Most visitors to New York City stick to Manhattan where some of the world’s best bars can be found, from the five-star hotels of Midtown to the speakeasies of the East Village. But for cocktail lovers, it is becoming essential to head east or south to the borough of Brooklyn on the other side of the East River. In April’s Time Out New York Food & Drink Awards, not only the winner of best cocktails but one of the three runners-up were in Brooklyn, reflecting the growing number of great bars and restaurants opening on the back of the area’s increasing affluence.
Time Out’s winner was Maison Premiere in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which its owner Joshua Boissy describes as an “oyster house and cocktail den”. Inspired by hotel lobbies in Paris and New Orleans, it has a classic “distressed” look that belies its newness, with a typical lack of signage outside. The bar claims to have the biggest list of premium absinthes in New York City: its 19 products include some familiar to British drinkers such as Lucid, La Clandestine and Jade Absinthe Nouvelle-Orléans but has others chiefly produced in the US, from New York state to Montana and California. As well as some inventive absinthe cocktails, there are cocktails using the many other spirits behind the bar.
South of Williamsburg is the leafy Brooklyn suburb of Carroll Gardens which has already become a destination for food and drink lovers because of acclaimed cocktail bar Clover Club and popular restaurant and bar Prime Meats. In December, an offshoot of the East Village’s French-inspired bar The Bourgeois Pig opened here, going on to be another runner-up for last month’s Time Out award for best cocktails. It is the latest project for Ravi DeRossi who is behind some of the East Village’s best bars such as Death & Company and Mayahuel. Developed with business partner Frank Cisneros, the new Bourgeois Pig Brooklyn has a decadent look with velvet Louis XIV chairs, black chandeliers, red-and-gold patterned wallpaper and a tin ceiling. The cocktails are ingenious and made with some unusual ingredients sourced from Europe and beyond, such as amaro, pelinkovac wormwood liqueur, arrack and ratafia. Heading the list is a Zombie Amaro whose many ingredients include Amaro Montenegro, Nardini acquavita, Fernet Branca and absinthe.
Only a few minutes from downtown Manhattan, Carroll Gardens last month also welcomed the newest branch of Momofuku’s iconic Milk Bar cafés. Momofuku has become something of a phenomenon in New York City, with five Milk Bars and four restaurants, developed by chef David Chang. In January, he and Dave Arnold – the director of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute – opened Booker and Dax within Momofuku Ssäm Bar in Manhattan’s East Village. Bottles share space on the back bar with lab equipment which Arnold and his team – including bar manager Tristan Willey – use to create inventive but simple drinks. Cocktails include the Laurel & Hardy, made with rye whiskey, cognac, maraschino, fernet, Bénédictine and chocolate mole bitters, and the Mustachi-ode, combining Nardini amaro, becherovka, bourbon, egg white and pistachio.
Booker and Dax was another of the runners-up in last month’s Time Out best cocktails award, as was East Village establishment, The Beagle, a restaurant and cocktail bar opened last year by Matt Piacentini. This is a classic-looking venue, with walls clad in white tiles and blue-and-white William Morris wallpaper, serving up vintage-style drinks, under bar manager Dan Greenbaum. There are also barrel-aged cocktails such as a solera-aged White Dog Manhattan.
Cocktail heritage and local history come together in the plush, lowly lit bar at the new NoMad Hotel, named after its location north of Madison Square. Under bar manager Leo Robitschek, the drinks menu features classic-style drinks such as Satan’s Circus – the name once given to the area by religious reformists – which mixes rye whiskey with chilli-infused Aperol, Cherry Heering and lemon. The 1903 cocktail is named after the year the Beaux-Arts building was completed and is made with cognac, Cocchi Americano aperitif, apple brandy and Cocchi Vermouth de Torino.
A more contemporary approach has been taken at the new Conrad Hotel, which has opened in Manhattan’s waterside development of Battery Park City. Part of Hilton Worldwide’s luxury Conrad Hotels brand, it includes a stylish Mediterranean-influenced restaurant and bar called Atrio at lobby level – similar to Atrio at the Conrad Hotel in Miami. One of the few bars in New York City to have an Enomatic wine-preservation system, it offers 24 wines by the glass as well as proseccos, cavas and champagnes.
Cocktails are twists on the classics alongside originals which – like the food created by executive chef Anthony Zamora – uses local ingredients wherever possible such as Averell Damson Gin Liqueur from upstate New York. The Brooklyn Beauty is a sparkling mix of the juniper-heavy Brooklyn Gin, St-Germain elderflower liqueur and lemon juice topped with prosecco, while Atrio’s delicious twists on a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned feature small-batch Hudson whiskeys from the Hudson Valley, north of Manhattan, which are being introduced into the UK market this summer. A signature cocktail is the Loopy Doopy, based on a Cosmopolitan and made with white cranberry juice, Grey Goose vodka, Cointreau and orange and lemon juice, garnished with an orchid.
