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When Miracle on 9th Street, the annual holiday pop-up bar in the East Village, first opened in 2013, it really did seem like a kind of miracle. Greg Boehm, a cocktail book and barware entrepreneur, and French bartender Nico de Soto, were planning to open a new cocktail bar called Mace, but they had run into delays. Rather than let the space lie fallow, they tricked it out in Christmas decorations, devised a host of cheeky, yuletide-themed cocktails and opened the world’s first Christmas craft-cocktail pop-up bar.
Its doors swung open the day after Thanksgiving to reliable lines that stretched down the block—a phenomenon not seen in New York cocktail circles since the opening of PDT and Death & Co., in 2007, and not seen again until Broken Shaker arrived this past summer.
Today, Christmas miracles are a lot easier to come by. Boehm, who now owns several Manhattan bars, including Existing Conditions and Katana Kitten, extended the concept in 2015 with Sippin’ Santa, a tiki-ish pop-up that took over Boilermaker, another East Village bar he owns. The next year, he franchised the Miracle and Sippin’ concepts, designating bars in other cities as Miracle material.
This year, there are more locations than balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (95 total!), including satellites in Mexico City and New Zealand, and four in New York City alone. If Mace and Existing Conditions are Boehm’s Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, the Miracles are his Shake Shack.
Are they all created equal? To find out, I visited five of them this season, and the answer is: Pretty much, which can be both a good and bad thing. It’s good, in that the quality of the drinks holds up from bar to bar. The bedrock of the Miracle bars are de Soto’s and Joann Spiegel’s recipes, which are inventive, witty and surprising. The Christmopolitan, a cranberry-forward spoof on the Cosmo, is clean and crisp, with refreshing hints of absinthe and rosemary (its garnish). The Jingle Balls Nog, anchored by Cognac and PX Sherry, is slippery and lush, a velveteen brown-butter balm. These are not just good Christmas cocktails; they’re good cocktails. The same is true of the Jeff Berry and Brad Smith cocktails on the menu at Sippin’ Santa, which, their being tiki drinks notwithstanding, are more straightforward affairs.
That the drinkscan be accurately replicated far from home was proven by a visit to the Miracle on Centre, which is located on an anonymous suburban block in Nutley, New Jersey. (During the rest of the year, it is Cowan’s Public.) Their Gingerbread Flip—a solid introduction to the flip form, with its spicy snap of gingerbread, bite of bourbon and hint of bitters—is as good as it is at Mace. Likewise, the Bad Santa I had at Miracle on 2nd Street in Milwaukee (usually the gin bar The Tin Widow) was the same mind-melting, hot-rum Zombie I remember. (Cocktail prices vary by location. They were $16 in Manhattan; $15 in Brooklyn; $12-$13 in Nutley; and $12 in Milwaukee. The Sippin’ cocktails at Boilermaker were $14.)
Inside the Miracle Pop-Up
The various Miracle franchise bars all shake up their drinks in custom, red, branded Miracle cocktail shakers, bought from Cocktail Kingdom.
Santa imagery is prevalent throughout each Miracle location, extending to the glassware, wall art and even the bartenders’ uniforms.
The Chrismapolitan, a yuletide riff on the Cosmo, is one of the most popular Miracle cocktails.
What began as a single holiday pop-up bar in the East Village has exploded into a 95-bar annual phenomenon.
The And a Partridge in a Pear Tree is made with reposado tequila, mezcal, pear brandy and spiced brown sugar syrup.
The Snowball Old-Fashioned, made with butterscotch-infused rye whiskey, is served over ice molded to resemble a snowball.
Each Miracle location is required to serve cocktails created by Miracle bar co-founder, Mace bar owner Nico de Soto, and Joann Spiegel.
For the first time since the first Miracle bar opened five years ago, Cocktail Kingdom holiday mugs and glassware, created for the Miracle and Sippin’ Santa bars, are available for purchase at the franchise bars.
The flip side of this consistency is that you can see that the Miracle formula is a formula. Miracle and Sippin’ franchises are required to run a certain number of cocktails from the original locations; shake them up in Miracle bar tools, including eye-catching red shakers; and serve them in the same custom Cocktail Kingdom glasses and mugs. Granted, few people beyond roving bar critics are going to go to more than one location, so each Miracle will remain unique in the eyes of locals. But you only need to go to two to realize your baby isn’t that special.
The best formula for enjoying your local Miracle or Sippin’ may be to sample a bit of the core menu, while keeping a lookout for what makes the bar personal. This is where the proprietors will have invested a little extra pride and energy. (You may not see each bar’s unique drinks on the printed menu, so ask the bartender.) At Miracle in Brooklyn, which goes in for kitschy cultural references more than others, there’s an Anti-Frosé, which is essentially mulled rosé wine, and an Elf-inspired World’s Best Cup of Coffee. It’s just a cup of joe with a shot of whiskey poured in, but it’s still grin-inducing.
Appropriately, Boilermaker has seasonal boilermakers like the Cousin Eddie (Brooklyn Lager and Stiggins’ Fancy Plantation Pineapple) and the Hans Gruber (Revolution Brewing’s Fistmas ale and Wild Turkey 101 bourbon). Meanwhile, the Nutley bar, quite on-trend, has four original Christmas mocktails, including the Resting Grinch Face (apple cider, spiced cranberry, orange and lime juice). The Milwaukee Miracle didn’t have any original cocktails, but their house Old-Fashioned, made with a cola-red wine reduction, tasted like Christmas to me.
Mace, too, has things you won’t find at the other bars. The new Gin-gle All the Way is a Mace drink all the way. The ingredients include gin, whey, pine, mint, patchouli, cream soda and, of course, pandan, Mace’s mascot herb. Served Collins style, it tastes like a fascinatingly odd Christmas cookie recipe from the old country, with each flavor getting its moment.
The single biggest change in the tone of the joints is the merch. The Cocktail Kingdom mugs and glasses are clever and cute and no doubt the bars have lost many to theft. Now, you can buy them on-site, which is convenient, but it also makes the bars feel a little bit like holiday gift shops that happen to dispense cocktails. (Full disclosure: I collaborated with Cocktail Kingdom on an Old-Fashioned glasses set.)
But, such grousing is perhaps disingenuous on my part. As any yuletide junkie knows (and I count myself one), Christmas and commercialization go hand in hand and have for more than a century. There’s no reason why holiday pop-up bars should be any different. Yes, Miracle is no longer a singular loopy lark, a bright stab of impromptu cheer in the December night. The bars are everywhere and the magic is now mainstream. But, like the holiday itself, they are what you make of them.
