BIG Apple Bars

BIG Apple Bars

Liza Weisstuch takes us out to some favourite haunts in New York city's boroughs

Places | 22 Jul 2011 | Issue 97 | By Liza Weisstuch

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They say whatever you want, you can find it in New York City. If it's a fine dram you're after, you don't have to look very hard to find it. Amid the tickertape tempo of Wall Street, the staunch Old World charm of the Lower East Side, Chinatown's efficient commotion, and the uber-hip enclaves of Brooklyn, the whisky flows far more freely than the traffic. And as everyone knows: it's always advisable to go with the flow.

Mary Queen of Scots

115 Allen Street, New York, NY 10002
Tel: 212.460.0915

There have, in fact, been quite a few newcomers into Manhattan’s whisky kingdom over the last two years. One that’s made a particularly royal entrance sits on a low key street not far from a stretch of restaurant supply shops. Mary Queen of Scots, which arrived last October, is a cross between a Scottish estate house’s drawing room and a French brasserie. (No surprise, given that Mary ruled over France and Scotland.) The owners of Highlands, an unassuming spot in the West Village that bills itself as a contemporary Scottish gastropub, opened this Lower East Side malt mecca where earthy Scottish sensibility (wrought-iron chandeliers, meat pies, Scottish cheddar and a catalogue of foods sourced from the British Isles, Scotch whisky galore) is wrapped up in French style (dim lighting, banquettes upholstered in tartan from Lochcarron, the producer that supplies Vivienne Westwood and the late Alexander McQueen, an extensive Gallic wine list.) They stocked the shelves with more than 300 bottles and put it in the charge of an all-star bartending team. That means that on top of the bounty of drams to chose from, whisky drinks are mixed with expert finesse.

Ward III

111 Reade Street, New York, NY 10013
Tel: 212.240.9194

Cocktails play a starring role at Ward III, which opened in June 2009. The amply stocked shelves of single malt and bourbon bottles declare that Ward III is decidedly whisky centric, but the three proprietors want to ensure that there’s something to suit even the pickiest palate and every mood.

Thus, you’ll find a bespoke cocktail list. Well, rather—a list of descriptors you can use to steer the adept bartenders as they engineer your very own personal cocktail.

Start with your base spirit, then make up your mind about texture, spice, fruit and flavour. (Lemon? Rosemary? Anise? Bitter? Effervescent?)

Sit back and watch the barkeep mix, modify, tweak and create.

“We don’t want people to be locked into flavours and recipes,” said Michael Neff, one of the owners.

Neff comes from a serious cocktail bar background, but he calls himself “a Twinkie guy,” referring to an episode famously recounted in the New York Times involving a customer who tried to stump him by demanding Neff to showcase his mixology skills with the springy cream filled snack cake. (Turns out, it goes well with bourbon.)

The dark, weathered wood furniture and bar, exposed brick and the antique sewing machines built into the back bar give the TriBeCa space a warm, vintage industrial-chic appeal.

That happens to be a fine ambiance for a whisky tasting. Good thing, because that’s what happens here nearly every Monday night. Whisky drinkers, from the connoisseurs to the curious, gather for informal educational sessions led by visiting brand ambassadors.


177 South 4th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY, 11211
Tel: 718.486.DRAM

About a 25 minute walk from Whisky Brooklyn through the fast gentrifying residential streets is Dram. More sedate, sophisticated and stylish, the room, which has low-slung seating and tall windows that open onto the street, is well designed in many regards. The décor has Asian accents, most noticeably the long, sleek incandescent boat hanging over the beech wood bar as a lighting fixture. The thoughtful menu features charcuterie like local wild boar salami, plates of farmstand cheeses and an array of quirky picks that are go above and beyond typical bar food. (House smoked olives, house-made salted caramels.)

Owner Thomas Chadwick says he didn’t open the place as a whisky bar, but there are certainly enough single malts and American and Japanese whiskies to delight any brown spirits lover. And there are meticulously constructed cocktails of both the classic and creative, progressive schools. Needless to say, the mixology wizards here work wonders with whisky. Their ideas may strike you as extreme, absurd, even, at first, but rest assured this is not about reckless shock value. These bartenders are craftsmen and they persuade you to think about whisky in a ways that likely never occurred to you before. Witness: Hell’s Ditch. The brawn of Powers Irish Whiskey and Connemara Cask Strength Irish Whiskey are curbed, but not too much, when they encounter the gentle sweetness of Violette, Benedictine, Cocchi Americano, a mild, floral but dry vermouth. If that doesn’t strike your fancy, consult with the bartender and guide him or her as he concocts a bartender’s choice.

That way, as bartender Jason Littrell puts it, “you can drink something radical if that’s what you’re feeling.”

Idle Hands

25 Avenue B, Downstairs, New York 10009
Tel: 917.338.7090

When it comes to whiskey in America, there are two images that will never die: the cowboy swigging rye from his flask on the prairie, and the bedraggled musician knocking back a few. The dark, windowless Idle Hands celebrates the latter. Located downstairs from the brash New Orleans-themed Billie Hurricane’s. The bar, festooned with rock and roll paraphernalia, showcases American craft beers and offers a plenty of top shelf Scotch and bourbon that are absolutely not made for guzzling. When Buffalo Trace releases its Antique Collection, you can spot bottles of Thomas Handy and George T. Stagg. Well, for as long as they last. Sort of like fame itself.

The Whiskey Brooklyn

44 Berry Street (at North 11th), Brooklyn, NY 11211
Tel: 718.387.8444

Whiskey Tavern

79 Baxter Street # A,
New York, NY 10013-4462
Tel: 212.374.9119

Whiskey Town

29 East 3rd Street, New York, NY 10003
Tel: 212.505.7344
Trip Advisor page

Brooklyn, the massive borough of a diverse range of neighbourhoods, from the gritty to the glamorous, has become a hotbed for eccentric bars and restaurants since young families and hipsters driven out of Manhattan by the high cost of living have settled in far flung neighbourhoods and rehabilitated crumbling brownstones and transformed old warehouses into artists’ live/work spaces. Take, for instance, Whiskey Brooklyn, a spacious, dark, subterranean Williamsburg spot with a convivial crowd at the horseshoe bar.

Let’s face it: staid, proper whisky bars will not attract and nurture a new generation of whisky aficionados. Thus, burgers, pizza and tacos are on the menu for anyone needing to fortify themselves after sampling a few from the selection of more than 60 global whiskies.

There’s a card on the bar that says “Ask about our unlisted whiskies,” to be sure, there is absolutely nothing pretentious about this neighbourhood spot. Prices are reasonable and you can get beer in a can, but that’s not to say they don’t take their whisky seriously. Their own brand of bourbon, Tom Lawless, sits front and center on the menu. It’s mellow enough for bourbon beginners, yet it has enough subtleties that whiskey lovers won’t be disappointed. The owners operate equally casual sister bars. Chinatown’s Whiskey Tavern offers a back patio where you can sip in warmer weather, and Whiskey Town in the East Village, an urban saloon where rock and roll rules.
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