PUNCH is an independent, online magazine in collaboration with Ten Speed Press. We’re in the business of narrative journalism written and visual on wine, spirits and cocktails, and the culture that surrounds them.
Most bar innovations, from forced carbonation to rotovaps, escape the attention of even the most devoted cocktail enthusiast. But there is one concept of the last decade that even the most clueless barflies would have been hard pressed to miss. That’s barrel-aged cocktails. The barrel-aged cocktail has become so ho-hum ubiquitous that even the most run-of-the-mill gin joints and restaurants seem to have one on the menu, be it a Negroni, a Manhattan, a Martinez or an El Presidente.
The worldwide phenomenon began a decade ago when a Portland bartender happened to taste an off-menu cocktail at a high-concept cocktail bar in north London. That Portland bartender, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, took the practice—changing the aging vessel from glass to barrels—and brought it to his bar Clyde Common. Its success was immediate. A year after its debut in 2009, barrel-aged cocktails were seemingly everywhere, from New York to San Francisco to New Orleans. Part of its diaspora owes at least something to Morgenthaler’s website, one of the best read and most technique driven of the early cocktail blogs, and one of the few written by a working bartender.
Also lending a vital assist was the simultaneous rise of craft distilling. Young distillers trying their hand at immature specimens of bourbon suddenly found themselves with a lot of used barrels on their hands. (Bourbon barrels must, by law, be discarded after their first use.) Some of these were small barrels, which worked better for aging whiskey faster, and were, coincidentally, ideal for aging cocktails.
That perfect storm of circumstances kicked off a trend that proved to be no flash in the pan. Since the practice first peaked, Morgenthaler has had eight to ten barrels resting at Clyde Common at any given time. There is still at least one barrel-aged cocktail on any Clyde drinks menu (typically the Negroni, the most popular cocktail of the genre), and sales of the cocktails have never flagged.
To tell the story of the barrel-aged cocktail, we spoke with Morgenthaler; his boss, Nate Tilden; Gable Erenzo, one of the movement’s critical barrel suppliers; Kevin Denton and Thomas Chadwick, early adopters of the practice; and Philip Duff, a cocktail expert who provided Morgenthaler with the tip that would kick of the whole thing.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler (bar director at Clyde Common, 2009 to present): “I was at [the London bar] 69 Colebrooke Row on October 22, 2009. I was there for UK RumFest and was having some drinks with [bartender] Michael Menegos and the master distiller for Havana Club. Michael is a friend of mine, so we were just catching up, and I’d always wanted to go to that bar. I’d put on Facebook that I was there, and Phil Duff messaged me and told me to ask Tony [Conigliaro, the owner] for the vintage Manhattan. I even took a photo of it.”
Philip Duff (longtime bartender, bar owner and roving cocktail and spirits expert): “Honestly, I don’t specifically remember messaging Jeffrey, but that’s 100 percent something I’d do . . . Information traveled much more slowly back then, and I knew about Tony’s bottle-aging. Hence it was a nice off-menu item to ask for back then.”
Morgenthaler: “I mean, to be honest, it tasted like a Manhattan. Tony said that he found the flavors to be more ‘integrated’ after being stored in the bottle for five years, but I probably just wasn’t sophisticated enough to tell the difference . . . If I remember correctly, it was a Rittenhouse Manhattan. I made a shit-ton of them at work, so I was familiar with the way a fresh one tasted. I never felt like the flavors weren’t integrated with one another, whatever that means.”
Research & Development
Nate Tilden (co-owner of Clyde Common, 2007 to present): “Jeff came to me in 2009 with the idea of aging a cocktail in bourbon barrels. He had visited a friend in Europe who was aging cocktails in glass and came back with the idea of doing aging on wood. I had visited Kentucky whiskey distilleries the previous summer and was feeling very American-whiskey-forward at that time, so I was quite interested in the idea.”
Morgenthaler: “I had this one-gallon oak barrel I’d received through being a board member of the Oregon Bartenders’ Guild, and I’d already filled it with Madeira and was just flavoring the barrel with the Madeira until I came up with something to do with it. I was planning on doing Madeira-cask-aged orange bitters or something. But the Manhattan seemed like a much better choice.”
Tilden: “We ran the financials together, and it was something like 500 bucks to buy the spirits and the barrel, which might have been donated, or we might have already had it, I can’t recall. I remember thinking that gambling $500 of Clyde capital on an idea that might be a total disaster was pretty low risk. If it had been $5,000, [it] might have been a different story.”
Morgenthaler: “[Nate] was super supportive, but I couldn’t help thinking that he must have thought his new bar manager was mildly insane.”
Tilden: “Jeff tasted a bunch of the Clyde bar crew on his project throughout the aging process. I recall we all felt like six weeks was the perfect time on wood. The biggest difference we noticed was a mellowing of the Campari [in the aged Negroni] that really rounded out the cocktail . . . We did try a sample at nine weeks that was way too woody.”
Morgenthaler: “People took to it immediately. They’d never seen anything like that before. We sold out of that first gallon in like a week or two.”
Tilden: “We thought they were yummy, and I guess if the public hated them, then we would have drank that barrel ourselves and moved on to the next idea.”
Morgenthaler: “The other thing that made this the perfect storm was that Tuthilltown had just started selling their used bourbon barrels. So after we did the Manhattan, I had the idea to put a Negroni in a bourbon barrel. Seemed like a much better idea than aging a Manhattan, a whiskey drink, in a whiskey barrel.”
Gable Erenzo (owner of Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery, 2006 to 2015): “We sold all of our three- and five-gallon barrels from the first few years of whiskey maturation. The small ones were obviously the best for aging cocktails and the most sought after. Many of those sold were sold through our Tuthilltown online store, and much of the traffic coincided with Morgenthaler’s blogging of his aging projects. Lots of bartenders told me they bought through our site, without my knowledge of who, when I saw them in the field.”
Morgenthaler: “I put the whole thing on my website immediately, and people picked it up from there.”
Kevin Denton (bar director at Gramercy Park Hotel, 2008 to 2010): “A very unsung hero in the cocktail movement turned me on to barrel-aging: Mayur Subbarao . . . I tagged along on an Eleven Madison Park trip to Tuthilltown, where I bought one of their small barrels for the purpose of aging cocktails at Gramercy Park Hotel. The idea was really compelling, as I had already been messing around with oak chips in root beer. It didn’t make a ton of sense to barrel-age spirits, but I tried it anyway with the applejack Manhattan. It married and mellowed all those flavors so well . . . We got a few more barrels and ramped up production.”