It wasn’t a neat pour of a precious single malt but a cocktail that drew bartender Nick Brown to Scotch. More specifically, it was the Penicillin, a modern-classic variation on the Whiskey Sour based on a core of mellow blended Scotch, with a float of smoky Laphroaig.
“[It] made me fall in love with the spirit,” recalls Brown, now head bartender at The Spaniard in New York. “Now it’s what I drink more than anything else.”
Since its debut in 2013, the Penicillin has become one of the country’s most-requested—and riffed on—modern cocktails. And it’s not alone. In the last few years, a number of bartenders have created drinks inspired by the Scotch’s wide range of expressions—from fruity to spicy to smoky, or a mix of all of the above.
“Scotch runs the gamut in a way that other spirits don’t,” says Brown. “It’s such a big, robust, awesome category, ranging from super smoky Scotches to more delicate ones, based on region or presence or lack of peat.”
Despite the perception that it only equals rare, pricey drams that are too precious to mix, Scotch can be both mixable and reasonably priced. To underscore this point, the U.K. government’s Food is GREAT campaign is working with the industry to challenge the notion in the U.S. and beyond.
“The way Scotch works in cocktails is pretty amazing,” says Maxime Belfand, head bartender for New York’s Saxon + Parole. “It mixes well with a variety of ingredients so you can really see the spirit evolve into something somewhat unexpected.” He favors using Scotch in stirred drinks or shaken with citrus, as in The Fleming, a riff on the Penicillin that calls on the addition of smoked salt and fig liqueur to a mix of blended and peated Scotches.
“At Saxon + Parole, we find a lot of guests who claim to not like Scotch but really enjoy Scotch cocktails,” says Belfand, dubbing a drink like the Pencillin or his The Fleming as a “gateway into Scotch obsession.”
Bartenders have also used the Rob Roy, arguably the most famous Scotch classic, as a point of inspiration. That drink (essentially a Manhattan that swaps rye or bourbon for blended Scotch) gets an update at Sunday in Brooklyn, where head bartender Brian Evans layers whisky with spiced liqueurs and rich Madeira for his Moon Watcher.
“Scotch provides a toasty warmth unlike any other spirit when paired with fresh fruit or fruit liqueurs, whether it’s in a context of a modified Rob Roy-style cocktail or something tiki-inspired,” says Evans. “I created Moon Watcher as sort of a Rob Roy for the holiday season.”
While some Scotches contain just a small amount of peat, offering a faint smoky exhale, others are powerful, like Lagavulin and Caol Ila, which are prized for their super-smoky profiles.
Johnny Swet of Brooklyn’s Grand Republic Cocktail Club is among those who love the smoky notes that peated Scotch can provide. “The complex peat notes can stand up to multiple flavors being mixed together in a cocktail,” he says. “The Scotch is still there, standing out among the other flavors, and cannot be buried.” One of his drinks, the Super Drunk Uncle, employs a versatile build that can showcase either peated or unpeated Scotch alongside Drambuie, a honey- and spice-flavored, Scotch-based liqueur.
In addition to strong and stirred drinks, like the coffee-scented, film noir-inspired Quilty at Slowly Shirley, Scotch also has a place in drinks that you might find on the dessert table. Consider, for example, the Godfather IV, from The Spaniard’s Brown, which softens the whisky with small amounts of amaretto and walnut liqueur. This drink, inspired by the classic Godfather cocktail, is made in a nuanced style that could easily serve as an introduction to the category. Still, Brown notes, in this cocktail, “Scotch is the main event.”
Scotch Cocktails for the Modern Drinker
Moon Watcher: A play on the Rob Roy cocktail with blended Scotch, Madeira and tropical spice. [Recipe]
Godfather IV: Walnut liqueur adds extra depth to this take on the classic amaretto and Scotch cocktail. [Recipe]
Super Drunk Uncle: An IPA-topped cocktail with a double dose of Scotch. [Recipe]
Quilty: A smoky spirit-forward take with Scotch, mezcal, sherry and coffee liqueur. [Recipe]
The Fleming: An autumnal riff on the Penicillin cocktail with ginger, honey and fig preserves. [Recipe]
New Orleans is, without a doubt, a breeding ground for the dramatic. It’s a city that will readily embrace your reptile-themed burlesque show, doesn’t bat an eye at a parade that celebrates with over-sized floats shaped like genitalia and encourages residents to have a designated “costume closet” just in case the need to play dress-up arises on, say, a random Wednesday.
In a place with such an oversized personality, it’s no wonder that, when it comes to after-dinner drinks, only the most elaborate, flame-thrown presentation will do. Enter the Café Brûlot, a spice-doused coffee cocktail built on a brandy base that’s served by the city’s grand dame restaurants and is replete with the kind of built-in pyrotechnics that could rival any Las Vegas revue.
Offered almost exclusively at high-end, old-line dining establishments of the French Quarter—Arnaud’s, Galatoire’s and Antoine’s, to name a few—Café Brûlot (which quite literally means “incendiary coffee”) isn’t a drink built for the bar, but the dining room, where all the tools of its creation are wheeled out to be prepared tableside—a lavish ending to what was, assuredly, an indulgent meal.
“One of the great things about Café Brûlot is that, similar to a gumbo, every restaurant has their own recipe and their own show,” says Katy Casbarian, proprietor of Arnaud’s, a beloved French Quarter staple since 1918. “Some places ignite the brandy and then throw it on the tablecloth; some ignite the bowl and ladle the mixture up and down [on fire] then extinguish it with coffee. There are a lot of different ways to do it.”
No matter the restaurant, the boozy choreography begins by warming aromatics—cinnamon, clove, lemon peel—in a Brûlot bowl (an ornamental silver-plated vessel) over an open flame. In the Arnaud’s presentation, brandy and orange liqueur are then combined in a ladle, lit on fire and poured down a clove-studded, spiraled orange peel like a fiery waterslide into the bowl below. After the flamed liquor spins a few times down the peel, it’s doused with chicory coffee and swirled together in the bowl with the toasted spices and sugar to taste, then served to the table in petite demitasse cups.
“Pouring the lit brandy down the orange peel allows for the cloves to start crackling and their true essence to come out, as well as all the essential oils from the orange to mingle,” Casbarian explains. “But the showmanship is just as much a part of the Café Brûlot as the taste. It’s the most delicious-smelling aroma. If you have it at one table, another table will order it right after.”
