The Whisky River along the Hudson

Liza Weisstuch tracks down some of the new generation of bars in the Big Apple
By Liza Weisstuch
It was a Tuesday night in January and despite the arctic freeze, New Yorkers roamed the streets. After all, what better way to mark Tuesday’s end than with a drink?

I was walking in the West Village, a neighbourhood of stately townhouses and small boutiques, and saw a huddle of people congregated outside Highlands contemplating the menu.

“It’s all Scottish food – haggis and salmon,” a young woman in knee high boots over jeans said to her friend.

“That’s hilarious,” the friend exclaimed. The gentleman in the party shuffled his feet while they reached their verdict: they’d give it a whirl.

They nodded approvingly upon entering. But then, why wouldn’t they?The space, designed to evoke a Glasgow pub, is all exposed brick walls, pheasant-festooned tapestries and chicken wire glass panels appropriated from a Scottish train station, and bookshelves lined with weathered volumes of Scottish poetry and history. A taxidermied deer mounted on the wall presides over the bar room, where tattooed bartenders in plaid shirts of the lumberjack-hipster variety dart to and fro behind the bar pulling pints and pouring drams.

Just as the whisky market has progressed in the past years, so have the bars devoted to it. Once upon a time, an American whisky bar fit one of two profiles: the archetypal sepia-toned den where people nestle into leather furniture, nose deep, and discussed barrel aging, finances and golf as jazz rhythms float, or the grittier watering hole where good posture is not required, the kind of bar that inspired countless country crooners and punk desperados with its undercurrent of merry revolt. Enter Whisky Bar 2.0, a new generation of bars that operate on the philosophy that the water of life is as suitable for all walks of life as a Shakespeare comedy.

“Brown liquors have come in style in a big way,” said Highlands’ owner Brian McGrory, a Glasgow expat. “Especially now, with the rise of bourbon and rye, people are open to the vocabulary and palate and want to know what the distillation process is all about. More and more, people are looking for stories, and they’re into the romance of Scotch. I wasn’t expecting to sell that much whisky. It’s amazing, and there’s something sexy about so many young people here, females as well.” While we chatted, he excused himself and returned with one of his prized bottles: Signatory’s Ben Nevis 16 Years Old. He poured us both a taste and we toasted. The malt evoked spiced chocolate cake topped with hot roasted strawberries, a distinctive dram with fittingly universal appeal.

The next night, I headed to Brooklyn. Destination: Char No. 4. The amber glow that radiates from the enormous front window lights up the gritty-hip strip of Smith Street. Once inside, if the soaring wall of bourbon doesn’t send you reeling, you’ll fall victim to a no-mercy sensory assault that knocks you hard into a Bluegrass state, as it were. As I took a seat at the bar, the smokehouse aromas were gloriously overwhelming. And since little goes better with barbeque than whiskey, I ordered a glass of Black Maple Hill 18 Years Old. With that, Sean Josephs, a proprietor, suggested the lamb pastrami, which is cured in the kitchen and served with house-pickled onions, topped with coriander aioli and sprinkled with black onion and mustard seeds.

“Our chef, Matt Greco, is from Texas. He loves bourbon, so any time he comes up with a dish, he asks: will this be good with whiskey?” said Josephs. The lamb pastrami, which takes 10 days to make, is served with rye-caraway toast, which accentuates the drink’s spicy bite. “I think if you’re going to try to serve good whiskey and make food an afterthought, it takes away from the whiskey,” Josephs declared.

The bar carries a full range of spirits, mostly tucked into one compartment. It’s the bourbons and ryes that are displayed along the sweeping shelves. The other whiskies are kept in drawers. Char No. 4 is the brainchild of Michael Tsoumpas, who had been a wine collector but recently turned his obsessive attention to whiskey. Some of the rarer stuff, like the Maker’s Mark 100 proof, comes from his personal collection. Only a fanatic could be responsible for a design that involves white American oak floor panels and 32 hanging lantern-like fixtures that are the same dimensions as a bourbon barrel. Most of the young professionals clustered around the bar are too preoccupied to notice these twists. Carousing with friends, they’re scrutinising the whiskey menu, digging into house-smoked spareribs, or sipping luminous cocktails, like the Nor’easter, a piquant-sweet blend of Old Crow bourbon, ginger beer and fresh lime laced with maple syrup.