Thomas Chadwick (owner of Dram, 2009 to 2017): “Dram may have been early on the scene of barrel-aged cocktails, but definitely not the first. Yeah, it would have been 2010. I remember procuring two small barrels from Tuthilltown. I know we did a Negroni, and for the life of me cannot remember other ones. I think a Vieux Carré . . . I was eager to try everything back then, and there was a lot more to explore.”
Erenzo: “Mike Neff at Ward III got one of our early three-gallon barrels, and I believe they used it many times for different aging projects. Daniel Hyatt from Alembic in San Francisco used a barrel I had given him many times, and I dropped off others when in town for WhiskyFest. Naren Young was one of the early bartenders aging cocktails . . . Eamon Rockey was doing some barrel-aging, perhaps while he was still at Eleven Madison Park. Abigail Gullo was using barrels. They were doing some barrel-aging at Rye and Bourbon & Branch, in San Francisco. Neyah White at Nopa.”
Erenzo: “We loved the idea of our small barrels moving on to a new life. Since no Scotch, rum, or tequila distilleries were particularly interested in our small barrels, we had lots . . . Plus, it was fun to visit bars around the country that were coming up with creative reuses for our baby barrels.”
Tilden: “If you can take food or drink and do something magical with time and environment, then that satisfies the certain mad-doctor streak a lot of people have.”
Morgenthaler: “I think it’s just one more tool in a bar’s arsenal.”
Although it’s not the top-selling cocktail at his Miami bar, Cafe La Trova, Julio Cabrera insists that the El Presidente is the best cocktail—when it’s done right.
Using a recipe he first learned in Cuba, Cabrera has spent three decades “perfecting the elegance” of the Prohibition-era rum classic. Today the bartender—or, in his preferred Cuban parlance, cantinero—says the keys to his spirit-forward variation is simplicity, balance—and blanc vermouth.
The original El Presidente cocktail was first created in Cuba to honor Mario García Menocal, president of that country from 1913 to 1921. Eddie Woelke, an American bartender who worked at the Jockey Club in Havana during the Prohibition years, is usually credited with creating the drink, which began as a mix of equal parts whiterum and dry vermouth, sweetened with a barspoon of grenadine. According to some accounts, when Gerardo Machado took over the presidency in 1925, he demanded his own version, resulting in a few dashes of orange Curaçao added to the mix.
“It’s like a Manhattan: very simple but unique,” Cabrera explains. “It’s one of the most beautiful cocktails I’ve tried.”
The first time Cabrera tried one was in 1989, while attending cantinero school in Cuba. That version was made with white rum, dry vermouth and grenadine—no Curaçao. “It was much better than the Rum and Coke I was drinking at the time,” he recalls.
Over time, Cabrera has refined the drink specs. While he has tried many variations—“it’s been an evolution over 30 years,” he says—his preferred version snapped into focus in 2012, while working with late bartender John Lermayer to open The Regent Cocktail Club in Miami Beach. Cabrera was appointed to focus on both rum-driven and Cuban cocktails. “I tried to make them with a modern twist, and [the El Presidente] was one of them,” he recalls.
Compared to the classic equal-parts recipe, Cabrera cuts the vermouth in half: “I think there should be more rum, and just the vermouth as a modifier.” He recommends using a Spanish-style gold rum, specifically Banks 7, a blended aged rum that includes distillate sourced from Panama and Guatemala, among other countries.
Meanwhile, the vermouth should be a mellow blanc. Compared to the more austere dry vermouth, blanc yields a drink that is “more complete, more elegant, more balanced,” says Cabrera.
Cabrera made this swap after reading a 2012 Imbibe article penned by drink historian David Wondrich that suggested semidry blanc-style vermouth from Chambéry would have been the historically accurate choice in Prohibition-era Cuba. These two ingredients create an El Presidente that would have been similar to the ones head bartender Constante Ribalaigua would have mixed at Havana’s famous El Floridita.
The same year that Cabrera made the switch to blanc vermouth, dry Curaçao was reintroduced to the United States via a collaboration between Wondrich and Cognac maker Pierre Ferrand. Cabrera found the drier, bitter orange flavor profile better suited to his variation: “If you’re using blanc vermouth, it will already have a little sweetness,” he explains, and traditional orange liqueur will push the sweetness level over the edge, while the dry Curaçao maintains the drink’s all-important equilibrium. To that, he also adds a barspoon of house-made grenadine, “for color, not for sweetness.”
While most modern-day versions are served with an orange peel garnish, sometimes in tandem with a brandied cherry, Cabrera is adamant: no orange peel floating in the coupe glass. “I don’t think it is nice looking,” he says. Instead, his version calls simply for the orange peel to be expressed, then discarded, while a solitary cherry is dropped to the bottom of the coupe glass.
Of course, not all of his variations on the recipe over the past 30 years have been home runs. For example, his experiment barrel-aging the drink for a couple of months did not stick. “I tried it and said, this is not what I wanted to do,” he says. “I didn’t want it to change the original recipe . . . I keep it simple.”
Julio Cabrera uses blanc vermouth in place of dry, which yields an El Presidente that is “more complete, more elegant, more balanced.”
Dry Curaçao, rather than sweeter orange liqueur, keeps the drink in equilibrium.
Cabrera adds a barspoon of house-made grenadine, “for color, not for sweetness.”
While most modern-day versions are served with an orange peel garnish, Cabrera discards the peel after expressing the oils over the drink.
A solitary cherry dropped to the bottom of the coupe is finishing touch.
The almond syrup known as orgeat has long been a key player in classic cocktails, from Trader Vic’s Mai Tai to Jerry Thomas’s Japanese Cocktail, not to mention the ever-widening array of modern concoctions. But as bar programs continue the trend towards environmentally-friendly practices, the water-wasting almond—the core of the syrup—has come under scrutiny, and a number of alternative orgeats are stepping up to the plate.
Among these alt-orgeats, which are cropping up at bars across the country, are syrups made from day-old pastries, seeds like sunflower or pumpkin seeds (pepitas) and even avocado pits.
Kelsey Ramage, who has began making avocado pit orgeat for her Trash Tiki events, which focus on using upcycled “trash” from bars and restaurant kitchens to make cocktails, started turning the pits into syrup for several reasons:
“My basic bitch tendencies mean a couple of avocado toasts in the morning,” she says, “and it only takes four seeds to make one liter of the stuff. Plus, almonds are hella expensive, not to mention take a lot of natural resources to grow. Why wouldn’t we use something more abundant and free?”
It’s these sorts of sentiments that put efficiency—of time, resources and cost—at the forefront that have become the driving force behind the budding crop of alternative orgeats. Here are five innovating examples being served across the country.
While this recipe yields “a lovely warm toasted flavor” on its own, sometimes Ramage uses almond extract or a little orange flower water to “bump up the flavor.” She also uses this as a base for making falernum, adding spices (cinnamon, allspice, clove, anise) to the pan to toast with the pits, and then tossing in a leftover orange and lime husk to the overnight infusion.
