When I heard about an opportunity to learn about the art that is the craft cocktail while touring in one of my favorite neighborhoods and getting a glimpse of a unique slice of American history, I was all in.
Urban Adventures hosts a number of tours on the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, with topics ranging from tenements to craft beer. The cocktail tour is now open to the public, seven days a week. There are no cancellations – if only one person makes a booking, they’re getting a private tour.
To whet our palettes, our tour guides provided us with mini cupcakes from Prohibition Bakery: lemony bites called the Bee’s Knees and White Russians. Alcohol is added after the baking and to the icing, so it really does have a bit of an alcoholic kick. In fact, you get carded at the bakery before you can indulge. Sorry teenagers, your plans for buzzing on buttercream get checked at the door.
As we munched on our cupcakes, we learned from our tour guide, Brian, that like so many great things, cocktails actually originated in America, and that rum was the most popular spirit in colonial times. The cocktail wasn’t just invented in America; it was taken very seriously. In the mid-1800s, if you wanted a cocktail, you didn’t attempt it yourself. Just like you wouldn’t give yourself a medical exam, Brian said, you wouldn’t try to make a cocktail at home. You went to a professional – and so did we.
Stop No. 1: the Blind Barber
Not everything in East Village is as it seems. Back when prohibition reigned, many businesses were fronts for the real attraction: speakeasies selling bootleg moonshine. Nowadays, some bars try to regain that lost mystique by creating “hidden” watering holes. Stroll into the Blind Barber for a haircut if you wish, but be sure to head to the back, which leads to a modern-day speakeasy. Rumor has it that it used to be a privately owned apartment where lavish parties were thrown with such raucous appeal that they drew the likes of Madonna in the ‘80s.
For our first cocktail of the evening, we sampled the Strawberry Fields, a refreshing concoction of muddled strawberry, honey, lemon, and vodka shaken till ice cold and topped with a sprig of parsley by our bartender, Rob.
“Don’t be scared of the parsley,” he said. “It opens up the flavor.”
In fact, we learned the garnish actually has a distinct role in the cocktail rather than just aesthetics: It’s meant to cleanse your palette and get you ready for the next drink. Touché, savvy bartenders.
Ever wondered about the shaken versus stirred rule? I have; who wants to commit a cocktail faux pas? Our tour guide explained as we sipped away that as a rule, drinks with dairy or juices should be shaken, and clear beverages should be stirred so they don’t become cloudy. My first thought on this was that James Bond was wrong when he famously said his martini should be shaken, not stirred.
Another hidden bar we passed on our way to stop No. 2 was PDT, or Please Don’t Tell, which can be entered through the phone booth in the neighboring eatery, Crif Dogs. You tell them about your reservation in the phone to be granted access to the small, dark space that serves quality cocktails.
Stop No. 2: William Barnacle Tavern
This place has some bona fide history. Not only was it a documented speakeasy during prohibition, but it used to be owned by a gangster. He saved some of his earnings in case he got caught for tax evasion like Al Capone, which was a shrewd assessment on his part since the city council was fond of drinking in the illegal establishment. When the current owner bought the business in the ‘60s, imagine his surprise to discover $2 million worth of ill-gotten gains in the basement safe!
These days, the tavern specializes in absinthe, which was illegal until 2007. People used to think the wormwood ingredient in it made you hallucinate, but in actuality wormwood is just a muscle relaxer. It’s still very potent and astringent though, so after lighting a sugar cube on fire for showmanship, our absinthe got diluted drop by drop from a delicate silver dispenser, resulting in a sweet, anise-flavored elixir.
Not only can you get a drink at Barnacle’s, you can catch a show next door at the theater, head upstairs to the museum to learn more about American gangsters, and eat the French crepes made to order by Crepe Canaveral, which is helmed by a Frenchman from Brittany who will earnestly seek your opinion on all matters crepe-related.
Stop No. 3: Astor Wines and Spirits
Not everything was sunshine and moonshine while whipping up batches of bathtub gin during the prohibition era. As we took a respite from drinking and leisurely made our way to our next stop, we learned that people did in fact die from bad batches of alcohol during that odd time in America’s history. Because there were no regulations, some alcohol was mixed with truly heinous substances, like embalming fluid. Shudder.
Luckily we live in an era where alcohol is not only safer, there’s incredible variety. At Astor Wines and Sprits, the biggest liquor store in Manhattan, you can choose from 5,500 brands. Some are commonplace, and some are quite rare. Yours truly picked up a sweet little New Zealand Pinot Noir for under $30.
Next up was a modern, spacious underground bar with something for everyone: great music, shuffleboard, deep-fried pickles, and classy cocktails.
Our last taste was a classic gimlet, expertly concocted with New York’s very own Brooklyn Gin, fresh lime juice, and sugar. It was the perfect nightcap to a well-blended evening of equal parts American and cocktail history.
And now we’d love to know…what’s YOUR signature cocktail? Share below!
By: Sarah Henry