Considering the vagaries of New York City’s cocktail culture, it’s far more safe to become attached to a personality rather than a bar. Not only might a beloved local close without warning, but this is a pirate’s industry: Everyone moves around.
Pop-ups and bar takeovers have been growing in popularity as a way for bartenders to showcase their styles and interests or raise money for a cause without the overhead of opening up their own brick-and-mortar. Old standbys are opening new bars to explore new spirits and ingredients.
As recent transplant to New York from Detroit Dorothy Elizabeth notes, this city is in a new kind of cocktail renaissance — one not just about speakeasies and convincing people to try something other than vodka, as New York saw in the ’00s, but about having a good time with an exceptional drink in hand.
Whether it’s industry favorite Sother Teague opening up a bar focused on French liquor, a couple of bartenders from Uptown and Queens bringing hip-hop to old-fashioned’s, or esteemed bartenders using their skills behind the stick to raise money for causes they believe in, many of the top cocktail makers today have taken off the suspenders of the last era and are rejiggering to focus on simple joys. Here are a few people really shaping what’s happening in the New York scene right now.
If bitters aren’t your thing, the man behind globally lauded and teeny-tiny East 6th Street amari bar Amor y Amargo has recently branched out with two more bars, as well as a book, I’m Just Here for the Drinks: A Guide to Spirits, Drinking and More Than 100 Extraordinary Cocktails. All of this is on top of his Heritage Radio Network podcast “The Speakeasy.”
There’s reason to believe these new spots will change the game: The standing-room Amor y Amargo, which has been around for about half a decade, stocks no juice or syrups to focus on showcasing its wide array of amari, bitters, vermouth, and spirits to create what’s called a “bitters tasting room.” While that might seem esoteric, on a Friday night, it’s nearly impossible to get into the bar.
Blue Quarter is a tea-focused speakeasy in the back of restaurant Local 92, a short walk from that first space, and Windmill serves drinks with a big dose of French booze, such as cognac, calvados, and Chartreuse alongside bites from the team behind Le French Diner. If he can do for tea and calvados what he’s done for amari, expect to find both on more cocktail menus in the months to come.
Jairo Taveras and Robert Nieves
These New York-native bartenders met one year while pitted against each other in a coquito competition to see who could make the best version of the traditional creamy Puerto Rican Christmas beverage, which tastes of coconut and rum. Ever since, Taveras and Nieves have been running the Shakedown, a consistently packed pop-up whether it happens in Williamsburg or the Lower East Side. It’s open to all, at least to all who follow them on Instagram and catch the flyer.
The party brings a rotating roster of hip-hop DJs to craft cocktail precision, creating space for people of color in an industry that can feel overwhelmingly white. When not doing that, they’re both acting as brand representatives for Bacardí with a mission to bring attention and resources to their fellow Latin bartenders. Their culture is always present in their drinks, as well: Where one bartender might use a cold brew liqueur, they’re making Café Bustelo syrup.
“I turned something that I love into a career, and it brings me a lot of joy to see people of color and Latino descent coming up,” Taveras tells Eater, while on a Harlem bar crawl that kicked off at the Honeywell. “Certain members in the community wanted to get me shine,” he says, and he hopes that along with Nieves and their pop-up, they can provide the same to up-and-coming bartenders of color. The most recent Shakedown, for instance, featured a lineup of all women of color.
Back in Detroit, Elizabeth was renowned for bringing molecular technique to cocktails at bars like Standby, earning a spot as an Eater Young Gun. With a recent move to New York to be closer to family, she’s now bartending at Henry in the Life Hotel with esteemed beverage director Pam Wiznitzer and focused on her pop-up Friends of Dorothy. The pop-up will be launching with regularity starting in September at Nomo Soho, where she’s currently working with Xavier Herit on a menu of draft cocktails. But that doesn’t mean she’s let those old skills rust: She’s become a go-to talent for the combination of fun and science, and she’ll be putting that to use as a leader of the science and technology programming at October’s Portland Cocktail Week in Oregon, a global gathering of industry talent.