For those who can’t bear the thought of going without almonds, Trash Tiki has a compromise: upcycled day-old almond croissants. “Just just hit up your local cafe and ask them to not throw out what they don’t sell,” the team suggests. The sugar, butter and oil are the functional ingredients, so don’t worry if the pastries aren’t perfectly fresh.
“I like sunflower seeds for a lot of reasons,” says Sprouse, the owner of Brooklyn’s Hunky Dory. They’re drought-resistant, have deep root systems that reach untapped nutrients in lower soils, they gobble up excess nitrogen in the soil, the market is GMO free, they’re relatively low-carbon intensity to harvest and process, and the flowers can be used to feed animals or as a fertilizer for other crops. Plus, “they are delicious!”
Pepita Orgeat Kevin Diedrich, Pacific Cocktail Haven, San Francisco, CA
At PCH, the menu is full of tropical cocktails. While some use traditional orgeat, Diedrich frequently experiments with a wide variety of syrups—including salted pistachio, macadamia nuts and roasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)—to expand the flavor profile possibilities. He typically combines this pepita syrup in a colorful drink with blanco tequila, pumpkin puree and citrus: “We found the tequila works really well with pepitas,” Diedrich says.
Though not necessarily more environmentally sustainable than almond-based syrup, this alt-orgeat offers a seasonal rendition. Created for The Eddy, now closed, it filled out a tiki-style drink made with a split base of Cachaça and aged rum, plus a dose of cold brew coffee. The robust flavors demanded an equally assertive sweetener. Roasting the walnuts created a bolder, darker profile that fit the bill, and works well in recipes with other bold, dark flavors.
If you’ve stepped into a hotel lobby or spent time at a spa, you’ve no doubt been offered a refreshing glass of cucumber-infused water. It is, after all, the official flavor of relaxation.
In the world of drink-making, it acts as something of the same—a beacon of summer, and the lot of easy-drinking cocktails that come along with it. To prove the thesis, we teamed up with Fever-Tree to celebrate the release of their Refreshingly Light Cucumber Tonic Water. The new expression sources calls on natural fruit sugars and quinine sourced from the Congo to deliver a mixer that’s as light as it is flavorful. We asked five alumni of our Bartender in Residence program—Nitecap’s Lauren Corriveau, Tenzing Wine and Spirits’ Mony Bunni, Law Bird’s Annie Williams Pierce, Death & Co Denver’s Alex Jump and Dante’s Stacey Swenson—to build drinks around the mixer’s profile.
“Fever-Tree Cucumber Tonic Water can be incorporated anywhere you would normally use a little something bubbly—highballs, spritzes, even punches,” says Corriveau, who has become known for drinks that fit squarely within what we’ll call the “relaxation drink” genre. “Cucumber is one of my favorite ingredients for that reason; it works well in both vegetal and herbaceous drinks, as well as those with more fruity and floral character.”
In Flowers & You, Corriveau mixes up a thirst-quenching spritz variation, with a base of blanc vermouth and brandy rounded out by a homemade grapefruit cordial and a splash of rosewater. “Playing on the delicate aromatic quality and impression of fresh green cucumber in the Fever-Tree Cucumber Tonic, I knew I wanted to keep it light, while highlighting the subtle floral notes,” says Corriveau, noting that the grapefruit cordial accentuates the subtle bitterness of the tonic.
For her take, Mony Bunni was inspired to create a light and refreshing riff on a Spanish-style Gin and Tonic she calls the Garden Variety, which marries blanc vermouth, cachaça, fresh strawberries and lime, and an entire bottle of Fever-Tree Cucumber Tonic. “The chamomile and rosemary notes of the vermouth added a beautiful herbal quality, supported by the green banana and fresh-cut grass notes from the cachaça,” says Bunni. “And I loved the clean cucumber profile of the tonic, which, in my mind, naturally goes well with strawberries and lime, for a fairly low-proof summertime patio crusher.”
Annie Williams Pierce’s take satisfies her mission to convert as many people as possible to sherry drinkers, via craveable, familiar cocktail formats. “When I first tasted the Fever-Tree Cucumber Tonic I immediately thought of a Pimm’s Cup,” says Pierce. In her Cool Aunt Pimmshe pairs amontillado sherry with blanco tequila, fresh lemon juice, a spoonful of raspberry jam and a pinch of salt. “I wanted to make something crisp but also a little savory and round.”
Alex Jump went for a “slightly more bitter and floral route” with her Suppressor #1280, named after the style of minimalist yet sturdy low-ABV cocktails popularized by Greg Best and Paul Calvert at Atlanta’s Ticonderoga Club. Jump’s take features the Italian bittersweet vermouth Punt e Mes and the orange-forward Amaro CioCiaro, along with the elderflower-based St-Germain liqueur. “The Fever-Tree Cucumber Tonic has really beautiful cucumber aromatics, while still being delicate on the palate,” says Jump. “Its floral nature works really well with other citrus flavors.”
Finally, Stacey Swenson rounds out this batch of “relaxation drinks” with her Cool As Clarence, which takes its name from the scene in True Romance where Alabama slides her true love, Clarence, a napkin with the inscription, “You’re so cool,” written over and over. Swenson combines tequila and blanc vermouth with honeydew and a small dose of coconut milk for texture, all topped off with Fever-Tree Cucumber Tonic. She sums it up perfectly, calling it, simply, “a chill summer highball.”
Cool Aunt Pimm: Tequila and sherry update this Pimm’s Cup riff from Annie Williams Pierce. [Recipe]
A primary prerogative of the modern tiki revival has always been the recreation of the past. Devotees of the genre have spent countless collective hours unearthing and deciphering cryptic recipes, reformulating extinct rums and tracking down original 1950s bric-a-brac in the name of restoring the tiki bar to its former midcentury glory. You’d be forgiven, then, for thinking that the fez—the traditional Turkish headdress that appears as a recurring motif across tiki mugs, backbars and atop the domes of dedicated bar goers—boasts a historic tie-in to the tiki world, perhaps even to Don the Beachcomber or Trader Vic himself.
“It’s not connected in any way to the original era—stylistically, culturally or anything,” says Martin Cate of the headgear in question. Yet at Smuggler’s Cove, Cate’s award-winning San Francisco tiki bar, the Rumbustion Society—an internal club that promotes rum education—bestows a signature embroidered crimson fez, as well as the title “Guardians of the Cove,” to second tier participants. So how did the fez cross over into tiki’s modern iconography?