Café Brûlot Service at Arnaud's
At Arnaud's, the boozy choreography begins by warming aromatics—cinnamon, clove, lemon peel—in a Brûlot bowl.
Arnaud’s has been serving Café Brûlot the same way since 1978, but the drink has been on the menu since the 1940s.
Brandy and orange liqueur are combined in a ladle, lit on fire and poured down a clove-studded, spiraled orange peel.
Brandy travels down the orange peel like a fiery waterslide into the bowl below.
The flaming liquor is doused with chicory coffee and swirled together in the bowl with the toasted spices and sugar to taste.
The end result is served to the table in petite demitasse cups.
Arnaud’s has been serving Café Brûlot the same way since 1978, but the drink has been on the menu since the 1940s. It’s said to have been originally invented at Antoine’s in the late 1880s, but true lore traces the cocktail all the way back to the pirate Jean Lafitte at the turn of the 19th century, who would perform the drink-making ritual for an entranced audience while his comrades pickpocketed the group.
But more than thieving pirates or flaming fruit, it’s the oft-overlooked Brûlot bowl itself that’s the hero of the show (members of the waitstaff willing to risk singed eyebrows notwithstanding). A shallow sterling silver or copper piece of hyper-specific serving-ware, the Brûlot bowl is fussy-looking enough that it could’ve been a cartoon character from Beauty and the Beast, but has instead found its calling as the only proper vessel for co-mingling the Brûlot’s flaming liquors and spices.
“Special Brûlot equipment is required if you are to burn Café Brûlot successfully,” writes Stanley Clisby Arthur in the classic 1937 cocktail guidebook, Famous New Orleans Cocktails and How to Mix ‘Em. “Don’t use your wife’s silver fruit bowl, although it may resemble a Brûlot bowl in shape and appearance. We know a man who did this…and rich old Aunt Hattie’s wedding gift phiffted into the shape of Aunt Hattie in fewer minutes than it takes to tell.”
The scarcity of true Brûlot bowls in the wild and its importance for ensuring the drink’s properly-flared presentation might be what keeps more bars and brave home enthusiasts from attempting the drink outside of its natural, French-Creole habitat. While San Francisco’s Tosca had an Arnaud’s-inspired version on the menu back in 2014, it rarely appears outside its hometown. Though eBay scouring comes up short, those hellbent on making the drink in their own kitchens can purchase an ultra-luxe, Dale DeGroff-approved Brûlot bowl via Cocktail Kingdom (sticker price: $699.95).
I’d like to think, though, that the Café Brûlot loses something when removed from its native New Orleans; it’s a cocktail that embodies the spirit of a place so much it is only able to thrive in the old-line restaurants where it’s been wooing diners for well over a century: a showstopping drink burned into sensory memory.
With freezing temperatures already in tow, we may look back on cocktails of seasons past longing for sunnier days and umbrella-garnished glasses. But bundled up in wintry spices and spirits, classic summer cocktails take on new personas; with a few added layers they can transform into instant winter classics, too.
For some of these templates, it’s just a matter of replacing summery herbs with seasonal spices or richer spirits. Take the Winter Pimm’s Cup—where ginger ale is swapped for American lager and fresh crushed ginger, then garnished with rosemary, apples and cranberries for a suitably seasonal finish. Similarly, at Grand Army Bar in New York, the Glasgow Mule swaps vodka for Scotch and adds an additional floral note with St-Germain. Or consider the Winter Paloma, where sage leaves and mezcal winterize the citrus notes of grapefruit and lime.
Even typical poolside cocktails can still look good in a winter hat and gloves. In her Hot Daiquiri, for example, Kathleen Hawkins transforms the perennial summer favorite into a rum Hot Toddy lookalike, topping the warmed up mixture of rum, simple syrup and lime juice with Angostura whipped cream. Likewise, the minty Mojito extends its reign into winter when a more robust rum, like blackstrap, is used in lieu of white rum, and rosemary takes the place of mint for a deeper flavor, seamlessly taking this drink from poolside to fireside.
For more winter recipes, see Winter Drinks, a collection of 70 cocktail recipes built to fortify against the cold, featuring essential classics; updated riffs on traditional toddies, punches, nogs and spiked coffees; and thoroughly modern drinks built to channel the season.
On the eve of the New York City Marathon, the Bamonte’s barroom teems with people. As they come and go, a fringed lampshade hovering above a defunct cigarette machine shimmies with the draft.
Mike, the vested, bowtied bartender, shakes drinks and pours red wine from bulky magnum bottles. A marathon runner and his daughter eat iceberg salads next to a pair of 30-something Brooklynites sipping Martinis (gin, up, with twists) next to a middle-aged couple indulging in a post-prandial cocktail. Beyond are a couple of beer-filled refrigerators and two wooden phone booths whose obsolescence goes unacknowledged by anyone. Heads turn as the steaming vodka sauce wafts by; it’s as if a celebrity just entered the room. An older gentleman with a New Jersey accent orders a Bloody Mary (it’s 7 p.m.), and a man in a tight button-down shirt and gold chain is requesting a table for 11 people—no easy bargain on a Saturday night in New York City. But not to worry—he knows a guy.
Bamonte’s is a beloved red sauce joint in Williamsburg with all of the trappings: septuagenarian waiters in tuxes, white tablecloths, mozzarella swathed meat cutlets, cheap Chianti. There’s a menu thick with classics—fettuccine Alfredo, baked ziti, veal scaloppini marsala, clams casino. In the dining room, heavy red velvet drapes hang floor-to-ceiling and dozens of paintings and photos line its walls. A Dodgers pennant—Brooklyn, not LA—flies proudly against red wallpaper, as does a gilded Roman bust and an oversized canvas depicting the birth of Venus. But inside this 118-year-old mecca of Italian-American cuisine is one of Brooklyn’s best bars.
Essentially a two-story house on a quiet residential street in Williamsburg, Bamonte’s, which was originally called Liberty Hall, was founded in 1900 by Pasquale Bamonte, an immigrant from Salerno. Smack dab in the middle of what is arguably America’s hippest, increasingly expensive destination neighborhood, Bamonte’s feels like a particularly potent symbol for what’s been erased amid New York’s constant reinvention. The original family still owns it—Pasquale’s grandson, Anthony Bamonte, and his daughter, Nicole, run it—as well as other buildings on the street. So, while nearby warehouses are rehabbed and 12-story condos encroach, Bamonte’s can close for two or three weeks in August without having to worry about a thing.