Friends of Dorothy aims to be “a playful NYC cocktail pop-up designed to create safe spaces while raising money for LGBT youth,” she says. In line with her experience with experimental cocktails, the drinks will have “out there” techniques, she says, but the primary goal is to make them “in a vibrant, playful way.” One will be called the My Bleu Cheese Ramos, a cocktail with tropical pawpaw caipirinha that will play “with density to create edible glitter suspensions within drinks,” she says.
DeLuna is known as @homebargirl on Instagram — a must-follow account for those who want to know about where to get the best rum drinks in the city — and she has been making her mark in New York bars recently as well. Since early 2017, she’s been a representative for Boukman Rhum, a clairin trempè traditional to Haiti that reinvests sugar cane growing communities that make its production possible. Since then, she’s been bringing a broader understanding of rum and rhum agricoles to New York City bars and bartenders that has resulted in its presence in more and more cocktails, such as the Old Haitian from Blind Barber. Boukman is now in 80 bars around New York City and has had a notable presence at industry events like Bar Convent Brooklyn, where DeLuna plays the role of educator.
It’s one she’s comfortable with: Her Cane Club Collective series of events on specific rums take that education even farther. With partners and fellow Brooklyn-based bartenders Austin Hartman and Shannon Mustipher, she’s taught numerous classes and conducted happy hours around specific rums at bars like Sisters and The Narrows.
“We aren’t doing any Rum 101 types of classes,” she says. “It’s been topics like ‘Rhum Agricole: The Proof is in the Flavor,’ ‘Funk Lessons: All About Jamaican Rums,’ ‘The History of Merchant Bottling.’ We dig deep and we try to give as much hard data as we can find in our classes.”
Rum should be fun, too, so she’s also been co-hosting Women Who Tiki events with Mustipher that often benefit nonprofits. A recent event at MeMe’s Diner in Prospect Heights was packed wall to wall, with every attendee ordering from a set menu.
DeLuna considers education around rum to be important because it’s been “maligned” and “misunderstood” in the past, she says — considered useful only for tiki cocktails and pool drinks. “There are no international rules governing rum, rather distinct styles which have developed in each rum-producing country,” she says. More and more people are trying to make the spirit more transparent lately, and she is at the forefront of the education in NYC.
All who drink or bartend are residents of Cocktail Kingdom, the most popular purveyor of barware around. Boehm’s the owner of this shop for all the best bar tools on the market, and he’s also behind Cocktail Kingdom Hospitality, a group that owns classic East Village bars Boilermaker and Mace. This year, though, the company has expanded out into the West Village with Existing Conditions and Katana Kitten, further embedding Boehm’s mark on the scene.
“Most of the bars I choose to invest in are based on a personal connection with the project,” he says. “With Existing Conditions, I had worked with Don Lee for years at Cocktail Kingdom and we had often chatted about opening a bar together. When Don mentioned the change of working with Dave Arnold, I jumped at the chance.” Arnold was the brains behind Booker and Dax, which was once connected to Momofuku’s Ssam Bar, and is known for a science-based cocktail approach that’s certainly on offer at the new spot, balanced out with an approachability that is characteristic of Boehm’s older bars.
That mix of high-energy fun and high-concept cocktails is also on display at Katana Kitten, which he opened this year with James Tune, his partner at Boilermaker. “I think he knew I would be a sucker for the idea since I travel to Tokyo to explore the bar culture as often as I can,” Boehm says. Tune brought in Masa Urushido as head bartender, making Boehm “confident” about the investment. There, bar goers can order snacks and choose from a large selection of boilermakers (beer and shot combos), or go upscale with a martini served in a wooden box branded with the logo. Katana has also been getting a lot of attention for the highballs by Urushido, who used to work at Saxon + Parole.
Boehm is not stopping there, either: The barware branch of the business will be expanding with tools designed alongside industry stars such as Dave Wondrich, Dale DeGroff, and Gary Regan. Are there more bars on the horizon, as well? “Next year I said I would slow down a little,” he says, “but I have this odd feeling that I might open maybe three more bars then.”
Alicia Kennedy is a New York-based food writer and spirits writer. Her work can found at alicia-kennedy.com.