Josephs, who has a sommelier background, sees a whisky bar like this a logical departure from the wine bar trend that overtook New York in the past 15 years. “It seemed like another wine bar was always opening, and the more I got into whiskey, the more I felt it’s not so much a niche, but a lifestyle. Other whisky bars in New York are more part of a lounge culture. In Kentucky restaurants, it’s different: it’s not like you’re sitting in leather chairs sipping whisky. It’s integrated into a more casual environment.”

To continue on what had become an ad-hoc American whiskey trail expedition, I hopped the nearby F train to 14th Street. A few blocks north of the lively Union Square sits Rye House, which opened in November. Like Char No. 4, the saloon-like Rye House shines the spotlight on its drinks but operates under the belief that the food should be a harmonising accompaniment. They offer a robust selection of all-American pub food, from sweet breads to New England-style drunken mussels to a sausage-and-slaw-stacked sandwich made famous by Primanti’s, a Pittsburg institution. But about those drinks. An immense, handsome antique mantelpiece houses an impressive display of global whiskies, but the emphasis is on those made in the USA. Bar managers Jim Kearns and Lynnette Marerro both came
to the Rye House from the craft cocktail bar circuit, so it’s little surprise to find whiskey cocktails done with attention
to seasonal ingredients and sophistication, both where classic and inventive drinks are concerned. Their Sazerac is authentic as it gets, with a foundation of rye and cognac, and there’s always a seasonal spin on Kentucky’s masterpiece, the mint julep. Over the winter they infused whisky with dried fruit and spices. The place has a homely ambiance, with furniture made of wood reclaimed from a Pennsylvania barn, and a tavern-like lack of pretension. It’s generated such a buzz since it opened in November, you never know what kinds of industry types you’ll run into. (On my Wednesday night visit, I ran into Compass Box’s founder John Glaser who was visiting from London.)

The next night, it was back across the pond, for my palate, at least. On the southern tip of Manhattan along one of the cobblestone streets that snake through the Financial District is a discreet storefront dominated by a curtained window. A sandwich board in front with Vintry Wine & Whiskey’s emblem broadcasts the night’s specials. The dimly lit space is the latest venture from Peter Poulakakos, who oversees several mainstays, like Ulysses and Harry’s Steak. The bar, framed by an ivory-like carving that suggest grape vines, practically has an amber glow. It’s stocked exclusively with Scotch, bourbon and rye, not a bottle of gin or rum in the house. A selection from the family’s enormous celebrated wine collection, which leans toward old world producers, is the only other option.

“This is something different on the New York scene, to take the wine bar to a different level and include whisky,” said Ivan Mitankin, who ran the wine program for the restaurant group and now can be found behind the bar here several days a week. “I traded all my suits and ties,” he said, implying the lack of formality fundamental to steakhouses, especially ones surrounded by major financial institutions. Although most patrons who pack the place by 6.30 most nights come straight from their office, the New Wave anthems and Detroit soul on heavy rotation fit the mood.

“We want to showcase whisky in a way that’s approachable for all people,” he said. “The curtains keep it a little mysterious and secluded for the connoisseurs, but people want to learn.”

He’s found a guaranteed way to pique novices’ interest in whisky is through cocktails. Classics like the old fashioned, sazerac and whiskey sour figure prominently on the list. But there are also liberal interpretations of standards, like a peach smash with Knappogue Castle 1995, and originals. Mitankin mixed his Flaming Bubinga. Built with apricot eau-de-vie and blood orange juice on base of Highland Park 12 Years Old, each sip is a burst of fresh fruit riding in on a smoky current.

St. Andrews Restaurant, the iconic midtown spot, actually warrants a stop on your Whisky Bar 2.0 expedition, since, in March of 2009, it relocated to more spacious digs on 46th Street, two blocks north of its longstanding location. I dropped by just as the many commuters were flooding in to find the familiar tartan-themed tavern warmth, but noticed most amid the crowd were knocking back pints as they discussed the day’s deals and weekend plans. Upstairs there’s a second, less hectic bar and, down a narrow hallway, a “whisky room,” which Laura, a manager, told me is designed for sitting around, having a whisky and a chat, and thinking. I sat down with the menu of 250 malts and started to ruminate.