“This place is, like, a hundred years old,” says a patron as he passes through the lounge. “Mob guys used to come here.” Indeed, they did. Just back in 2009, “Fat Tony” Rabito of the Bonanno crime family, was forbidden to return to several Italian-American establishments, including Don Peppe, Rao’s and Bamonte’s. There are framed photos of their Hollywood corollaries including James Gandolfini, who shot three episodes of “The Sopranos” here.
Step Inside the Bar at Bamonte's
Smack dab in the middle of America’s hippest destination neighborhoods, Bamonte’s feels like a particularly potent symbol for what’s been erased amid New York’s constant reinvention. Here, wood-paneled walls, waiters in tuxes and clams casino have never gone out of style.
All polished wood, red drapes and old cigarette machines, Bamonte's has been a bastion of red sauce and old school Italian-American cuisine for 118 years. Coincidentally, it also contains one of Brooklyn's best bar rooms.
In the past several decades, old school Italian-American joints have dwindled, the neighborhoods where they once thrived now turned over to new development, new waves of immigrants. And yet Bamonte's persists.
Founded in 1900, Bamonte's walls bear memories from more than a century, including photos of Italian-American celebrities, the Pope and (in the dining room) a pennant from the days when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn.
Jorge Velez, one of Bamonte's very few new employees, works the bar on a Monday evening. The house Martinis are made stiff (re: all spirit), unless you request otherwise.
The bar's spirit collection is a vestige of the past four decades. Everything from mint schnapps to Seagrams 7, Aperol to Averna line its deco-era shelves.
There is no music at Bamonte’s, but the dining room is full and the din is a melody of clinking forks, tipsy voices and a cappuccino machine’s bluster. “It’s been a killer day,” says Mike as he uncorks another magnum of red. Weekends are busy from lunchtime on, he says, especially this one. The place always seems to be full of people celebrating something. There are engagement parties and family reunions, graduation toasts and spontaneous Saturday evening parties of 11. With its round white tables, red pleather-seated chairs and highly lit candelabras, it has the feel of a 1970s banquet hall. Which is to say, there is nothing cool about Bamonte’s, except its stubborn resistance to change. And, of course, its retro bar room, which simultaneously conjures a “Goodfellas” set piece and a Wisconsonite mancave stuck in time.
“Hey Mike! How ya been?” somebody yells. An elderly waiter from Croatia named Sylvio arrives to the end of the bar to collect a drink order. Mike chats with a couple of people twirling pasta around their forks, while Nicole Bamonte’s blonde mane bobs to and fro, she’s taking phone calls and ushering people through the dining room divider.
One of the 30-somethings leans across the bar, toppling her cocktail glass. Horror of horrors: A Martini overboard. Gin, a whisper of vermouth—which one must request, otherwise you’ll simply be drinking cold gin—and lemon twist ebb across the bar, soaking maroon paper placemats. But within seconds, Mike is there, sopping it up with a bar rag. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I’ve got you covered.” She and her companion order clams oreganata and an antipasti salad to mitigate the freshened Martini. A basket of delightfully spongy bread and gold foil wrapped butter squares is presented.
Eventually, the clams oreganata arrive with bread-crumbs aplenty, as does the antipasti salad: hunks of provolone, cubes of salami, big green olives, roasted red peppers. Mike is busy setting people up with placemats, silverware and fresh drinks, and guests sated with fra diavolo and Frangelico traipse out, past the shimmying lampshade. As the clock strikes 8 p.m., a new set of guests arrives and the vibe changes. It’s a younger crowd, peppered with destination diners who have come for the novel frippery, rather than the succor of Old-World reminiscence. But the red sauce joint doesn’t judge; it simply welcomes in everybody with a sweep of the arm and a glass full of Chianti. A couple of Sambuca shots are poured and Sylvio is back to scoop up little goblets full of wine.
“What did they do here when Prohibition came around?” asks a customer at the bar. Sylvio, in his Croatian lilt, says, “They drank outta coffee cups, whaddya think? Nobody stopped serving booze for a second.”
Tip: On weekend evenings, arrive at the bar a touch before the dinner rush to grab a seat at the bar where you can order the full menu. If ordering wine by the bottle, your best bet is the Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva. End-of-eve tiramisu is best accompanied by a fluffy house cappuccino dressed up with a little Frangelico. Bamonte’s | 32 Withers Street; 718-384-8831
Until it was completely unified as a country in 1871, Italy was composed of a collection of divided states, each with their own customs and cultural traditions, as well as a diverse range of economies, climates and geography. Many of these regional differences are still on display, including the tradition of Italy’s well-known digestivo—amaro—which despite being a broad and loosely defined category, still displays key characteristics driven by provenance.
Amaro’s origins in Italy date back to medieval monks and friars who used locally grown and sourced roots, barks, herbs and botanicals to create tonics and elixirs for medicinal purposes, including stimulating the appetite as well as aiding digestion. Meanwhile, Venice’s pivotal role as a gateway for global trade routes helped introduce new spices to Italy, like cinnamon, cardamom and ginger, which have since become important ingredients in amari.
While a small glass of one of these bittersweet liqueurs is always welcome after a rich meal, amaro transitioned from being taken as medicine to being consumed for pleasure a long time ago. And while the category lacks unified regulation and stylistic definitions like you’ll find with wine, beer, whiskey and other spirits, there are indeed several general styles, driven both by key ingredients and region, that help serve as signposts to better understanding flavor profiles.
Light- and medium-style amari, for example, are among the most abundant offerings available. As the name implies, light amaro is typically lighter in color, with a lower ABV and often on the sweeter side of bittersweet. Medium amaro possesses a moderate alcohol level and a pleasing balance of bitter and sweet, rounded out with varying degrees of citrus and herbal notes. These gateway amari are ideal stepping-stones to exploring the world or amaro and are versatile in cocktails ranging from Manhattan variations to Negronis. Light- and medium-amaro are produced all over Italy and Sicily; those hailing from the latter are epitomized by the use of the island’s famous citrus and Mediterranean herbs.
In some cases, the style of amaro is classified by its use of a key ingredient. For example, the rabarbarostyle of amaro is defined by its use of Chinese rhubarb root, which imparts a distinctive natural smokiness to the blend along with an earthy medicinal note that’s typically rounded out with a juicier berry and citrus profile. Carciofoamaro, meanwhile, contains artichoke leaves, which impart a bitterness along with a savory vegetal backbone. And fernet, a bracingly bitter style of amaro, is both defined by its formula of common ingredients, including aloe ferox, saffron, myrrh and mint, as well as its higher alcohol content and that unforgettable bitter bite.