The answer goes back only as far as the 1990s, a time when tiki was undergoing an early revival. Josh Agle, a Southern California–based artist better known as Shag, was exhibiting several of his signature midcentury-inspired paintings at a tiki-themed exhibition in Hollywood, some of which featured Shriners drinking at tiki bars. “Shriner iconography and apparel was a minor fascination for me since the early 1990s,” explains Shag of his interest in the Shriner fez, something the order officially adopted in 1872 in a nod to the fraternity’s Arabian theme. “My very first art show in 1997 featured paintings of both tiki culture and Shriner scenes, but it wasn’t until I did a painting called ‘Two Heavy Drinkers’ in 1998 that I decided to combine my two interests and feature Shriners in a tiki bar,” he says. Shag’s crossover with the tiki world only increased when he began designing collectible tiki mugs in the early 2000s.
While “Two Heavy Drinkers” is a fictional depiction (“Both Shriners and tiki were associated with drinking, so it seems like a natural fit,” says Shag), Cate notes that it’s more than plausible that Shriners, among other secret society members, drank at tiki bars, citing the proliferation of both society culture and tiki culture in midcentury America. “One thing we do know is in the 1950s, fraternal organizations and secret societies were a lot more popular and a lot more common than they are now,” he explains. “Whether you were a Lion, an Elk or a Freemason or a Shriner—whatever it was, chances are you had cocktails at a tiki bar.”
At Smuggler’s Cove, Cate adopted the headdress for his Rumbustion Society simply as part of the “gamification of the concept,” which involves bestowing tokens on guests after reaching certain checkpoints in their rum-drinking journey. It’s a prime example of how the felt headdress—which sits at the center of a Venn diagram of secret societies, role-playing and tiki—has become a sort of shorthand for a large swath of fantasy culture. To underscore this point, at Fez-o-rama, a specialty online retailer of bespoke fezes, popular designs include an icosahedron, a twenty-sided die associated with role-playing games, and a purple-and-copper-colored dragon from Dungeons & Dragons, described as the “perfect fez for your next dungeon campaign.” When the Fraternal Order of Moai was founded in 2005 as a social club for tiki fanatics, with chapters across the country, naturally they commissioned a distinctive fez for senior members.
Tiki’s adoption of the fez as a leitmotif in its modern iconography might seem, at first glance, entirely random—a conflation of concurrent trends that have little in common other than sharing an era and an inquisitive painter in the 1990s. But on closer inspection, the fez—a symbol of tradition, luxury and the exotic—fits. It is, in some ways, the perfect emblem for the genre, which has fantasy baked into its core, and which has long drawn on the visual identities of other cultures to further its own fantastical vision. Even drinking through a tiki menu feels like a choose-your-own-adventure game in which users must navigate the hazardous world of the Ankle Breaker, the Shark’s Tooth and the Zombie. With each successive order, you’re buying deeper into the fantasy. A few more Scorpions and you, too, might become befezzed.
“There is something in the New York air,” Simone de Beauvoir, the French activist and writer, once said, “that makes sleep useless.” The city vibrates late into the night, under the Times Square lights that turn darkness into day, past the glittery Empire State Building and down, down, down into the Lower East Side. When the restaurants close and the clubs open, drunk, sober, high—New Yorkers all line up for a slice.
On the Lower East Side, on Delancey near the corner of Allen, Petee’s Pie Company does not serve pizza pie. It serves pie pie: sour cherry, wild blueberry, lemon meringue, strawberry dream, chocolate chess, banana cream. “When we first opened [in 2014], we planned to close at 8 p.m.,” says Robert Paradez, who co-owns the shop with his wife, the founder, pie-master and namesake, Petra, who earned the nickname “Petee” as a kid.
“That first year, around 8:05, 8:10 every night, as we were cleaning up, there would be a knock on the door,” Paradez recalls of how pie-hungry patrons begged him to stay open just a few minutes longer. “So then we said we’d close at nine, and eventually that became 10,” he says. “Soon enough it was midnight during the week and 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.”
After school, Petra moved to New York City to teach children with special needs. “But the pie gene is strong with me,” she says. Petra comes from a family of pie bakers; her parents run Mom’s Apple Pie Company in Leesburg, Virginia. They also own a farm in nearby Loudoun County that grows much of the produce used at Mom’s, including rhubarb, raspberries, blackberries and pumpkins. (Petra and Robert visit once a season to pick produce for Petee’s, which supplements the produce they buy from local New York farms.) After her first year teaching, Petra met Robert, and four years later they jumped at an opportunity to open their own shop. There’s now a second location, Petee’s Café, in Clinton Hill.
Historically, bakers have kept early hours—Petra takes the morning shift, Robert the evenings—often rising before dawn to bake the bread, fry the doughnuts or proof the pastries for morning customers. In the last few years, bakery-bar concepts—Butter & Scotch in Brooklyn, Fry and Pie in New Orleans—have popped up, providing sweets in the morning and stronger offerings at night. But dedicated pie shops, a rare breed of bakery, are generally open by mid-morning and shut around dusk. A growing few, including Pie Bar in Seattle and The Pie Hole in Los Angeles, stay open late, suggesting that a wedge of apple, cherry, banana or chocolate chess might be a new variation on the midnight slice.
After dark, the windows of Petee’s give off a golden glow on an otherwise dark block. “Time sort of stops in here,” says Tejan Rahim, a student of photography at NYU and a staffer who often works until closing time. “It’s a happy place to be.”
What are the late nights like?
Robert Paradez: “You know that diner scene in True Romance? Where they sort of flirt over slices of pie? That was sort of what we were going for. Pie has a long-standing tradition as a late-night snack in New York City, mostly because of all of the diners. But as rents have gone up, diners have been closing, or they’ve been purchasing things like pies wholesale, and the quality just isn’t the same. We wanted to see if we could bring that back. Petee’s Café [in Clinton Hill], with its booths, has that atmosphere, but because our first location is on the Lower East Side, where the nightlife is just everywhere, it gets a later, somewhat drunker crowd.”
What time of night does it start getting busy?
RP: “It varies, but after 10, 11. The business is pretty consistent, but people do hang out later on Fridays and Saturdays.”
What do you think it is about pie that attracts the late-night crowd?
Petra Paradez: “For one thing, you can eat a slice without you feeling like it’s pushing you over the edge. The flavors are balanced. You can eat a slice without feeling gross after. For me, I think it’s the texture of the crust, it’s like butter suspended with a little bit of flour. You don’t have to work to eat it, you don’t have to gnaw on that crust to break it down. It’s plastic fork tender, you can crush one of those slices without even realizing what happened.”
How many slices of pie do you go through each day? What about at night?
RP: “We go through about 350 slices a day, and 250 of those are sold at night. Plus, we’ll sell between a dozen and 50 whole pies via Caviar, Postmates and UberEats. This is on a normal day. During Thanksgiving, or other holidays, it’s a lot more. Last Thanksgiving we sold 6,000 pies.”
