked. A dumpling cleanse is in order. Soon. Lisa Hin, the girl behind Chris’s chopsticks, who has no intention of even looking at the chocolate dumplings, runs a site with a very catchy name: Granny Nanny and came up with an awesome name for the two Russians if they ever start a travel blog, playing on the word “rushing.” She should sit around Manhattan with a typewriter and do poetry. Or come up with blog titles. That’s where the real money’s at, not this lawyer job she has.
I’d recommend the Urban Adventures New York Craft Cocktail Tour if you’re looking for a fun way to experience the East Village, whether you’re a local or just visiting. Think of it as a 101 course. Aside from a few cool prohibition era stories and the history of the first bar, there’s not much prohibition related parts to the tour. But you’ll learn some history from a knowledgable and local guide, visit some great bars with very interesting drinks, learn about alcohol, including the difference between cocktails, slings, and other terms, as well as hang out with some cool people.