You know those nightmares you still have about missing class?… Masterclassed from the past… The real truth about global warming… Char No 4 burns a hole in my pocket… In philosophical spirits (or in spirits, philosophy)… A dark moment… Reunited at Dram and sailing off into the sun(rise)
Saturday, February 23
Bluegrass Barfly hasn’t been late for class in years. Heart pounding, hair wet, he borders on running through Chinatown streets for fear that his instructor may bar the door. The classroom is marked “Chemist,” the door half shuttered, and the site, Doyers Street, is the shortest road the Barfly’s seen in the city—fully only two hundred feet from beginning to end. With a shave and a haircut knock on the dark wood door, Barfly summons the teacher to the threshold, fearing the worst.
“Please come in,” he says. “You’re the first one here.” The faintest smirk. “By the way—I like the knock.”
Apotheke was awesome. I was enrolled in a Prohibition Era cocktail class, where step-by-step we’d make, my instructor Chris said, four foundational cocktails: the Gimlet, Old Fashioned, French 75, and Sazerac. By sheer luck, we ended up making six—but this was one class where extra coursework was welcomed, not whined about. Here’s how it happened.
Four folks were scheduled to take the class. I was the only one to show up. So after waiting forty-five minutes for my tardy classmates—and taking that time to pick Chris’s brain on everything from the importance of good ice to the mechanics of using a jigger or barspoon, from mise en place to the POS, from the history of the bar to the philosophy of good mixology—we made our first drink. Chris had already given me his life story, a tour behind the bar (with a peek in every cooler and a pass through the back), and a taste of his barley-infused rye and black-walnut-husk-infused mescal, by the time we got to the real work of making a Gimlet. Straightforward enough, as were the Sazerac and French 75. The real treat was learning how he made his Old Fashioned.
Barfly will spare you the details—a bartender must keep some magic for himself when it comes to his art—but let him just declare now: when he returns from the big city to his beloved hometown, he will make you an Old Fashioned that will blow your mind. This new revelation is a delight, honestly, for all the senses. I’m getting giddy just thinking about it.
At this point, Jay had joined us, a bouncer, barback, and now budding bartender at Apotheke, to take advantage of an empty slot in the roster. We moved on to make two drinks from the bar’s Prohibition Prescription List, starting with Jay’s choice, a “Hemingway Daiquiri.” This wasn’t your sleazy second cousin’s daiquiri, but a clean, unadulterated original, with Denizen white rum, fresh lime and grapefruit, simple syrup, and Luxardo Maraschino. The three of us played with proportions as we made the drink simultaneously, tasting and comparing our various iterations. Finally, fostering a growing interest in mescal, I asked to make a “Dusk Over Oaxaca.” Chris led us through the process of making this drink, one of his own contribution to the Prescription List. This was like watching a master artist at work—like watching Picasso paint Guernica or O’Keeffe paint Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills—two works that came to mind when I sipped the solution, a perfect blend of the walnut-infused mescal, tequila, Angostura, agave, and orange. The drink started smooth, moving into a smoky mescal hit, and finishing long and nutty. The Barfly is blushing just thinking about it.
Having spent three hours soaking up all the knowledge Chris could impart in such a sadly short time—(do you hear this? He’s calling a three-hour class ‘short?’)—Barfly made a break for Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Social in Carroll Gardens was the first stop. I had a few hours to kill before dinner with one of my oldest friends. The place was tiny, dark and nondescript. The cocktails honest and inventive enough. Was that Jack White behind the bar? No, just a slightly standoffish, limp-haired and hook-nosed Ivan, whose very unsocial demeanor seemed to belie the Social’s stated strategy. But Ivan eventually opened up.
“This place has been responsible for a lot of connections, and marriages, and kids,” Ivan said.
“And—casual meetings,” said the Brit to my right, tactfully.
“Well, we wouldn’t have global warming without the casual meetings,” Ivan rejoined.
I sipped first a tasty “Sicilian Fizz,” a creamy but dry and fruity mix of gin, blood orange, Mirto, egg white, and soda, and then a forgettable Fellini—prosecco, lychee nectar and a mint garnish. Not the Barfly’s favorite kind of drink, to be honest, but he was drinking light with a view to avoid excessive tomfoolery at dinner. There would be enough time for tomfoolery after.
Besides, Char No. 4 was not a place for tomfoolery anyway. An unrivalled tribute to brown spirit bathed in golden light, Char was a perfect place to meet JP, one of my oldest friends, for dinner (and let’s not forget drinks, of course). JP was tickled by the name of “A Bourbon Ting,” an inventive and refreshing blend of Jack Daniel’s Black Label, Ting Jamaican grapefruit soda, and jerk bitters from The Bitter End. In fact, we both liked it—so much that we didn’t care the name was a misnomer. But we all know that Jack Daniels is willfully called ‘Tennessee Whisky,’ not bourbon, don’t we? I tried a barrel-aged Old Fashioned, but compared to the two-year-old Manhattan at the Beagle, this cocktail’s thirty-day lifespan was pitifully inadequate.