What are the most popular slices?
PP: “They’re the classic flavors we’ve had since the beginning: salty chocolate chess, cherry, banana cream. It goes back to what people crave. It’s funny, people walk in, see the chocolate chess—a brownie-like chocolate pie—and say, ‘I’ll have a slice of the chocolate chess . . . what’s chess?’ They might not know exactly what it is, but they know they want it.”
Are there any hazards in selling pie late at night? What’s the strangest request you’ve received or strangest thing you’ve seen late-night?
RP: “Probably the worst thing was people were stealing our tip jar. Now it’s chained to the counter, so that can’t happen anymore. Since we are not selling alcohol, it’s a pretty low-risk, kind of fun situation. A lot of people do come in drunk, in between trips to the bar, and I think that’s a good choice, actually. Take a quick break from drinking with a slice of pie. But also, I think it’s hard to be an asshole when you’re going out for a slice of pie, you know? This is just a happy place.”
There-goes-the-neighborhood-isms are inevitable when talking about New York City nightlife. New clubs and restaurants are named after the shuttered factories and storefronts they inhabit; bars with history are tourist attractions by virtue of rarity.
Yes, a Wells Fargo bank has supplanted legendary jazz haven Lenox Lounge, and VICE Media has long since displaced Williamsburg rock venues 285 Kent and Glasslands with its Silicon Valley-scale offices, but even so, there are more places to drink than ever. Among the polished lounges and warehouses bumping with all-night raves, you can still find community. Owners, artists, bartenders and bouncers, of course, are what give these places—new and old—their soul.
Though only five years open, Williamsburg music venue Baby’s All Right has such a soul from the day it opened. With its stripped-down Korean menu, antique wallpaper accents and neon lighting, Baby’s looks a bit like it forded the East River from the Lower East Side, yet it manages the appeal of a stalwart. Drawing a spectrum of acts from Pharoah Sanders to David Cross, Baby’s is popular for word-of-mouth shows by bands like Hot Chip and Chairlift. It’s equally legendary for Ana Guzman, the bouncer who will remember your face three years after a casual conversation. Guzman, who runs the security team at Baby’s as well as her own security company, is known for hospitality—an important distinction in a city where nightlife can make even locals feel like voyeuristic tourists.
For this edition of “Night at the Door,” we spoke with Guzman and two fellow bouncers who share the same ethos. Guzman’s business partner at Thrill Life Productions, Margarita Serrano, spends nights trekking across her childhood neighborhood in Brooklyn and Queens running several security teams for venues like the Knockdown Center, an arts and music hall run out of a formerly long-vacant door factory. And Lisa Munro, a self-identified martial arts mom and construction manager, moonlights at Brooklyn’s massive free music festival Celebrate Brooklyn!, where she holds down the throngs, adopts the wayward souls and welcomes the regulars. Their shared gift is that, in a rapidly transforming city of millions, they manage to make you feel right at home.
Ana K. Guzman
Age: 38 Workplace: Baby’s All Right, cofounder of Thrill Life Productions
How long have you been working at Baby’s All Right? “I put together the security team at Baby’s about five and a half years ago, when we opened. I started bouncing around ‘99, and mostly at that point I was dealing with girl problems. Two years later, I’m running my own team, I’m supervising, doing bigger venues, eventually staffing 11 venues in New York City, so it’s been pretty fun.”
I’m told you have an amazing ability to remember faces. “I sort of have a photographic memory. I have to remember who not to let in! [Laughs]”
Do you have to be the therapist in some ways? “I feel like a therapist at the door sometimes, but it feels good. Sometimes boyfriend-girlfriend things happen, the girl comes out crying, and, of course, I’m a woman, so I’m going to ask, and then eventually they’ll end up telling you what happened. People come outside, have a smoke and we start talking about… anything. They come back and hug me, sometimes they even send postcards saying, “Thank you so much, you don’t understand what I was going through, and just you listening made my day.” Especially tourists from different countries. I call Baby’s the United Nations of venues, because I see [more] different types of IDs than I’ve ever seen in my life, and I grew up working at clubs in New York.”
You must have met a ton of people over the years. “I’ve done private security, have done security for celebrities. Alicia Keys, Rosie Perez, Eve, Nicki Minaj. I had to guard Beyoncé, that was pretty sick. We had a Sandy relief fundraiser with Mos Def, Dave Chappelle, and she came by with Jay-Z. I had to go with them around the corner through a hidden door, and I got to Instagram her.”
I hate this question, but do [male] bouncers treat you differently because you’re a woman? “At the beginning, yes, but once I started supervising, staffing, scheduling, I was giving these guys work. I think I earned my respect right away because I was hands-on. I never stand back because I’m a female, I’m always with them on the front lines. And I’ll think strategically, like, pick up bottles around the bar. They ask me, ‘Why you picking up bottles, that’s the barback’s job.’ And I’m like, ‘Because we could get hit with these bottles!’ And they’re like, ‘You’re right, Ana!’ Things like that, they’ll love it. When I’m on search, they love it because they’re like, ‘Ana’s gonna find everything, she goes deep.'”
What do you do with the stuff you find? “We keep it. [Laughs]”
What are some other tactics you use, like cleaning up bottles? “Sometimes dudes follow girls, getting touchy, so I become camouflage, watch him go from this girl to that girl and on to a third, and that’s when we need to talk outside. Or when I see someone pushing people, I stand in the crowd so they can push me, and I can tell them to stop. I’m security, so if you pushed me, you just pushed 20 people before you got to me.
Have you ever been hit before?
“I have been swung at, I’ve been hit by a bottle by a dude. I got stabbed with tweezers once [laughing]. This was at Santos Party House—I was breaking up a fight, and one of my guys was like, ‘Ana, yo, right there!’ [pointing at her torso] and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s nothing,’ and pulled it out and tossed it. Oh my god, the craziest night. Just get this done, get these people out there!”
What’s your favorite post-work drink? “I drive, so I don’t drink after work, but before I will take a shot of tequila or [a] Paloma.”
Age: 29 Workplace: Knockdown Center, Elsewhere, cofounder of Thrill Life Productions
How long have you been bouncing? “I became a bouncer straight out of high school, about 10 years ago. My uncle had his own security company, so I got paid $18 an hour to go hang out at the club. That’s pretty much how I looked at it. And it’s been a 10-year run of fun. How many people like doing a nine to five? When people are getting up to go to work on Tuesday, I’m sleeping.”
So you run around between, like, five jobs? “Oh man [laughs]. My bones. My bones! I’ll leave my house Friday at 4 o’clock, and I don’t get back ‘til Sunday noon, sometimes, and maybe I’ll stop in between to shower. You see how big this place is. In a weekend, just daytime events 2 p.m. to 2 a.m.—that’s 10 miles a day, walking back and forth.”
