Eater NY is chronicling what we’re drinking right now in this occasional series on what we’re drinking. In our excitement over all of the other details of restaurants, we haven’t given drinks their due. Here’s the kickoff followed by this staff favorite.
At the historic Irish bar McSorley’s in the East Village, where there are no jukeboxes or televisions, the signature beer mugs create their own music. A cacophony of clanking and thudding fills the saloon as staffers drop empty glassware on the bartop, and as patrons toast each other, sometimes spilling a bit of foam amid the revelry. The merry clinks and jangles reverberate like wind chimes.
That sturdy glassware is also a reason, along with rising beer prices, why one of the city’s oldest bars has become slightly more expensive this year. Not even a bare-bones establishment around since the 19th century can escape the current inflationary era.
“Light or dark?” a staffer asks, as the only choice of alcoholic beverage here is a house ale or a porter. I order two lights and the bartender brings them over with a gentle thwack. Wet dollar bills litter the length of the wood bar top; the sole form of payment is cash. A layer of sawdust on the plank floors absorbs any spills.
Look carefully and you might see folks ordering liverwurst sandwiches or raw onions with crackers. But mostly, patrons are here for the camaraderie and the beer. That ale, by the way, is faintly cool with a thick head and a delicate maltiness; the porter flaunts notes of dark chocolate.
Keep in mind that the mugs are tinier than traditional serving vessels; they hold roughly six ounces of beer each, with enough room for a few inches of fresh head on top. Translation: Two McSorley’s beers equal about one regular bottle of beer, maybe a touch more depending on the pour.
Cost: $7 for two beers, or $4 for a single (no one orders a single). If the price for two seems a bit higher than you remember, that’s because it went up by a buck this year. Pray tell, when exactly did McSorley’s raise prices?
“Saint Patrick’s Day,” replies the bartender in a perfect Irish accent.
Those noisy mugs partially explain the higher prices. Owner Teresa Maher — who sometimes works the bar during day shifts — tells me that McSorley’s started to run out of their 8.5 ounce mugs last year, prompting management to place a large custom order. The price increase, Maher says, helps offset the big purchase, which should provide enough mugs for the next decade or so.
The modestly-sized mugs allow for easier toasting — and they also make life easier for the employees, who had to lug around ten ounce vessels during a temporary shortage. That’s no small matter; most servers regularly carry 16 to 20 beers with their two fists. Watching a staffer cut through a crowd with over a dozen filled glasses is a supernatural experience; it’s as if Moses is parting the Red Sea with ale and glass.
Rising beer costs also contributed to the price increase. The supplier for McSorley’s, which produces the two custom brews, started charging the saloon more in January, Maher says. That was before the onset of Russia’s war against Ukraine, which has pushed up barley prices worldwide. Unsurprisingly, some beer prices have increased in the months since — and it’s possible these developments could hike up McSorley’s own costs again.
Maher says she typically raises prices every few years; the last hike came before the pandemic when two beers jumped up by 50 cents to $6. Some might remember the mid-aughts when $4.50 was enough for two, just fifty cents more than the current price for one.
On Friday evening, Veteran’s Day, McSorley’s is packed. There are men in sports jackets, bros in tech vests, guys with military haircuts, and dudes in t-shirts. If everyone looks decent enough amid the revelry, no one quite looks their best in this darkly-lit room. I squeeze myself into a small space by the standing-only bar, and order a Feltman’s hot dog ($6.50, tax-included) with two beers. The hot dog is fantastic, a fat and snappy frankfurter packing a spiced, peppery wallop. This light meal costs just over $16 after tip.
Maher is insistent that the prices are a key to the venue’s success, stressing that she doesn’t want people to think, “oh shit, McSorley’s got expensive.” You come with “$20 in your pocket and you’re satisfied,” she says.
I wish that were the case elsewhere; two cans of IPA cost me $34 after tax and tip at a Village bar the other week. Maher says that the March hike hasn’t had an impact on business, and adds that crowds are edging back toward pre-pandemic levels — with anywhere from 500 to 600 people visiting on the busiest days.
In the back room, throngs of patrons start breaking into the fabled Marines’ hymn on Veterans day. You could still hear the glasses.