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Bluegrass Barfly’s Treasure Map


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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.

Friday, February 22

***For the full sensory experience, please put this on, then read on.***

It’s misting this morning, a fine drizzle flying at an angle outside the Doctor’s Walker Street window.  In the grey noon light, last night is coming back to the Barfly in pieces as small as this sprinkle.  These are watery memories, liquid memories, returning along some cerebral stream.  Some of them may have washed into the gutter, lost forever to the sewers of New York.  If the Barfly can retrieve the rest, he’ll hang them up to dry in this SoHo loft and put them to paper for you.

Let’s work backwards.  We ended the night, the Doctor and S— and I, three abreast on the couch, giddy and glowing in the light of a Bertolucci film.  Before that, B Flat, a tiny Tokyo-style jazz joint where the bartenders toiled over our drinks with deadly serious precision.

“The best cocktail I’ve had so far,” says the Doctor, as we reminisce this afternoon on the previous night’s endeavors that included B Flat.  We both smile wide smiles, both glow with the warm memory of his “Autumn Leaves,” a spiced blend of dark rum, cinnamon syrup, lime juice and pineapple juice, and my “Enigma,” Hendrick’s gin, Elisir M.P. Roux liqueur, lime, orange, and cucumber puree.  And let’s not forget S—, our friend who had rolled into town from Washington that evening and who had sipped a “Lush Life,” with jasmine tea flavored gin, Cointreau, lemon juice, rose water and fresh pear.  After all, we wouldn’t have made it to B Flat if S— didn’t suggest it—and what a satisfying suggestion B Flat turned out to be.

Remembering what happened before B Flat is proving more difficult as time passes.  It’s like fighting upstream in a rapidly flowing river of booze.  Barfly puts his head down and strokes—freestyle, of course, his best stroke from swim team years—pulling furiously and kicking like hell.

I make some headway and remember that before B Flat was the Vault at Pfaff’s, a speakeasy-type establishment where the bar was down a long flight of steps and the cocktail waitresses wore short, short skirts.  The Doctor and I had tried to break into the Vault on two prior occasions.  The first, locked door.  The second, last call.  Third time was the charm.

S— and the Doctor and I settled into a cozy corner and picked up the paper, a clever menu on newsprint with a headline that touted the name of the joint.   Our conversation careened from old times and past loves to points further afield (and not fit to print).  That was when the unthinkable happened.  The Barfly spilled a drink.

“Whoa, easy, buddy,” said the Doctor, grinning.

House-spiced rum, cognac, varnelli punch, and sour from the Doctor’s “High Thread Count” trickled off the table and pooled on the dark-grained floor.

“That’s the first of the entire trip,” I lamented with mock gravity, “Our track record has now been tarnished.”

Although clumsy, I still had (most of) my wits about me and quickly found our waitress Christina, who brought a replacement post haste.  Life is quite tough when a spilled drink is the biggest of your worries.  At least I hadn’t spilled my “Turf,” a really nice riff on a gin martini with Nolet’s gin, Bols Genever, dry vermouth, Luxardo Maraschino, absinthe, and orange bitters, for that would have been a tragedy.  And S—’s “An Apple Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” with Laird’s Applejack, Rittenhouse rye, a house-made amaro, dry vermouth, and Luxardo Maraschino, was still intact.

Barfly’s earned a breather, he believes, from all this swimming up the boozy stream of memory.  It’s exhausting—while time inexorably and effortlessly flows on, threatening to wash away all these memories, Barfly must struggle and flail to gain an inch of headway.  He moves laterally to the shore and rolls over on the water-polished stones, gasping, spluttering, and cursing.  Although just immersed in a thirst-quenching creek, his mouth is dry, lactic acid arid.

So, a digression while Barfly catches his breath: the great thing about many of these bars, at least the really serious ones, is the bartenders’ commitment to slaking this thirst.  And let’s clarify—not with a cocktail, but with a consistent attentiveness to the water glass.  It’s the ultimate drinker’s draught—a palate cleanser, a hangover hinderer—an always refreshing cocktail of two parts Hydrogen to one part Oxygen.  But now, dehydration be damned, Barfly must press on.