Have you had to diffuse a physical situation? “I had someone swing at me once, but every situation is diffused with words, even if the person is wrong. ‘How can I help you, are you okay?’ I tell the older gentlemen who work for me that I’m small, I’m not big, and if I made it without using force, there’s no reason. Some people get into the security industry to be like RoboCop and have authority and it’s like, no, that’s like ’90s security. The millennial security style is to be nice, listen to your customers, and make sure they come back, because if they don’t come back, you might be out of work.”
How do you figure out if someone is going to be a good candidate for a job? “I usually start everybody with the search. If we got 3,000 people coming through the door, you’re going to say hi about 1,500 times. You’re gonna go through a hundred bags. If you don’t lose your shit while you’re searching, you’re good. You gotta deal with people who might not have the best hygiene, they might have had a bad day, they might have had issues with the guest list and they have to pay, so they might be upset. The searchers, they’re getting it all. All women start at the search, and that’s how I started.”
Having started out in high school and as a woman—do you get treated differently than six-foot-tall dudes? “I’m always getting mad support from the women. Men sometimes find it funny when I ask to see their ID, and they’ll be like, ‘You’re security?’ And I’ll be like, [lowers voice to the moderate level of a sheriff in an old Western] ‘Yeah, I’m security.’ Or they ask for the supervisor, and they’re like, ‘You’re the supervisor?’ So, you know. I’m always getting shit from the guys.”
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen at the door? “There used to be this guy who would come to Output, and he would wear a full-body latex catsuit.”
What’s your favorite post-work drink? “Patrón or Don Julio on the rocks.”
Age: 53 Workplace: Celebrate Brooklyn!, The Great Irish Fair, St. Ann’s Warehouse
How long have you been working at Celebrate Brooklyn? “Nine years. I bumped into a friend of mine who runs security, and he said he needed a woman to go in the ladies’ room, pat women down, that kind of stuff. I’d never even thought about security until then, but nine years later, I’m still doing it. I’ve done St. Ann’s Warehouse, which is the theater right off the water, under the Brooklyn Bridge. And whatever various jobs pop up. I don’t solicit. The jobs come and find me.”
Celebrate Brooklyn is huge. “Yes, the attendance typically is 5,000, ranging up to 9,000. And about 22 security guards. We’ve had to close the venue with almost mini riots because people can’t get in. Or sometimes there will be a flare-up, and you have to figure out if it’s a distraction so they could charge the stage. I hold the stage.”
That must be a tough line to hold. “It is. I’m five-foot-three and a buck thirty on a good day. I am certified in kickboxing, but I’ve never used any of it. I’m a mom, I use my words. I remember one show, I was alone holding the VIP tent, and about 50 people were trying to jump over the fence. I stood there, and hand to God, I said, ‘I am a mother! Do not do this! I will take care of you if you do!’ And they all froze. The whole time inside, I’m going, ‘Oh my God, if they jump, I’m done.'”
So you’ve never had to use your martial arts training? “I think the key to that is—and it’s not a slight—women are mostly not driven by ego or easily insulted. If someone can’t come into the VIP area, and they go, ‘Oh! VIP, I’m not important enough!’ I say, ‘Well, your mom thinks you’re very important.’ At the same time, whenever people need help, they come to me. Maybe they look for the woman. I’ve been thrown up on more times than I can count. I’ve carried women. I’ve stood by women who have literally passed out on the lawn and we’re waiting for the ambulance to come. I’ve been cursed at. I’ve been spat at. I’ve been swung at, and I’m really good at ducking. I teach the guards like I teach my son, anytime you go somewhere, the first thing you do is look for an exit. Look for a place to hide. My son is like, ‘Mom, you’re getting this in my head.’ I’m like, ‘No. This is the world we’re at. Know your exits, know a place to hide, and have a great time.'”
Do you have regulars? “Yes. You get to know everybody, you hug and kiss and high-five them, and I’ve watched their kids grow up. There was this one elderly woman, a retired Rockette who was like 94, we called her Grandma. She was very pushy. ‘Lisa!’ She’d call for me, and the guards would all say, ‘Grandma’s here.’ I’d have to go get her and I’d walk her down to the front, and she’d tell people, ‘I want to sit right there.’ I would give them the look, like, Could you just get up and move over? She’s 94, you know, and they would. The minute the music started, she jumped up with her walker, legs flaring and kicking.
“When she’d leave the venue and her daughters weren’t there, I would go out and wait with her for the Access-A-Ride. Unfortunately, she passed away, and her daughter came last year and singled me out, told me, ‘Mom always spoke about you.'”
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen at the entry? “A naked guy body painted as a mermaid.”
What’s your favorite post-work drink? “Bud Light.”
It used to be that Americans knew just two types of rum—white and dark—and one primary mixer: Coke. But thanks to the overall premiumization of spirits, that old truism is fading fast. High-end and small-batch rums have seized the attention of spirits connoisseurs and bartenders, displaying the kind of age-worthiness, depth and pedigree that we’ve come to expect from the most sought-after brown spirits. Whether sipped neat or mixed in elite cocktail bars around the country, rum has officially landed on the A-list.
“The variety of expressions that are out there have certainly expanded,” says Matt Pietrek, a rum expert and spirits writer who has approximately 300 rums in his personal collection. “The enthusiast market keeps growing, and we’re bringing in more and more people from the bourbon fold.”
Drinkers are increasingly realizing that rum has an almost unequaled breadth of styles and a complexity capable of rivaling the Pappy Van Winkles of the world. Jamaican rums can be fever dreams of funk, mouth-filling and packed with esters, rich with banana, vanilla, coconut, cocoa and spice. Aged Dominican rums excel as sipping spirits, smooth and supple on the palate and yielding a mix of dry and sweet notes, like toffee, exotic fruit and pepper. Fans of Puerto Rican rums boast of their balance, sleek, buttery texture and nutty finish tinged with caramel. Agricole rums alone run a wide gamut, with the best-known styles tasting grassy and herbaceous, a reflection of the fresh cane from which they are distilled. Thanks to the growing awareness of rum’s versatility, it’s showing up in drinks historically designed to showcase whiskey, like the Old-Fashioned or the Mint Julep.
Many see rum following in the steps of luxury-oriented trends that have already transformed categories like whiskey and agave spirits. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, while sales at the lower end of the rum market have been slipping by a few percentage points, rum’s super-premium category grew by nearly 30 percent last year.
“There are some rums I would never dream of adding mixers to because they’re like single-malt Scotches,” say Shannon Mustipher, author of Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails and the beverage director at Glady’s Caribbean in Brooklyn. Among her favorites of that type are rums that offer expressions of specific stills. “Across the spectrum, there’s older distilleries making a comeback and there’s mass-market brands doing limited releases that are focused on more-traditional styles of production.”