Alpine amaro is an example of how both ingredients and place of origin are codified over time as a “type.” The style refers to its distinctive sense of place through the use of high-altitude botanicals like gentian, wormwood and juniper that grow on the slopes and valleys of mountain ranges, helping impart a distinctive, bracing forest floor profile. It’s unmistakable once you get acquainted with it.
So how do you navigate this incredible spectrum of amari? Here’s a look at three specific styles by way of their archetypal expressions, with expert tips from bartenders on approaching these flavor profiles for mixing cocktails.
Sicilian | Averna
Made in Caltanissetta, Sicily, since 1868, Averna’s bright bouquet of oranges, lemons and pomegranates captures the sunbaked Sicilian spirit in a bottle. Bartenders, in particular, turn to Averna as both a base ingredient and a modifier in Whiskey Sours, highballs and Manhattan variations like the modern-classic Black Manhattan, which swaps Averna for vermouth. “Bitterness is always at the forefront of every amaro, but with Averna you get a sweetness that brings depth and can add a frothiness to a shaken cocktail,” says Los Angeles bartender Chris Ojeda. “The orange and lemon oils bring a touch of brightness to stirred cocktails along with silkiness and body.” New York bartender Lynnette Marrero leans on Averna for its texture and aromatics, adding that “the bitterness is not as much as other amari so it has a nice transition for people sensitive to bitterness.”
Made in the Italian Alps near the border with Switzerland, Braulio is one of the best-known brands of alpine-style amaro. Its signature ingredients of gentian, juniper, wormwood and yarrow offer a full-bodied blend that’s enhanced by additional aging in Slavonian oak barrels. Due to its distinctive aromatic profile, New York bartender Will Oxenham uses Braulio in a supporting role for cocktails, pairing it with dark spices like cocoa nibs, mace, allspice, cloves and cinnamon. “An Old-Fashioned with mezcal or rye, with a just a lick of Braulio can be such a thing of beauty,” he says. “I love the pine-needle-fresh aromatics that bound out of the glass, both on the palate and on the nose.” Like mezcal, Braulio has a distinctive, assertive flavor profile that can add intrigue to drinks even in small amounts. “Braulio brings so many interesting twists and turns to a cocktail that you have to let Braulio drive the bus and be OK where it takes you,” says Chris Ojeda, who takes advantage of Braulio’s alpine aromatics in juleps and Champagne cocktails. “The aromatics are so pronounced with Braulio that it can change a simple cocktail from good to great.”
With an artichoke emblazoned on the its label, Cynar is the poster boy for the style of amaro known as carciofo, named for its use of artichoke leaves as a key ingredient (Cynara scolymus is the Latin name for artichoke). Made in 1952 from a secret blend of 13 unique plants and herbs, Cynar is slightly vegetal with a pleasing caramel sweetness and a low ABV (16.5 percent) that makes it particularly versatile. Will Oxenham is drawn to using Cynar in spritzes, highballs and sours. “With its inherent bitterness and slightly lighter body, Cynar is one of the more versatile brands in the amari category,” he says. “It’s fantastic as either the base or a supporting role and works beautifully with a broad spectrum of spirits.” One of the modern classics that exemplifies Cynar’s versatility is Audrey Saunders’ Little Italy, a rye Manhattan variation that splits Cynar with the sweet vermouth. “Whiskies tend to shine when paired with Cynar,” says Lynnette Marrero, who loves working with Cynar for its “bitterness and texture.”
I found it an easier job to choose my top 15 cocktails from all the glasses I drained during the last twelve months than I did in 2017. Maybe that’s because so many great new bars opened in 2018. Or maybe it’s because, given the state of things in D.C. and abroad, I just drank a lot more this year. (My money is on the latter.) But, either way, I wholeheartedly recommend and salute all of the following cocktails, which are listed in chronological order, from first drink drank to last. The recollection of each of them has kept me warm as the days have grown colder.
Jim Meehan’s ambitious, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Chicago bar didn’t last a year. But Tall Boxes, its interpretation of that Midwestern staple, the Brandy Old-Fashioned, will be forever lodged in my taste memory. Meehan kept the brandy domestic, but used the superior Sacred Bond, a 100-proof spirit from Kentucky’s Heaven Hill. He then fine-strained out the muddled orange and cherry “garbage,” creating a silky and deceptively simple drink.
Simon & the Whale, Gabriel Stulman’s new restaurant inside the Freehand Hotel in Manhattan, proved a breakout favorite with critics and diners when it opened in February. The bar held up its end. Head bartender Drew Nemetz came up with this inspired liquid essay in simplicity, made of equal-parts bourbon, Spanish brandy (Torres 15) and Amaro Meletti, plus orange bitters. He said he had been inspired to pare down the cocktail creation by the book 3-Ingredient Cocktails. That he was, at the time, unknowingly serving the drink to its author had nothing to do with my liking it so much.
The Death & Co. crew brought their “A” game when they opened their second bar by that name inside The Ramble Hotel in Denver this year. No better proof of this came than Tyson Buhler’s Telegraph, an elegant pre-batched and frozen Martini variation in which pear eau de vie, Cocchi Americano and Mathilde Poire liqueur scrimmage in place of the usual vermouth. A drop of eucalyptus extract adds a touch of mystery—something every good Martini ought to have.
The Trash-Tini is the opposite of Death & Co.’s drink; it’s on the rocks and casual, an Oscar to the Telegraph’s Felix, and proud of it. What do you expect from a rooftop, poolside, Los Angeles bar? Still, a surprising amount of precision and care goes into this multi-layered creation by Christine Wiseman. The mix includes gin, vodka, Luxardo Bitter Bianco, charred onion-infused dry vermouth, celery shrub, sherry vinegar and two garnishes: an olive and a cocktail onion. The kitchen sink never tasted so good.
The Marvel Bar in Minneapolis has been serving rafts of Olivetos since it opened in 2011. But I tasted their signature drink for the first time this year, so on the list it goes. On paper, the Pip Hanson drink looks very last decade: gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white, Licor 43 and a half-ounce of extra virgin olive oil. It’s a Gin Sour with a couple left-field touches that were once all the rage in craft cocktail circles. But there is magic in the mixture—the olive oil and egg white yield an unusual texture that elevates this sour above its fellows.