Before the calamity at the Vault, the Doctor and I greeted S— at the Campbell Apartment, a revitalized vestige of the city’s golden age opulence.  S—, fresh off the bus from D.C. and still looking fabulous in charcoal pinstripes, found the Doctor and I in a little nook, our backs to the wall to avoid any nasty surprises—S— is known for such antics.  We asked if he’d been here before, and S— said yes, he’d spent a night drinking scotch and trying to convince a group of senior Japanese businessmen to bankroll an excursion to Flashdancers, one of Hell’s Kitchen’s most storied strip joints—where, I will admit to you in the strictest of confidences, the Barfly narrowly escaped a job as a men’s room attendant.  Desperate times, folks.

The drinks were classic, but uninspiring.  I sipped a Manhattan and then a Highlander, cousins from Kentucky and Scotland.  S— and the Doctor tipped back gin martinis and rum and tonics.  Here the drinks were secondary.  It was the scenery—a palatial Florentine-style salon with here a hand-painted plaster ceiling, there a magnificent mahogany balcony, and everywhere a waitress wearing a black cocktail dress and pearls.  S— shared that the space was once inhabited by John Campbell, an American financier.  Nice digs, we thought.

Barfly is finally hitting his swimmer’s stride—he’s past the pain now and and stroke after stroke is becoming steady and stretched out.  No time to stop now.

Before that happy reunion with S—, I sat sipping Suntory Hakushu 12 year among old and new friends at M—’s 12th floor pad on the Upper West.  Hadn’t seen M— since college days—a complete pleasure to eat with him and enjoy his hospitality—M— had fixed up a simple bibimbap—cucumber, coconut rice, chili paste and an over easy egg.  The Doctor was performing card tricks at the table; the rest of us were trying to trip him up.

“Oh, I know this one,” M— said.  “This isn’t magic, it’s just math.”

“Math is magic,” the Doctor replied.

The English major had to chime in. “Well, at least to me it is,” I said.

“So are you magical?” prodded M—, teasing.

“I’m not magical, I’m mathical,” the Doctor retorted.

The end of this swim is in sight.  Barfly digs in and recalls teammates cheers timed to the rhythm of his stroke as swimmers sprinted for the finish.  Sprint!  Go go… go!

This narrative ends where the night began, at Anejo Tequileria in Hell’s Kitchen.  The tequila counterpart to V’s bourbon obsession, I had to ask my bartender Crystal Lynn for a special tequila flight.  Moments later, I had sitting in front of me three rarities: Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia, El Tesoro de Don Felipe Paradiso, and Tequila Ocho Rancho “El Carrizal.”  Both the bar and I were just waking up as the first sip of the first drink of many that day (undoubtedly too many) passed my lips.  The five-year-old Reserva had notes of honey and anise, with smoked peat not far behind.  Paradiso, also five and finished in cognac barrels, had a silky smooth mouthfeel, with lots of vanilla in the nose and flowers on the tongue.  And the single estate Carrizal, three-years-old and aged entirely in older bourbon barrels, had a nose of salted caramel and mint, with a mouth-filling butterscotch and coffee finish.  By the time I had leisurely tasted my way through the three exquisite tequilas, the bar had transformed from groggy and empty to a hopping, high-spirited joint.  The night was young, full of energy and possibility, and it was time to get started.

Barfly is panting, doubled over, dripping from head to toe.  His head is a little light and his arms are burning.  Completely spent and exertion endorphins flowing freely, Bluegrass Barfly thinks: Whew.  Time for a drink.

Thursday, February 21

The Barfly awakes much too early this morning, certainly too early for having spent the night sipping strange concoctions well past the witching hour in a Flatiron speakeasy.  He feels a strange lightness in the air—and in his wallet.  Best not to dwell on it.  The drinking will help with that.