Part of the success of rum’s bid for the premium market has been its ability to attract and convert bourbon and Scotch drinkers. Various barrel-aging regimens for rum can evoke some of the same mellow, toasted notes of aged whiskey while staying true to the unique character of rum. For instance, Brugal’s 1888 release—launched in 2010, and meant to be enjoyed neat or nearly neat—is aged in ex-bourbon casks for six to eight years followed by another two to six years in ex-sherry casks. The resulting notes of candied fruit, dried wood, toffee and smoke will be familiar to fans of single-malt Scotches and Kentucky bourbon.
Conversant in brown spirits as well as rums, Pietrek has learned that bringing up certain facts can help in converting a whiskey drinker. For those interested in the heritage side, he mentions that the production of rum actually predates bourbon. When it comes to how a spirit mellows with time, Pietrek explains how in tropical climates rum essentially ages at a faster rate than Scotch. One barrel can see up to 10 percent of its volume evaporate in the course of a year, speeding up the process of evolution and flavor concentration.
“I can show people the parallels there,” says Pietrek. “In the hardcore rum-enthusiast community, we’re like, ‘We need to treat rum with the same respect in terms of how we talk about it as people afford to cognac or bourbon.’”
Another persuasive point is the price tag. The rarest rums can easily exceed $300 a bottle. But because rums are still edging their way into the high-end market, premium bottles can easily be found in the $30 to $50 range, for now. Whiskies of equal quality might cost twice as much.
This price gap has created something of an ironic situation at times, in which connoisseurs of other spirits are coming in prepared, and in some cases even wanting, to spend more than they need to in order to sample some of the better rums being made today. “We have people that come in here and go, ‘What’s new? What haven’t I had yet?’” says Jen Akin, general manager at Seattle’s Rumba, which stocks over 650 rums. “We have to constantly be on top of that. And there are a lot of people that come here and they’re like, ‘We don’t care about how much it is. We just want to drink good shit.’”
Rumba is one of a number of high-profile bars around the country that have opened in recent years to specifically showcase rum, including Portland’s Rum Club, New York City’s BlackTail and San Francisco’s Obispo. The excitement around rum gave Austin Hartman, who previously worked at Hotel Delmano and Montana’s Trail House in Brooklyn, the confidence to open the Caribbean-inspired Paradise Lounge in Queens, New York. He attributes much of the success of the spirit in bars to its malleability. “There is a rum for everybody,” says Hartman. “If you are self-described as only drinking whiskey, I have a rum you can try that you will be well beyond satisfied with.”
Rum has also taken a front-and-center spot on menus at influential bars that helped create the cocktail renaissance in the first place, like PDT and Death & Co in New York and the Violet Hour in Chicago. At Seattle’s Canon, famed for its extensive bottle list, the menu features a full six pages of rums—more than gin or agave-based spirits. It’s a testament to the new understanding that rum is not something to be hidden behind cloying ingredients or soda, but a spirit that can stand alone in the glass.
“People want the next best, cool thing,” says Akin. “I think now it’s rum’s turn, finally.”
It’s summer in America. That once meant Gin and Tonic time, or Margarita time or Mojito time. Now, whether you like it or not, it’s spritz time. Italy’s classic low-ABV, bitter, fizzy, iced drink took roots in the United States a few years ago and today has grown into a mighty oak, with spritz menus springing up willy-nilly and aperitivo-makers both oldand new fanning the flames as they fight for a piece of the Aperol pie.
“There has been a lot of discussion about the Aperol Spritz lately,” said PUNCH features editor Leslie Pariseau, coauthor (with PUNCH editor in chief Talia Baiocchi) of the 2016 book Spritz, which arguably helped kick off the trend. “It’s definitely timely. We’ve come to a point where everything is a spritz. But is it a spritz?”
On a recent afternoon, PUNCH learned just how diverse the notion of the spritz has become when ten of the country’s best bartenders submitted their formula for an Italian-style spritz. Part of the drink’s identity is the general looseness of its construction. Still, there are some basic boxes to tick: PUNCH asked that the drink contain an Italian, or Italian-style, aperitivo bitter liqueur; wine; and bubbles of some kind, contributed by either wine or water. It was also required to be low proof. Yet even with guidelines in place, few recipes displayed what could be considered classic spritz characteristics.
“The spritz is in its adolescence,” said Pariseau. “Everyone feels they’ve got to do their own thing.” Joining me and Pariseau as judges were Paul McGee, co-owner of Lost Lake in Chicago, and bartender Sarah Morrissey, recently of New York’s Frenchette.
With a spritz, “simple is the best way to go,” said Morrissey. When she orders one, she’s not looking for a complex riff with a hundred working parts. “I want bubbles and I want booze,” she said.
McGee agreed. “It doesn’t have to be overly creative,” he said. “There’re plenty of white and red bitters on the market now, so you can be creative with that, but I don’t need a house-made bitter.”
As with other seemingly simple drinks past PUNCH panels have tasted, the judges felt there were certain things they did need in order to be happy. All the adjudicators preferred that the drink be served in a goblet or wine glass. Noting that the drink is basically wine-based, McGee reasoned, “it should be in a wine glass.” Pariseau agreed, adding, “It’s partly visibility. It’s also about getting a lot of ice in there. I like to see the olive and orange bobbing in there.”
About that orange and olive—Pariseau preferred those garnishes as the classic Italian spritz adornments. They were, in her opinion, “an indicator of the connection to the Italian-ness—the salty and the sweet.” The other judges were willing to accept alternative garnishes such as cucumber, mint and grapefruit. However, whatever the fruit or herb, they wanted it to play a role in the flavor. “I think it should enhance the drink,” Morrissey said. “If it’s just there to be there, it’s stupid.”
On another point, all were in fierce agreement. There should be ice, lots of ice. That the drink simply be cold was not enough; it had to stay cold. When one of the competing drinks arrived without ice, the judges all but recoiled. This would never survive an afternoon of piazza- or sidewalk-drinking.
The lineup of drinks brought to the fore other issues the judges had not expected to address. Two called for a syrup, something that was deemed unnecessary, as the aperitivo liqueur should bring all the requisite sweetness—and, frankly, quite unheard of in classic spritz-dom, which eternally favors the laissez-faire. Another two contained beer and were quickly dismissed for falling outside the traditional fray. Other drinks were only dimly recognizable as an Italian spritz. At a certain point, the panel prayed for the arrival of a classic Aperol Spritz, if only to reset the cosmic equilibrium.