The Aviation has never been a favorite of mine. So when I encounter a version I like, it gets my attention. That happened at the in-house bar at Tattersall Distilling in Minneapolis. The deployment of the Aviation’s defining ingredient, crème de violette, has always been the monkey wrench in this blend: Too much and the drink tastes like scented bath soap; don’t use any and the drink isn’t really an Aviation. The distillery seemed to have solved this problem by using their own Tattersall Crème de Fleur, a lovely distillation of six flowers. The liqueur brought the drink the delectable floral quality, as well as the palatability that I always find so elusive in the Aviation.
Brian Miller’s gin Zombie, the Winchester, was already known and loved before he opened his palatial tiki palace, The Polynesian, this year. His new digs seemed to demand an upgrade. The various modifiers (grenadine, ginger syrup and St-Germain) were adjusted to tone down the sweetness. And he upped the number of gins used from three to four, one of them being the overproof Perry’s Tot, which performs the same rocket-booster duty that an overproof rum does in a typical tiki drink. It’s as if the old Winchester has been hitting the gym.
The Manhattan iteration of the popular cocktail-bar chain Broken Shaker put a smile on New Yorkers’ faces from the moment it opened this summer on the roof of the Freehand Hotel. The Smillie helped tug out some of those grins. Created by head bartender Evan Hawkins, and named after chef Justin Smillie at the restaurant Upland, it is a dazzling rainbow of a drink. The tangy-savory blend of tequila, lime juice and agave syrup infused with golden beets, ginger and turmeric, is given a striking visual accent in the form of a half-and-half rim of golden turmeric salt and red beet salt. Optically, it is the best sort of Tequila Sunrise. Culinarily, it tastes far better.
A lot of the drinks at barman Masahiro Urushido’s new Greenwich Village bar work beautifully, but the Hinoki Martini might be the first among equals. As befits a bar that tries to straddle Japanese and American cocktail styles, this Martini is an international affair, made with French vodka, Colorado gin, sake and sherry. This is accented by a tincture inspired by hinoki, a type of cypress tree native to central Japan; as hinoki is not available in the U.S., a close species of cypress tree from Colorado is used in its place. The tincture is applied in both dash and spray form—five of each—and lends a woodsy, cooling air to the graceful drink. It’s served in a conical glass, nestled among ice in the traditional square box that sake is served in.
Barry Huffman | Existing Conditions, New York
The owners of the most important bar opening of the year make it hard to single out one great cocktail on their menu. But I’m choosing the Barry Huffman, perhaps because it illustrates how the bar team can come up with solid cocktails without enlisting the help of its Laboratory of Wonders. The drink is simply Old Duff genever, Wray & Nephew rum, Bénédictine, green Chartreuse and an acid-adjusted lemon cordial, plus a few drops of saline solution, served on a large cube in a rocks glass. It is advertised “malt and herbs” and possesses the low-key flavor complexity that is the bar’s hallmark.
Bartender Jeremy Oertel has a way with crushed ice and coconut cream. He used those two tools to famous effect a few years ago in the Brancolada, the standout cocktail at Brooklyn’s Donna. Now, he’s worked his magic again at Hidden Pearl, another Brooklyn bar, tucked behind a ramen restaurant. Whereas the Brancolada went heavy, using rum and Branca Menta as its base, the Nilsson Schmilsson tacks lighter to match the bar’s bright, airy feel. Navy strength gin is combined with sake, lime juice and vanilla syrup, then lemon zest and toasted coconut crown a hill of pebble ice. It’s a dreamy-tasting drink that has you ordering a second before the first one is half done.
One expects standard-bearer craft cocktail bars like The Varnish to get the classics right. But when they get it this right, it still comes as something of a surprise. The bar’s recipe for success with this drink calls for Beefeater gin, Dolin dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur, two dashes of orange bitters and a rinse of Pernod absinthe. Nothing so surprising there, but Lord it came together. (And yes, I had a Tuxedo No. 2 on my 2017 list, too—from Flora Bar in Manhattan. What can I say? I get lucky with this cocktail.)
Old-Fashioned | Doppelgänger, Buenos Aires
I’ve been served hundreds of Old-Fashioneds, but none like the one I got at Doppelgänger, a wonderful neighborhood bar in Buenos Aires. Following local custom, the bartender coats the inside of a rocks glass with a thick crusta of mixed sugar and 10 dashes of Angostura bitters. They then muddle an orange slice (pith removed) and fill the glass with cracked ice, then pour bourbon (Wild Turkey 101 or Jim Beam Black 6 Year) over it and garnish with a cherry and a small Old-Fashioned spoon. Because the sugar is not fully integrated, the drink tastes like straight whiskey at first, but the bitters and sweetness trickle in bit by bit as you sip.
A Negroni is a mysterious thing—so simple a formula, yet so hard to perfect. Every now and then this liquid slot machine yields a winner in terms of gin, vermouth and bitter liqueur choices. I found this one at the Amaro Library, a new bar attached to the restaurant Officina in Washington, D.C.’s newly rejuvenated The Wharf. The equal-parts blend uses the typical Campari, but makes unusual choices otherwise, using Edinburgh Gin, a London dry gin made in Scotland and Contratto Vermouth Rosso, a heritage vermouth brand from Turin. Jackpot.
The Lincoln is named for the Lincoln Tower, the original name of undulating white skyscraper that is home to Rochester’s new lobby watering hole, Bar Bantam. The drink is as sturdy and dignified as its name. Conceived by Charles Cerankosky as a Manhattan variant in the vein of the Greenpoint or Red Hook cocktails, it has a bourbon base (Old Forester 86), with equal parts Cap Corse Mattei Quinquina Rouge and five-year-old Madeira acting as modifiers, plus a couple dashes of cardamom bitters, all served on a large rock. The Madeira, in particular, furnishes it with the character of a classic cocktail from the old days.
In the canon of holiday cocktails, Hot Buttered Rum has traditionally been the most maligned, perhaps because its hip-hugging ingredient is right there in its name: butter. Silky and dense, the HBR walks the skinny tightrope between unctuousness and oil-slicked excess, but when executed properly, many bartenders will tell you that it’s an ideal holiday indulgence. It’s just about finding that balance.
In Jerry Thomas’s 1887 The Bartenders Guide, Hot Buttered Rum involves nothing more than a pat of butter melted into a mug of rum, hot water and sugar. But the most popular renditions involve making a buttery batter imbued with sugar and spices, which is then swirled into a mug with rum and hot water.