Eataly, Mario Batali’s Italian market and restaurant emporium in the Flatiron, was a madhouse. Complete, unabashed, consumer chaos.  Restaurants turn into retail within inches; servers, hostesses, and other employees dart and wheel carts among throngs of ogling tourists and locals doing dinner shopping.  The sheer volume of product, and people consuming it, is overwhelming.  If there weren’t signs everywhere telling the customer where to check out, the interminable maze that is Eataly, I’m afraid, may have claimed me as another victim.

Every available surface, it seemed, was covered in signage.  This way to the RosticceriaThe bathrooms are by the beer.  Vogliamo pranzare con te!  Most are informative, touting the culinary traditions by region, of which there are many in Italy.  They’re regions all distinct and difficult to comprehend with the help of a single sign, or even a store full of signs, but by God, Batali’s going to give it the old college try.

And so there’s a sign by the Caffe, telling the Italian love for Lavazza; there’s one by the Paninoteca, showing sandwiches from across the country; there’s one specifying that La Pizza Napoletana T.S.A.* (Traditional Specialty Guaranteed) must have cornicioni (i.e., crust) at least 0.4 to 0.8 inch high and a total diameter not over fourteen inches—well, you get the idea.  At Eataly, there’s a sign for that.

The thing is, Eataly was pretty self-aware about it all.  It knows it’s a mess.  It embraces, even encourages it.  The place becomes a sloppy, shameless tribute to the glorious cuisine that Italy has to offer.

Eataly has a policy—I found it on a sign, of course: “The customer is not always right.  Eataly is not always right.  Through our differences, we create harmony.”  I agreed wholeheartedly.

Next to Eataly, Bottlerocket Wine and Spirit, my second stop of the day, was a delight.  The wine was organized—organized!—in two ways: alphabetically along one wall, by country, or thematically, in island stations like Red, White, Pink, Value, Explore, Meat, Seafood, Pizza, Gifts, Critics, &c.  Thus, as M.A., the store manager, tells me, every bottle is in two places, giving both left- and right-brain thinkers a way of finding some bottles to pop.

The Sex Pistols and then Iggy Pop played in the background as I wandered around the wine, in awe of the setup.  Each of the more than 365 bottles has a placard, with the basics like vintner and area of origin, but also a two-sentence description and a longer background paragraph.  There’s also a map, tasting notes, and ratings from Robert Parker, Spectator, Enthusiast, the Times, and the shop’s own scale.  For those with a slight neat freak tendency—like me—the place was a dream.

But every dream must come to an end, and even in the delightful Bottlerocket, I’m thinking, “enough retail—it’s time for a drink.”  By chance I happen on McSorley’s Old Ale House and stop in for a beer.  There were two options—light or dark—and the bartender pours me the latter in two little mugs.  They’re solidly built, as is the dark ale, and I try not to imagine how easily the mugs could become a bludgeon in a bar-fight in this brutish place.  “Be good or be gone,” one of their slogans goes, which could deter somebody looking for trouble, although the straight-faced old bartender must help.  I turned to warm my hands by the wood stove.  Shuffling across sawdust on the floor, I stared at the memorabilia mummified on the walls, which had been there since 1910.  The bar itself predates that by fifty years or so.  E.E. Cummings called McSorley’s “snug and evil,” which, standing by the stove and inhaling the smell of bleach, sawdust, must, and decay, I must agree with.

Mayahuel was the Aztec goddess of fertility, the granddaughter of Tzitzimitl, Queen of the Demons.  Held hostage by her grandmother, her carnal charms wasting in captivity, Mayahuel was set loose by Quetzalcoatl and took him as her lover.  The romance was short-lived, sadly.  Mayahuel was killed by her vindictive grandmother, her grave becoming a garden for the first agave plant—tequila’s source.  With Mayahuel as their muse, the mixologists behind Death & Company—a pioneer in the cocktail craze—have taken to untapping the market on mescal and tequila drinks.

