Ask any American who invented the cocktail and you’ll get a pretty definitive answer. It was us, buddy, alright? Recent evidence suggests cocktails may have slightly more British origins, but this isn’t a popular theory in Manhattan’s East Village bars, where bowtied bartenders mix elements in glasses with the concentration of ancient alchemists hoping to stumble on the Elixir of Life.
I was travelling through New York with Intrepid anyway, and I wanted to get to to the bottom of this cocktail thing. What craft cocktails was NYC pumping out these days? And where do you get the best one? To find the answers, I signed up for the New York Craft Cocktail Tour Urban Adventure.
Our guide, Brian, took us to three different bars in the East Village to sample different cocktails, while explaining the history of the craft cocktail movement and how it has changed over time. We began with boozy cupcakes – an invention from the prohibition era when drinking was illegal, so people baked with alcohol instead so no one could tell they were drinking. How’s that for some old-school American ingenuity? I won’t look at tea parties the same ever again. In this case, the alcohol wasn’t cooked off, and we did start to feel a little woozy after a few cupcakes went down the hatch.
Brian explained that part of the push for Prohibition came from the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, possibly the most wholesome sounding Union of all time. They campaigned against alcohol, claiming that it was one of the main drivers of many social ills such as domestic violence, poverty and crime. Women were a main driver for prohibition because men’s drinking affected women to a greater extent. The thing is until then, the cocktail movement had been booming. The late 19th century was kind of a Golden Age of cocktails – in Europe and Japan as well as in the US.
The first bar we went to was a Cuban-themed upstairs bar, Cienfuegos. Here we tried a rum punch, served communal style out of a large punch bowl with a ladle and teacup-shaped glasses. To line our stomachs, we were also given empanadas. An essential ingredient of any drinking session, I have since decided.
Continuing on from Cienfuegos we walked past an old underground speakeasy, William Barnacle Tavern, where you still need a password in order to enter (this is when it really pays to have a local guide). Brian explained to us how prohibition killed off the cocktail movement for a while, as people were after a quick drink rather than waiting for someone to stand their mixing while the cops gathered outside. Drinking still flourished, of course, but it was more about whiskey and coke, or something similar, where the bartender could quickly slip the alcohol in the drink.
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At William Barnacle, Absinthe is the order of the day, a drink that was technically illegal in the USA right until up to 2007. Go figure. The reason was because it was believed that one of the ingredients – wormwood – had hallucinogenic properties. Turns out this is not the case, although it obviously took a long time to reach this conclusion (It wasn’t the wormwood causing hallucinations, that would be the alcohol…) William Barnacle is in pretty much original condition, as if it was plonked here right out of the 1920s, and the absinthe is served on fire. Here’s how it works: first the absinthe is poured into a glass. Then a teaspoon with a sugar cube is placed on top of the glass. Absinthe is dripped onto the sugar cube, which is then set alight, before being having cold water dripped onto it. Apparently burning it creates a richer texture.
On our way to our last bar, Sweetwater Social, Brian explained that the reason cocktails are making a comeback is because people are now rejecting generic food and goods and are once again embracing slow food, hand-made goods and seasonal, local ingredients. It goes hand in hand with the rise of farmers markets and craft beer. Sweetwater really showed this off. It’s a more modern setting, compared to the traditional speakeasy style, and the cocktails are a play on the flavours and seasonality that are trending in NYC’s food scene. We tried a Tom Kha Gimlet: a Tom Yum soup-inspired martini with kaffir lime and coconut. If that sounds bizarre, you are 100% correct. Bizarre and delicious.
So did I settle the cocktail Origins Battle? Probably not. Both sides of the pond can continue to claim ownership of the practise. One thing’s for sure though, NYC does some of the best going around. Your move, London.