Naren Young packs his library card and is welcomed to one of New York's newest centres of higher learning
By Naren Young
Sure this is no Julliard or NYU, but if you have any interest at all in learning more about many of the world’s great spirits, then there are few places on earth that boast the range of liquor and the staff that know about them in detail like the Brandy Library.Located in the rather staid Tribeca, the Brandy Library was opened in October 2004 by Flavien Desoblin, a young Burgundian with an extreme passion for spirits. He saw a niche for a spirit-focused bar as opposed to another cocktail, wine or beer bar, which already saturate the city.“I’ve always been crazy about books and I love the civilized and quiet feel of libraries,” says Desoblin. “That is the ambience I wanted to recreate here, where the only noise would come from hushed conversations. I wanted a library of bottles in a sense where the spirits would take place of the books.” The entire design is a credit to his vision and needless to say he’s very happy with the results. What’s transpired is easily one of New York’s, and indeed the world’s, most elegant and refined looking rooms. One that is most definitely conducive to slowly imbibing a fine single malt and a plate of foie gras.As you walk in through the velvet curtains, you’re met first by a glorious copper pot still and then Desoblin, always immaculately dressed as he ushers patrons to one of the gorgeous leather armchairs. Much of the clientele are from the surrounding financial districts, often stopping by for an aperitif before dinner or a digestif after.Running the entire length of one wall opposite the bar is a beautiful display of nearly 1, 000 exposed bottles, allowing customers to observe and touch each of them.Presiding over the list and keeping it updated is Ethan Kelley, the in-house ‘spirit sommelier’, a unique, self-appointed title that is attracting a lot of interest in the Big Apple.Entirely self taught without any formal training, Kelley is a former New Jersey bar owner who was approached by Desoblin to come and set up the beverage program at the Brandy Library.“Most of my knowledge has come from a lot of reading and tasting my way through hundreds and hundreds of spirits,” enthuses Kelley. “Flavien and I made our own tasting notes as opposed to using those supplied by the brands themselves as often these are written by PR agencies.” Although the moniker ‘Brandy Library’ hints at a preference towards France’s revered national spirit, other tipples are certainly no afterthought. Whiskies in particular areshown due respect with more than 400 different brands from all whisky-producing regions represented in an impressive and perhaps overwhelming leather-bound encyclopedia.While Desoblin’s true passion lies with the Francophile spirits, Kelley’s is with whisky and he continues to search out rare and new gems to excite both the staff and regulars.There are 270 single malts, 75 bourbons, 12 Irish and six from the rest of the world. With such a huge range, it would be easy to see why people may be intimidated but this is Kelley’s responsibility and one that he obviously relishes.The brown spirits, open fire and leather chairs combine to give the place a real winter bar vibe and while there is a small outdoor area at the front, it’s really only there to appease the smokers. Tribeca is not the most attractive part of Manhattan, so no one is coming here for al fresco summer drinking.For those looking for solace from New York’s oppressive summer heat though, the air conditioned interior and a whisky-based cocktail are probably a more appropriate match than a neat Talisker and a fine cigar. No Cubans, sorry.With such spirituous surroundings, there is of course a dedicated cocktail selection categorised by spirit and there’s a good smattering of those calling for whisky as the hero ingredient. The Library Derby, a simple mix of the rare Bernheim straight wheated bourbon, peach liqueur and black tea was delightfully balanced while a Creole Old Fashioned was sweet and sublime.Kelley is the first to admit he is not a cocktail man, he seems more at ease on the floor discussing the differences between the Laphroaig 17 and 30 year olds than stirring a Sazerac.But ask him to pour you a glass of Ireland’s Knappogue 1951 (you better have a lazy $213 for the pleasure) and watch his eyes light up.