I stepped in from the chill and sat in front of an even chillier bartender.  A drink to warm the spirits was in order, and I sat quietly, meditating, as he mixed a drink.  The bar was all black wood and glazed gold tile.  A few steps below the street, the place felt solemn and still, a quiet sanctum where one could worship the gift of Mayahuel’s sacrifice.  The “After Dark” paired reposado tequila with dry oloroso sherry, Galliano Ristretto, Benedictine, and Mole bitters.  I later learned the drink won the local Vino de Jerez cocktail competition.  The “After Dark” was all chocolate and coffee on the nose, with some dried dark fruit soon after.  Was there even tequila in this drink?  Brown, smooth, and serious, the drink was like the place—no mariachi band would bang out a song for this libation, not here.

When Jan, the host at the Beagle, mentioned a barrel-aged cocktail, I was smitten.  “So how do you make this so damn good?” I asked him, a huge grin on my face as I savored a barrel-aged Manhattan with a depth of flavor I’ve never before tasted, even with big daddy Carpano Antica as the drink’s sweet vermouth.

Quick to answer any questions, and I had many, Jan deferred this time to the expert.  “Let me get the maker,” he said.  “I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to you.”  He introduced me to Tomr, who like almost any bartender, opens right up when you ask about his art.  He explained that the Beagle uses the solera method, mixing old and young juice among six used barrels from a Hudson Valley distillery, Tuthilltown.  Starting with white dog and Dolin vermouth, Tomr aged the Manhattan mix for two years before pouring it into my glass. The end result was enviable.

I asked if I could sneak a peak at the barrels.  Tomr shook his head.  “It’s not that they’re proprietary, it’s just that they’re stuck back in this office.  It’s not really very…”

“Glamorous?” I interjected.

The cocktail certainly was.

With a group of seven others in tow, or in transit, we came to the Pegu Club, a New York institution in the cocktail world that draws inspiration from a British Colonial Officer’s club in Rangoon, back in the days of the Empire.  The Club had no cocktail among the twenty on its list that didn’t evoke an image of the far reaches of the Kingdom’s dominion.  The conversation was animated and the feeling convivial, but I couldn’t find a drink to suit, although I had tried quite a few, and this frustrated me.

The Doctor turned to me, “You’re so—frantic,” he finally finished.  His words came haltingly, as if he were afraid to provoke some wild animal within me.  “You need to just—calm down, buddy.”

I tried to do just that with what the Club called “The Last Word,” a Sandy Relief Cocktail, the menu said.  I could use a little relief myself, I thought, and it was gratifying to know that all ten dollars I shelled out for the drink would go directly to help those affected by the dreadful hurricane.  But even this blend of Junipero gin, Green Chartreuse, Luxardo Maraschino and lime juice couldn’t slake some silly thirst I had for satisfaction.

I was saved by Milk & Honey, a nondescript speakeasy hidden in plain sight on 23rd Street.  At the front of the joint, there were no windows.  The door was painted the most innocuous of particle-board grey.  The threshold looked like a construction site—pallets stacked outside, scaffolding above, signage absent.

Inside, the speakeasy was austere.  The walls weren’t painted, only primed in a similar grey.  The entire place was still under construction.  But still, despite the incomplete and unpolished décor, Milk & Honey was playing host to around a dozen of us, some down a long hallway at the back bar, some strewn in booths behind us, and the Doctor and I at the bar.  Even with the construction, the place felt clean, respectful, and earnest.

I let out a long contented sigh, although I hadn’t even yet ordered a drink.  “Now this is just what I needed,” I smiled, finally, at the Doctor, and felt human again.

The bartenders, Theo and Gil, took their jobs very seriously.  Milk & Honey had no menu.  One just tells the bartender what one wants, and one receives something exactly to taste.  With that in mind, I told Theo I wanted something drier, with brown liquor preferred but not necessary, and lighter in the mouth. “I’ve been drinking these cloyingly sweet drinks all night, even when I didn’t expect to,” I said.