They didn’t quite get that, but they did encounter a few satisfying drinks that came close, or at least answered to the name “spritz.” The winning drink came from Joe Campanale, who, as an owner of the Italian restaurant Fausto in Brooklyn, knows a thing or two about aperitivo culture. The Fausto Doppio Spritz surprised the judges by containing no wine, but instead, as the name suggests, two bitters: an ounce each of Contratto Aperitif and Forthave Red. This was topped with an ounce of tonic water, then soda water, and garnished with an orange wheel and a green olive. The drinkers found it simple, approachable and, though wineless, fairly classic.
Second place went to bartender Jon Mullen from the newly opened Greenwich Village all-day café Bar Pisellino, operated by the Via Carota team. His Aperol Spritz called for two ounces of Aperol, three ounces of brut prosecco, one ounce of cold soda water, and dashes of saline and citric acid solution. “It tastes like an Aperol spritz,” said Morrissey approvingly. “It’s one note—in a good way.”
Coming in third was Chantal Tseng, of Washington, D.C.’s Petworth Citizen and Reading Room, who put together a winning combinationof one ounce of Cappelletti Aperitivo Americano, a popular option with bartenders in place of Campari or Aperol; two ounces of Perrier; and three ounces of rosé Champagne.
All three, the panel thought, would please any spritz-seeking consumer. And that, perhaps, is the final irony of the current mania for the drink that has gripped the country. Americans may want more spritzes, but the template has yet to open up to interpretation the same way other drinks like the Margarita or Cobbler have. Beyond Campari and Aperol, none of the newer aperitivo bitters on the market are recognizable—or called for—by customers. But that’s perhaps to be expected. Nobody orders a spritz because they’re in a thinking mood or want to debate cocktail construction.
“They’re just happy with a spritz if it looks the bill,” said McGee.
I don’t recall receiving an invitation to join the Foxz tribe. I don’t recall nursing a desire for one. During my tenure as a semi-regular at the Athens, Georgia, bar in the early 2000s, in my mid-twenties, I followed a Groucho-Marx approach to membership of any sort. A bar on the outskirts of my social world—which at that point consisted of dish pits, dingy rock clubs and the University of Georgia campus—Foxz Tavern offered me escape, a dark cave where nobody knew my name. Until I leaned under the billiard lights to sink an eight ball prematurely, I could hide my face and speak only to strangers. I sought anonymity and took comfort under the influence of Dwight Yoakam on the jukebox. Like any good family, Foxz knew when to draw you near, and when to let you be. With her sturdy, bespectacled presence and live-and-let-live attitude, the owner, Nancy Fox, encouraged this sort of relationship.
In Normaltown, the townie neighborhood a mile from downtown and the university, the windowless basement bar could only be accessed by alleyway. Far from the foot traffic of one of the busiest music scenes and college campuses in the country, this small, commercial pocket anchored by a hardware store and an Army Surplus shop felt like a hinterland to tourists and underclassmen; regulars liked it this way. Upstairs, a burger joint called Allen’s, opened in 1955, buzzed, but the bar’s survival depended on repeat business, quality and consistency over volume.
Foxz was a clubhouse for the family that called it home. Budweiser neons lit portraits of softball teams from decades past. Hanging from the ceiling were plastic and inflatable sharks, the predator having become the bar’s mascot in part because Nancy hated receiving fox-shaped trinkets. You could join the brood—secure a stool, earn your photo on the wall—only by consenting to hear Bonnie Raitt’s version of “Angel from Montgomery” played on repeat. Families need anthems. And only family would endure such claustrophobic bathrooms.
When the bar opened in 1980, Athens was gaining international fame for homegrown bands like the B-52s and R.E.M.—but had hardly shed the conservative leanings of the Old South, and a blue-collar lesbian community became Foxz’s first family, invited and welcomed by Nancy. The people who called it a lesbian bar didn’t drink there. Foxz didn’t define itself, instead allowing a rowdy but respectable multitude of queers, rednecks, redneck queers, punks and plumbersto shape its identity. They could all sing the Garth Brooks hit by rote, and so they too became friends in a low place.
A musician and a dishwasher at the time, I first drank at Foxz as part of a new wave drawn in by a karaoke night kicked off by a bartender in 1995. It was unclear whether townie types would take to sing-alongs, but it turned out to be as on-brand as sponsoring a softball team. The only downside, perhaps, was that the event attracted a new cohort of artsy weirdos. One night a week, Foxz transformed into a cellar theater where waitresses ripping into “Barracuda” were cheered on by head-banging, gyrating fans who’d jump on the mic to punctuate the refrain.
My crew of white punk rockers and art school dropouts came in droves, often using Foxz as an after-party for underground punk shows. Through the early 2000s, dear friends looked on as my best buddy, Ryan, and I mauled Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and always tanked, near naked, off-key and belting atop someone’s shoulders.
Soon after, in a fit of growing pains, I quit my band, left the service industry, and avoided punk shows and downtown bars out of shame. I’d spent the previous few years touring the country
Karaoke night notwithstanding, people thought of Foxz as a white redneck habitat. It was certainly working class; the carpenter and house painter gangs I had fallen in with were all regulars. But the place I remember wasn’t homogenous, at least not around the pool table. Two tables crammed into a tight nook meant negotiations with neighboring players. I bumped asses with strangers, replaced beers when my cue knocked one over, shook hands and made small talk in the process. I met African American couples on date nights, and we shared gossip about friends from high school. I arranged table rights with Salvadoran men even though we didn’t share a common language. Years away from becoming a journalist, it was clear these nights were exercises in the craft I would adopt: listening to other people’s stories. Eventually, hiding out lost its allure.
In 2005, market forces kicked Foxz out of Normaltown. The owner of Allen’s, Billy Slaughter, watched his business dwindle and the bones of his building degrade. He chose to close the burger joint and redevelop the property, which meant the building’s other tenants—a newsstand and an antique store—shuttered or found new locations. Foxz opted for the latter. The bar was unmoored, plastic sharks boxed up. Everything was transported a mile down the road to a shopping center with decades-newer ducts and pipes—a vast improvement on what was left behind. Bulldozers pummeled the old place into rubble. Today, the land houses a parking deck and medical offices.
Foxz’s regulars migrated to the new spot. Everything, technically, looked the same. There was more room, which felt weird, and the room glowed a bit brighter, thanks to fresh paint. I went once and never returned. I was building houses, slowly earning a college degree, settling into married life and preparing to have kids; the freedom and desire to drive for a beer dwindled. At the same time, the count of bars within walking distance from my house increased. Not one boasts a country juke, and I don’t recognize the beer brands they sell. When I go I bring my young daughter and the bartenders don’t care. The regulars aren’t familiar, but we probably have this in common: We’re lucky enough to find family under our own roofs, a bar like Foxz is no longer a social or emotional necessity. The low places have become part of our past.