One of the pitfalls of the drink, however, is that the butter can just sit right there on the top as opposed to lending the drink its intended silky texture. This struggle is perhaps why a number of rum enthusiasts, including writer Wayne Curtis and Boston bartender Nicole Lebedevitch, recommend adding vanilla ice cream to the batter. This is bartender Andrew Volk’s tack, too, outlined in his recent book, Northern Hospitality; equal parts butter and ice cream are combined with brown sugar, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg, resulting in a much creamier drink in the end.
“When mixed with the cream, the butter melts quicker because there is simply less of it,” says Volk. “The cream brings a silky mouthfeel to the whole thing. You’re essentially no longer just tossing sugar mixed with milk solids (butter) into hot water, but also sweetened and flavored cream.”
These days, bartenders are going far beyond the addition of ice cream to take the rich, warming soul of the drink and redefine it for todays palate, often by lowering the alcohol and finding a butter substitute without losing its essence.
In Seattle, sommelier Kathryn Olson and bartender Zac Overman of L’Oursin have been developing a mulled wine version of HBR for a couple of years. This season, it’s finally on the menu. The key to their Vin Beurre, a take on the French vin chaud, was finding the right wine. “We’ve worked with some 100 percent folle blanche and ugni blanc wines in the past, and we love the full body countered by absolutely screaming acidity,” says Overman. To this he adds some honey, thyme, toasted almonds, ginger and golden raisins, crowned by a slip of calvados butter—unsalted butter whipped with Manoir du Montreuil calvados—that he keeps at room temp behind the bar. “Having that extra weight and texture in the winter is really comforting to me,” says Overman.
In this era of fat-washing spirits, it’s no surprise that a number of bartenders are infusing the butter right into the rum itself, giving the flavor and texture, without all the added fat. For his version, Little Drummer Girl, Patrick Halloran at Henrietta Red in Nashville washes the rum with brown butter to add some toastiness and gets the desired spice from a concoction of Amaro di Angostura and Carpano Antica sweet vermouth. And in a move that defies the warming quality of the old standard, Halloran serves the drink chilled, topped with whipped banana liqueur cream.
Ryan Lotz, bartender at Cambridge’s new Shore Leave Bar, also serves his chilled, taking inspiration from tiki master Donn Beach’s iced spin on the HBR, the Pearl Diver. He goes one step further, however, and makes his cold buttered drink with reposado tequila and tamarind butter—a far cry from New England’s colonial ties to the cocktail.
Tequila is finding its way into the hot buttered field elsewhere, too. At Arguello in San Francisco, Enrique Sanchez makes his Pumpkin Buttered Tequila by stirring pumpkin butter into añejo tequila, alongside warming spices including cinnamon, cloves, star anise and Cannella cinnamon cordial, which itself includes four different types of the aromatic spice.
Rather than making the butter element the main event, Grace Bernotavicius, at Chicago’s Ludlow Liquors, gives the rum component full attention in her Not Buttered Rum. She uses three different rums, each contributing something different to the drink: the Venezuelan Santa Teresa 1796 gives a rich sweetness while the Smith & Cross Jamaican rum ups the proof and brings some funk and the Plantation Xaymaca adds a desired dryness.
In fact, there’s no butter in Bernotavicius’s recipe at all. Instead, she uses a cold-pressed, organic coconut oil. “I’ve recently been trying to eat more plant-based, so I was trying to think of a vegan alternative to butter,” Bernotavicius says. First, she used a mixer to cream the oil with sugar and spices—just like any other batter. The result was lacking the texture she was looking for. Ludlow’s chef, Nick Jirasek, recommended she add a pinch of xantham gum (a vegan stabilizer and emulsifier), which was just the trick. “I was finding that the oil was sitting on the top of the drink, this just helped bind everything together,” she says. No ice cream necessary.
In early 2015, Campari approached Kristin Donnelly, co-founder of small-batch lip balm manufacturer Stewart & Claire, with an intriguing proposition. The Italian spirits giant wanted her to produce a Negroni-flavored product for them.
“I didn’t think I could do it, but I mixed myself a Negroni, and started playing around,” says Donnelly. “It’s such an aromatic cocktail, so it’s hard to figure out. There must be hundreds of botanicals between the gin, vermouth and Campari.”
But by combining a few essential oils—from jojoba, Peru balsam, gentian root, sweet and bitter oranges and, of course, juniper—she eventually created something that smelled a lot like the of-the-moment cocktail. Campari had intended to simply use the lip balm as a giveaway during that summer’s annual Negroni Week, but Donnelly realized the product had staying power and began offering it to her customers. Three years later, it’s still Stewart & Claire’s best-seller.
But Negroni-flavored lip balm is just the tip of the iceberg. Today there are Negroni donuts, Negroni ice creams, Negroni lollipops, Negroni pizzas, Negroni beers and even Negroni salt. These products are sold in suburban malls, coastal hipster boutiques and on Amazon. More than any other cocktail, the Negroni has transcended the drinks arena to become a flavor unto itself.
“I think a lot of these products are a fun way for people to reimagine this iconic cocktail,” explains Karen Foley, publisher of Imbibe. “They’re also a great way for people to be introduced to the flavors of the Negroni if they’ve never tried the cocktail itself.”
In 2013, the same year that Campari and Imbibe launched their inaugural Negroni Week, dishes inspired by the bittersweet Italian cocktail began popping up. That July, the first article on the phenomenon appeared in the Bay Area’s 7X7, which claimed Campari had “found a new home on plates and in kitchens throughout the city,” citing several dishes, including Perbacco’s Negroni caramel popcorn.
Desserts were, in fact, the Negroni’s entrée into the culinary world. “Boozy baking was definitely something that had already been on the rise for a while,” recalls Foley of the era, and the Negroni’s sweet and bitter, citrusy and floral flavor profile just naturally worked in a variety of items. Butter & Scotch, a food stand at Brooklyn’s weekly Smorgasburg, stumbled onto a hit when cocktail bar Ward III asked them to make Negroni pies for their Sunday “industry night.”
“Cocktails work well because they are sugar-based to begin with, so it’s no great stretch to translate that flavor into dessert form,” explains Keavy Landreth, co-founder of Butter & Scotch. Her Negroni pie has a custard base made with equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth which she claims is balanced by its savory all-butter crust. The incredible buzz it generated on social media eventually helped Landreth and her partner open a brick-and-mortar shop in Crown Heights in 2015.
If many of these Negroni items appeared organically early on, by then Campari was heavily promoting the emerging “trend” to writers. (I must admit I wrote about this new wave of Negroni foods for Esquire that very summer.) That year Campari’s PR team asked Manhattan’s The Doughnut Project if they could produce Negroni donuts, while Tipsy Scoop, an alcoholic ice cream maker, was asked to produce a Grapefruit Negroni Creamsicle flavor.