The Loopy Doopy is named after a giant swirling blue-and-purple painting by the late American artist Sol LeWitt in the 15-storey atrium lobby. It is also the name of the rooftop bar which opens in May, offering views of the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty. Its summery drinks list will be complemented by alcohol-infused popsicles that can be dipped in prosecco.
Other new hotel bars have been opening up across Manhattan over the past year or so, such as Mondrian SoHo hotel’s Mister H, with a plush, decadent interior inspired by nearby Chinatown. The luxury Chatwal hotel, which opened in Midtown in 2010, is home to The Lambs Club bar which serves up vintage-style cocktails developed by Sasha Petraske of Milk & Honey New York. Talking of Milk & Honey, the legendary bar is set to move to an unnamed location further uptown after more than a decade serving superlative cocktails on the Lower East Side. Its Eldridge Street site is set to be reborn later this summer as Attaboy in a venture by bartenders Sam Ross and Michael McIlroy.
A more recent launch from Vikram Chatwal Hotel group is the chic Dream Downtown hotel in the Meatpacking District. It features several venues including The Beach, a poolside bar with sand and cabanas, and PH-D – a rooftop lounge bar with views of the Manhattan skyline.
One of the driving forces behind the Meatpacking District’s regeneration was the Gansevoort hotel which opened in 2004. This spring, Gansevoort Hotel Group unveiled a refurbishment of the building, which includes a popular rooftop bar with a 45-foot heated pool and 360-degree views. In February, the group opened its second “urban resort” in Midtown, Gansevoort Park Avenue. The top two levels feature the Rooftop complex of venues including the Blue Room bar, the Red Room club, and the Pool Bar which adjoins a sundeck and pool for guests that opens up to non-residents for Sunday pool parties in the summer. Both hotels are part of The One Group which will be operating the bars at the revamped Hippodrome back in London when it reopens this summer.
Other additions to New York’s nightlife include Culture Club – a revival of a popular West Village club that closed in 2007. Specialising in 80s and 90s music, the venue opened in Midtown in September, with its basement launched as a rock ‘n’ roll club, RokkCity, in December.
For more relaxed dining and drinking, last month saw the opening of Amélie in the West Village – a second site from Samie Didda and Germain Michel after the success of Amélie wine bar in San Francisco. Created with DMG Design, it features vintage theatre seats and a red lacquer surfboard-like bar. It has an extensive wine and cocktail list alongside a French-inspired menu.
At the end of last year, Hilton Worldwide unveiled a new look for the lobby bar at its downtown Millenium Hotel (craftily misspelt with one “n” so it heads alphabetical lists of millennium businesses). It opened next to the World Trade Center a year and a half before 9/11 and, after being damaged, reopened in 2003. It has now undergone a second refurbishment to create a more contemporary lobby bar, Liquid Assets.
Liquid Assets is tended by Andy Setticase, a one-time actor, stand-up comedian and bass trombonist who has worked in Manhattan hotels for 33 years. He and his colleagues serve up classic cocktails and original recipes such as the Key Lime Pie Martini, made with Absolut Vanil, pineapple juice and Rose’s lime juice, and Andy in the Afternoon, combining Texan handmade vodka Tito with peach nectar and a splash of cranberry juice.
Andy was working in the hotel’s restaurant on 9/11 and has witnessed the devastation and on-going rebuilding of the area. He has also seen New York’s cocktail scene change over the past three decades. “When I started, it was still the three-Martini lunch,” he recalls. “Now they just want bottles of water or soda or juices in the afternoon.” But he says New York is very much on its feet again. “Last year, people were saying we were in a recession but we had our best time ever. When people are unhappy, they want to get away from it and have a drink.”
A shorter version of this article appeared in the May 2012 issue of Bar magazine.
Manhattan Cocktail Classic
New York City’s annual five-day celebration of cocktail culture, Manhattan Cocktail Classic, takes place from May 11 to 15, featuring parties, tastings and educational events. These range from a “tiki tour” of Staten Island and New Jersey to a mixology masterclass at a Momofuku Milk Bar. A highlight is a special version of Sleep No More – New York’s hit immersive Macbeth-based theatrical experience – adapted for Bowmore single malt whisky, including a punch created by drinks historian Dave Wondrich. The programme involves leading New York bars including Apotheke, Booker and Dax, Death & Co, Employees Only, Lanterns Keep, Mayahuel, Pegu Club, The Beagle, NoMad, The Tippler and PDT. Full details at www.manhattancocktailclassic.com.