As we ate our way through a house-made charcuterie plate (lamb porchetta, lamb pate, duck bacon, duck terrine with pistachio and almond, and pig’s head torchon), I soon realized that Char was a place to cut the crap and head straight for the whiskey, neat. Dave, the bar manager whose knowledge of the brown stuff was incredible, walked me through the menu, settling on Balcones Brimstone. Balcones is a five-years-young distillery in Texas, breaking ground and winning awards left and right. Their enviable state of decoration was hard to deny when I tried the Brimstone. As Dave explained the unique production process—smoking blue corn over a fire of Texas scrub oak before making and distilling the 100% corn mash—I savored a smoky nose of campfire and corn husk.
After great dinner with JP—good, meaningful conversation, more than decent food (get the hangar steak, as JP did)—the man had to run, but I was happy to spend a few moments alone in an epicurean glow, enjoying the second smoky, straight whiskey of the night. Dave had generously brought me an ounce of the High West Campfire, a blend of straight bourbon, straight rye, and a blended malt Scotch. Peat, spice, sweetness, vanilla, salty caramel, and smoke rolled off the tongue and down the gullet—John Wayne, eat your heart out.
An honest question: are you tired of this yet? Because the Bluegrass Barfly could go on, and he already has—it’s amazing how talking shop with bar managers who know their spirits as well or better than Barfly will yield new discoveries and free drinks. With the right person, Barfly could kill hours talking about whiskey. How in the world did this become the Barfly’s specialty?, he wonders. Perhaps it is interest in the proud craftsmanship of an industry that is largely, at its heart, untouched by technology. Perhaps the bourgeoning American attention to the provenance and production of their food and drink appeals to Barfly’s deep sense that this sort of consumption, with its innate camaraderie and chance for keen individual satisfaction, is a vital part of life. Perhaps Barfly thinks this movement towards eating and drinking locally will save the world; for we all must eat, so why not do it in a way that is good for the body and soul, benefits the community, and protects the environment? Or maybe Barfly is just a bon vivant of the worst kind.
Regardless, it is this great generosity between insiders of this industry that accounts for what befell the Barfly next.
I climbed, with footfalls heavy, out from the dark, forbidding maw of the subway tunnel. Glad to be free from the foreign territory of the G train, I emerged onto the rain-soaked street. I was in Brooklyn, that much was certain. But this was no Williamsburg I noticed. I stumbled on, striking off north—I thought—in a fool’s errand to find the Doctor, who was somewhere—Rosalie’s? Rosarito?—celebrating a friend’s birthday. With no faces in sight—I had wandered into a decidedly industrial area—I had no chance of asking directions. A dead phone was a dud. But there was one bright side to being alone. So I hid back behind a Caterpillar backhoe—the Barfly can’t believe he’s telling you this—unzipped the fly of his trousers, and—well, you know.
After that, I felt much relieved—in a physical, if not an existential, sense. No longer burdened by the sheer volume of all I’d already had to drink that night, I pressed on—through a park, across a muddy baseball field, over a fence or two, and along dead streets. I finally found a pizza joint and ordered a slice—vegan, for the fun of it.
“Here’s your Florentine,” said the man who was about to be my savior—although I didn’t expect my savior to have gauges in his ears and a flat-brimmed baseball cap—but then again salvation comes in unexpected ways. “You need anything else, my friend?”
“Yes,” I gasped. I handed him my phone. “Got any juice?”
With me and my phone reinvigorated, the Doctor was easy to find. We met at Dram—I felt a repeat visit was in order, given the place’s unassuming excellence. Plus I wanted to see if that cute bartender Tanya was back tonight.
She wasn’t, not precisely—sadly Matthew tells me I’ve missed her by an hour or two. So I order the “Rum Dogs,” since it’s the cocktail of the day: a mix of rum, rye, Cynar, Becherovka, and dry vermouth.
“This tastes like one of Tanya’s creations,” I tell him, matter-of-factly. I had already learned the girl’s unique taste (of her drinks, that is!) after two of hers the other night.
“You’re right,” he said, and with that I felt I had earned his respect. Without saying a word, at the end of the night I found he had given me that cocktail for free. The Doctor and I settled back, wobbling slightly on our stools, as we each sipped a drink—it’s at this point that my note-taking took a turn for the worse, for I never put to paper what the Doctor’s was. Then, because it was a lousy idea, I asked for a third to share between the two of us—“One to bring us home,” I asked. So Matthew fixed his own work in progress: a remix on the standard Old Fashioned, as yet unnamed, combining Perry’s Tot Navy Strength Gin, Amaro Nonino, dememara sugar, Angostura, and orange bitters.
With the swagger of a couple of sailors freshly arrived in port—the Navy Strength, 114 proof gin certainly helped—the Doctor and I sailed out the door, around the corner, and off west across the Hudson.