Bone-chilling cold in Brooklyn… Forget the tour—show us the beer first… “Go West, young man…” Vortices in Santa Fe and the Ides… Delmano deals the best hand so far… The Barfly turns down a drink!… Even the delis are doing drinks these days… The bartender’s handshake at Dram
Wednesday, February 20
The Bluegrass Barfly is freezing his ass off. Brooklyn, for some reason, feels a full ten degrees colder than the main island, Manhattan. Barfly hops from one foot to the other outside the big red doors of the Brooklyn Brewery, where inside, he imagines, the vivifying vapor of boiling wort wreathes thickly ‘round the kettles; one deep inspiration of the fantastic aroma of beer being brewed would be enough to stimulate perspiration. But now, all that is mere fantasy. It’s five after five o’clock, the tour guide is tardy, and Barfly is contemplating bar work with frostbitten fingers. He knew Williamsburg was the cool new place in town, but this was ridiculous.
Justin, the Director of Operations at Brooklyn Brewery, was discussing Local One, a Belgian-style strong golden ale that is showing a fine and persistent bead in my tulip glass. Bottle-fermented, the effervescent beer is unlike most, so much so that Justin’s “little Puerto Rican grandmother,” he told us, asks every year at special dinners for “some of that special champagne I like so much.” The bigger bottle, with its cork and cage, could easily enough be mistaken for bubbly.
The tasting takes place before the tour, so by the time we have reached the third and last stop of a laughably short excursion, we don’t mind much, having already downed Brooklyn’s Winter Ale, Lager, Local One, and There Will Be Black, a dry black IPA. That last beer still lingers in our glasses, a dark-chocolate covered orange beauty with floral and spearmint notes. I let the rest pass my lips as Justin talks about the killer deal co-founder Steve Hindy cut with Milton Glaser, graphic design superstar, for the latter’s services. Milton refused a $20,000 check, instead bargaining for company stock and free beer—for life. Steve, thinking he was getting the better end of the deal, readily agreed. From this arrangement was born the brewery’s distinctive “B” logo, and Milton continues doing design work for Brooklyn Brewery—and drinking their beer—to this day.
Night has fallen when I belly up to the marble bar at the Ides. Perched on the 6th floor of the Wythe Hotel, the Ides boasts one of Brooklyn’s best views of the Manhattan skyline. This wasn’t the best time of year or time of day to be here, I thought—too cold outside to take in the open air on the terrace, too early in the evening to bump elbows with many Brooklynites. A few twosomes and threesomes whispered in the dark corners of the room, but besides the cocktail waitresses and bar back lingering to my left, I was the only one at the bar.
Oscar, the bartender, deftly uses the classic bartender’s trick—leaning over and taking me as his confidant and co-conspirator. He’s sharing a secret about a spirit behind the bar, a bourbon distilled in Kentucky and aged in upstate New York. “I’ll tell you—I think it’s pretty bad. You’ve had Elijah Craig, you’ve had Blanton’s, you’ve had decent stuff. This doesn’t match up.” He pours me a taste, as bartenders are wont to do—we drink even the bad stuff, if only for the experience.
I had to agree that the stuff was too young, too hot, and had only one note. So deciding on a Sazerac, this one with the excellent Whistlepig rye from Vermont, I was interested to see the drink served without a garnish. Oscar, with no ostentation, but a subtle expertise, brushed an orange rind over the lip of the glass and tossed it away. The drink, like the service and the bar itself, was pared down, stark, and solid. The real focus wasn’t on cocktails, for there was nothing groundbreaking here—or on the music, an ambient electronica—but rather the cold, crystalline Manhattan lights across the Hudson drew the eye and the mind up, and away.
No surprise, then, that Oscar and I grew to talking about Santa Fe, his hometown.
“I honestly think it’s a nexus of the universe,” I said. “I don’t know if you believe in vortices, these things, but you have to agree there’s just something different about it out there.” I brought up Georgia O’Keefe’s quote on New Mexico, one of my favorites: It is not a country of light on things. It is a country of things in light.
The light in Oscar’s eyes shone as he nodded. “Here’s what you need to do out there. Go back—late July, August—and go swim in as many lakes as you can. They’re all high up, four thousand feet and higher, and so clear, you can see for a hundred miles. That’s what you need to do.”
Here we two were, on a black dark Brooklyn rooftop, dreaming of the light out West. The Ides and New Mexico suddenly felt like yin and yang, complementary but connected. We bid each other farewell; Oscar gave me my drink on the house. “See you again,” I said, “in this life or the next.
On Oscar’s recommendation, Hotel Delmano was the next stop, a speakeasy-type joint just down the street. The sound of many merry patrons penetrated the frosted windows, light flickered dimly from within, but the iron grate was closed. Refusing to be rebuffed, I dragged open the grate, stepped inside a packed house, and found a perch in the middle, by the raw bar. The cocktail menu—eleven house standards, nine seasonal cocktails—was a solid twenty drinks. “The First Step” was a 20th Century Cocktail spinoff with crème de cacao, lemon juice, orange bitters, and rye and amaretto in place of gin and Kina d’Or. Delivered in a old fashioned coupe glass, the drink was excellent—the amaretto just robust and nutty enough to hold its own against the Old Overholt rye.
Such excellence in craftsmanship and showmanship from the bartender, Austin, demanded another drink, so I moved to grab a seat in front of the bartender’s station. The mise en place was impressive. Austin hardly had to move his feet as he made my second drink, a “Rattlesnake,” again with rye and lemon, but using an egg white and absinthe rinse. As I sipped my second, the texture frothy and satisfying, like a perfect soufflé, I was lost in conversation with Rita, to my right. As we talked with such animation of life and language, I settled into the bar seat and felt perfectly at home at Hotel Delmano.
Pressing on was important, however; many more places to go. The Bedford was a bust, the single bourbon cocktail not worth ordering, an uninspired “Bourbon Apple” blend of lemon and apple juices, topped with ginger ale. I selected instead a “Gin Ricardo,” with muddled basil, lime, a splash of soda and a cayenne salt rim. After the smooth and integrated drinks at Delmano, this felt hurried, half-assed. So I had the potato and artichoke soup instead—non-alcoholic, of course. I gave thanks to Melanie, who graciously took the drink off my tab, and moved on. No time to waste when bar-hopping with the Barfly.
After another quick bite at the Meatball Shop to cleanse my palate and clear my head—and just water to drink, although even this gourmet deli-style café offered a 20th Century Cocktail, Moscow Mule, and Hot Toddy—I moved on to Dram, my last stop of the night. Where Ides was sparse, Delmano was packed, and Bedford was forgettable, Dram was the sweet spot. Dark as all the rest, what little light was here was warmer, and so was the clientele.
Tanya, my bartender with rosy eyelids and a sly smile, whipped up the “Rosalie Come Go,” a complicated mix of Rittenhouse bonded rye, Manzanilla sherry, pear liqueur, crème de cacao.
“It’s as if a Manhattan and a 20th Century had a baby,” she quipped. I had to agree, and when she put it that way, the drink didn’t seem so complicated. We talked of the cocktail trend across the states, thriving here, burgeoning elsewhere, and my mission—to bring that same New York excellence to Danville. The hour had grown late, and as I rose from my seat, Tanya set down two shots of Fernet Branca, that herbal, minty, bitter spirit from Italy that has taken the city by storm.
“It’s the bartender’s handshake,” she explained.
So we shook, and I went on home.