Charles Cowdrey reports on a one-woman crusadeto bring Kentucky's finest in to the Big Apple
LeNell has changed the way people drink in this part of Brooklyn,” says Alex Haskell, manager of MiniBar, a cosy drinking establishment as diminutive as its name implies.‘LeNell’ is Tonya LeNell Smothers, proprietor of LeNell’s, a wine and spirits boutique where the emphasis is on hard-tofind wines from small producers and American whiskey.“I wanted to feature American whiskey,” says Smothers, a petite young woman whose inflections honour her Alabama roots.“Nobody was spending much time with it in New York and it was an excuse to get my hands on a lot of new things to drink.” LeNell’s, located in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, is an idiosyncratic store designed to be cosy and unintimidating. Instead of the usual arrays of bland shelves and stacked cases, merchandise is displayed in antique bookcases and armoires. As you would expect in a ‘boutique’ the focus is on personal service. Customers come to LeNell’s for recommendations and they usually buy what she suggests.The Red Hook neighbourhood where LeNell’s is located, at 416 Van Brunt Street, is one of the oldest sections of Brooklyn, the New York City borough at the tip of Long Island across the East River from Manhattan.The Dutch were here first and named the place Roode Hoek in 1636. By the 1850s it was one of the busiest ports in the country. Long a bare-knuckled neighbourhood of docks, dockworkers and dockworker bars (think Brando in On the Waterfront), it gave us Al Capone and gave him the wound that earned him his nickname: ‘Scarface.’ Employment at the docks peaked in the 1950s and Red Hook languished thereafter.Physically isolated, it never experienced until recently the revival so many parts of New York have enjoyed. But sooner or later, as one local wag put it, “everything in New York becomes a condominium.” That finally is happening in Red Hook, where waterfront wharfs and warehouses are rapidly morphing into housing, shops, restaurants and bars.Smothers comes into this mix with an almost evangelical zeal to educate people about the pleasures of America’s native whiskies, straight rye as well as bourbon. Her store features elusive products such as Very Old Barton bourbon, Rittenhouse bottled-inbond rye, Rebel Yell bourbon and the Van Winkle line. Recognising that New York traditionally is a cocktail town, she gives her customers free recipe sheets for classic whiskey drinks as well as her own original creations.In addition to what she does in her own store, Smothers has reached out to the neighbourhood’s bars and restaurants to indoctrinate their owners, managers and bartenders about her favourite topic.“I do it for the love of bourbon, mostly,” she says, “but it helps me if they (the bar patrons) like something, they may come back our way looking for a bottle.” Alex Haskell and the owner of MiniBar, Jennifer McShane, read about LeNell’s store in a local magazine.“We thought it was the coolest store we’d ever seen,” says Haskell. “I begged her to let me come to the store and pick her brain,” says McShane. She consented and also introduced them to her most cooperative suppliers.“We decided to shift our direction because of what we learned from her,” says McShane.McShane’s MiniBar, in the adjacent Carroll Gardens neighbourhood, has one bartender and seats about 30. Like LeNell’s, it features an esoteric mix of unusual wines and spirits, all served with a personal touch.“We wanted the quality to be very good, but at a reasonable price,” says McShane.“Bourbon made sense for us because we were sticking to things that are simple, good and pure.” “If we hadn’t talked to LeNell, our whole approach to whiskey would have been very different,” says Haskell. “We wouldn’t have had the vocabulary, we wouldn’t have known what to try.” MiniBar features Manhattans made with straight ryes such as Old Potrero and Classic Cask. Available bourbons include the A. H.Hirsch 16 year old, W. L. Weller 12 year old, Bulleit and Van Winkle. Eschewing the obvious choices, when a customer asks for Jack Daniel’s they suggest George Dickel.Just down Van Brunt Street from LeNell’s is Red Hook Bait & Tackle. Barry O’Meara, one of the partners, is a native of Galway, Ireland.He grew up with Jameson and Powers but needed help with bourbon and rye.“People in this neighbourhood are into good bourbon and rye,” says O’Meara, “and that’s because of LeNell.” He currently features Michter’s rye and American whiskey, Rittenhouse rye, and Corner Creek and Bulleit bourbon. Though he hasn’t abandoned the drams of his youth, O’Meara admits to enjoying American whiskey himself.“We have to drink them to make sure they’re okay,” he says.Also nearby is Pioneer Bar-B-Q, where proprietor Jimmy Leonard considers American whiskey a perfect accompaniment to his St. Louis-style ribs, Texas-style smoked brisket, pulled pork sandwiches, chicken wings, stuffed poblano chili peppers, and local Blue Point oysters. One of Pioneer’s owners is local legend Alan Harding, a founding father of Brooklyn’s Smith Street restaurant row, who hosts a TV cooking show called Cookin’ in Brooklyn.Pioneer now features a “LeNell’s Pick of the Month,” such as Rittenhouse rye, Longhorn Creek bourbon or George Dickel Tennessee whiskey. When Leonard first met Smothers he was very impressed.”She’s a huge knowledge base for us,” says Leonard. “For example, to explain the difference between bourbon and rye, she talked about the difference between wheat bread and rye bread.” Leonard sees his customers moving beyond the standard American whiskey fare because of LeNell’s influence.“People are realising there is more out there,” he says.Some of the most popular pours at Pioneer are Maker’s Mark, Evan Williams and Knob Creek. The fresh mint for their mint juleps is grown in a garden behind the restaurant.Moonshine, another Red Hook drinkery located within sight of the old shipyards, has a more informal approach to dining, a “bring your own meat” policy for their backyard grill. For more than 60 years it was a dockworkers bar called Rocco’s, but now it represents how Red Hook is changing.The old bar is still there, but now there are classic rock and country tunes on the jukebox and Wild Turkey Tribute is on the drinks menu, though not exactly on purpose.The night I was there, owner Nick Forlano went ballistic when he realised someone had opened and poured from his rare Jimmy Russell-autographed bottle. Naturally, we ordered a round from it ourselves.American whiskey stars such as Russell, Julian Van Winkle, and Bill Samuels of Maker’s Mark have all made the trek out to Red Hook for personal appearances at LeNell’s, and their fans have travelled from all five boroughs to greet them there. Often this is done without the knowledge or participation of the local distributor.Despite its large and growing influence, LeNell’s has had trouble getting attention from the big New York City distributors.At times, Smothers has even been prepared to pay the distributor’s registration fee to get them to carry a particular product she wants to sell.“The smaller distributors were excited that we wanted to showcase unusual things,” says Smothers, “but the larger companies blew me off. They just didn’t take me seriously.” That may be changing. Recently, representatives from three of the big distributors showed up on the same day.Drinks companies can’t always control how their products develop. Consumers have ways to find and get what they want whether the producers cooperate or not.Retailers are the people most in touch with actual drinkers and as LeNell’s has demonstrated, an innovative retailer can have influence far beyond his or her immediate store. They can also have a whole lot of fun.
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