Theo promptly got to work, and a few fastidious moments later, placed a “Migration” on the bar in front of me.  It had smoke and dark chocolate, tinged by bitterness that cleansed the palate.  With dark aged rum, Cynar, and sweet vermouth, the “Migration” had sweetness in the mouth, but it wasn’t sugary.  Instead, it rolled down full and smooth, making the tongue tingle somewhat on the finish, spurring another sip.  The Doctor and I raised our glasses to Theo and each other, and with a knowing smile, drank in silence.

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.

2013-02-19 14.37.0664594_113956922122207_439479546_nTuesday, February 19

It was about 2:30 in the afternoon when Bluegrass Barfly finally got around to having a breakfast of barbeque.  Brisket, to be exact, at Blue Smoke, a Danny Meyer creation in the Flatiron District, a barbeque joint above a jazz club.  He sunk his teeth into a sandwich, soggy from the drippings, and let out a sigh.

Blue Smoke was cool, quite refined, but almost too smooth.  The food seemed to sink into the background, like elevator jazz—not striking enough to grab your attention; but innocuous and pleasant enough to fill your ears (or stomach).  The house made sauces were simple, not spicy.  The bartender largely ignored us.

Now I’m not saying the Doctor and I were dissatisfied.  We cleaned our plates and left content.  But something about Blue Smoke seemed lacking in character.  The dining room was clean, but too clean, immaculate, even.  The brisket was buttery soft, but bland.  The slaw seemed sparse on the seasoning.  I want my ‘cue joint to be a bit messy, gritty, dirty.  But we didn’t even need the complimentary wet towel at the end of the meal.  Maybe it was the time of day—2:30 in the afternoon is a restaurant dead zone.  Or perhaps it was us—our senses dulled from the previous night of debauchery.  Either way, Blue Smoke seemed inauthentic, just smoke and mirrors.

Murray’s Cheese, however, was the real deal.  Donning lab coat, booties, and hair net, we were led by Cavemaster Brian Ralph to the caves beneath the Bleecker Street shop.  We shuffled in and out through the narrow vaults, ogling the cheese, looking absurdly like clowns vacating a miniature vehicle, the smell of ammonia strong in the air from Geotrichum candidum and Penicillium candidum, microflora that help ripen the cheese.  Making and caring for cheese is a living, breathing process, or like Brian put it, “Each cheese is like a little ecosystem that we can eat.”

Murray’s doesn’t make cheese, but they do purchase, store and ripen cheese in their five cheese caves one story below Bleeker Street.  The caves, Brian said, are like “a day spa for cheese.  They get to hang out, sometimes they get flipped over, sometimes patted, sometimes brushed.”

It sounds simple, but our Cavemaster, with all the rigor and knowledge of a scientist—he studied neurobiology in college, after all—tests various iterations of cheeses to perfect private orders for some of the best restaurants in the city.  Over a three-month process, Brian said, his eyes lighting up at the prospect, he plays with variables like pH, moisture, salinity, temperature, and time to create the desired product for his customer.  “R and D is the most fun part of my job,” Brian said.  “I love to dork out and do that stuff.”

At the tasting after the tour, we were lucky enough to try a specially aged Jasper Hill Harbison called Greensward, which, brined and babied by the Cavemaster, recently made its debut at the 11 Madison Park, a swanky French joint with three Michelin stars in the Flatiron District.  The Greensward had all the Brassica flavors of the original Harbison—cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower notes—but amid a slightly tart taste and a more substantive structure that didn’t run like the Harbison.  It was delicious—perfect with the Blanc de Blancs we had sparkling quietly on the tabletop.

On my way out, I lingered by the cheese case, fully twenty-five feet long and packed with the stuff.  I felt like a kid in a candy store, but this was the version for folks without a sweet tooth.  Here and there were cheeses from our own case at V—Landaff, Bonne Bouche, Colston Bassett Stilton, Robiola Bosina—and I realized how special it was that our own little market in Danville could keep pace with Murray’s.  Head stuffed with information and belly with cheese, I walked out onto the rainy Greenwich Village street with a smile on my face.