It wasn’t just desserts either. Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco started offering a Negroni-esque pizza as early as 2011, which included a Campari and blood orange reduction as the sauce base. Oregon’s Jacobsen Salt Co. created a Negroni salt that combined mineral salt with juniper berries, orange peel and Campari. The Negroni even spread to other beverages with Colorado’s New Belgium and several other breweries creating Negroni beers.
It’s easy to think this onslaught of Negroni items only exists due to a brand’s marketing ploy. But, if it was so simple to go viral, why wouldn’t, I don’t know, Gosling’s make a push for Dark ‘n’ Stormy pies? Or Galliano try to infect the world with Harvey Wallbanger cupcakes? Even as both Campari and Imbibe have slowed down on commissioning and promoting Negroni spin-off items, new ones have continued to emerge while the original ones show real staying power.
Of course, other cocktails have indeed been tackled by the food world. The much-maligned Mojito had a bit of a moment outside the cocktail world in the late aughts, though it always appeared in distinctly more white-bread settings—“lo-cal” powdered drink mixes, as frozen dinners, on chain restaurant menus and especially in the form of grilling rubs and marinades. These items weren’t really a comestible analogue for the rum cocktail; they were just minty and citrusy and vaguely “Cuban,” piggybacking on the popularity of the cocktail’s name. Thankfully, most of those products have been discontinued by now.
As for the most famous cocktail of them all, the Martini seems destined to never escape the confines of the cocktail glass. Its dry, boozy flavor profile just doesn’t seem to work elsewhere. “I considered a Martini lip balm,” explains Donnelly. “But with the essential oils [I’d need to use], you know, juniper and lemon, you’d probably have people going, ‘Does this smell too much like a bathroom cleaner?’”
Ultimately, it’s not merely flavor profile that has allowed the Negroni to reign supreme outside the bar scene. Its name alone carries a certain mystique; evocative, but not just of one thing, it allows the cocktail to shapeshift into new forms without losing its essential charm.
“The Negroni just has a certain allure,” claims Donnelly, “with its Italian connections, as a before-dinner drink, as something bitter that is also sweet. The romance of it all continues to be really appealing to people.”
When, in 2005, bar owner Audrey Saunders began considering what the bartending staff would wear at her soon-to-open cocktail temple, Pegu Club, she was certain at least what she didn’t want to see them in. “I was sick of going to a club and seeing a bartender in a black-colored shirt,” she told me back in 2014.
Surely, her remark was an oversimplification of typical bartender apparel prior to the dawn of the cocktail renaissance. Or was it?
This past September, veteran New York bartender Tim Cooper posted an old photo of himself on Instagram, captioned: “Bartending back in 1998 when the mandatory bar attire consisted of different variations of a black T-shirt.” He added the hashtag #BlackShirtBartending.
Turns out, bartending in a black T-shirt was a thing in the United States once upon a time, informed by a 1990s bar and club world that valued slimming and dirt-hiding apparel over bartending skills. Think of the poster for the 1988 film Cocktail. What is Tom Cruise wearing? Yeah, that’s right.
“I felt every bar job I had, or every bar I ever went to, it was just a variation of a black shirt,” recalls Cooper. “A black T-shirt or a black button-down.”
Hardwick can’t count the number of bars he worked at where he was required to don black shirts. He estimates it’s somewhere around 70 percent of his bar jobs, from the time he began bartending in the late 1990s to until about 2006. “I still have had a few that called for it since then,” he says. “Usually in the Meatpacking District.”
Sometimes the noir look went beyond the shirt. At Stars in San Francisco, in 1999, Venegas wore black from head to toe. The only places where he saw a different uniform were traditional joints—bars where the old-fashioned, white-jacket-and-bow-tie uniform was still in effect. “I used to hit up Ross for their selection of black shirts,” remembersVenegas. “I know at one time I preferred the Kenneth Cole shirts and had about four in rotation.”
So why were all the nation’s young bartenders once draped in the color of night? Theories vary. The most common is based on the same line of thinking that prevents most people from buying white carpeting.
“I think the premise behind it was, if you got dirty behind the bar, it would hide the dirt,” says Cooper. To Derek Brown, this attitude never made sense, as aprons perform the same practical duty. Plus, if you’re a decent bartender, you should be able to stay stain-free through a shift. He suggested another, less kind reason that employers put their bartenders in black: anonymity.
“You blend into the background at a dark bar,” says Brown. “Nice, if your goal is to have servants. But bartenders aren’t servants. In fact, their personality is often what brings people to the bar.”
Others conjecture that the style was rooted in more superficial concerns. Black was slimming; black was sexy; black was what the bartenders in the hot clubs in New York, Los Angeles and Miami were wearing. “I think there was this environment where there was a lot of vanity involved,” posits Cooper. “Many of the bar owners were looking for this model look. If you were a guy, you had to be clean-shaven and well put-together. The same with the women.” (An inadvertent irony of this hiring bias, Cooper suggested, is that bartenders with facial hair and tattoos—basically, the archetypal mixologist look—went to work at cocktail bars because they couldn’t get a job elsewhere.)
If there was a single club or bar or restaurant in the United States that launched the black-shirt bartending aesthetic, the bartenders interviewed for this article couldn’t name it. But everyone was certain what did the uniform in. At the dawn of the craft cocktail revival, bars and bartenders started taking their trade more seriously and looking to the past for guidance. Bartenders in the 1890s didn’t wear black T-shirts—they wore crisp white shirts and ties, arm garters and vests, and they kept themselves spotless. A few of the early craft cocktail bars, such as Flatiron Lounge in New York and Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco, still leaned on the black-shirt look in their early years. But things started to change soon after.
“It took a minute for bars to define their own images and trust their bartenders to dress accordingly,” says Venegas.
Hardwick still sees the residue of the trend in genre bars that are a little slower on the uptake, such as pubs and sports bars. But in cocktail dens, black has not come back. You may see a T-shirt in today’s more casual era of cocktail bartending, but if it’s opaque, it’s probably the bartender’s personal choice.
For Brown, who regarded black-shirt bartending as “multiple levels of failure” style-wise, the garment’s banishment from the bar is just fine, and he hopes it continues that way. After all, he needs more time to recover.
“I own a few black shirts that I wear out casually,” he says, “and still have a little PTSD when I put one on.”