Xperience Days recently visited the wonderful Urban Oyster for their East Village Craft Cocktail Tour. This includes all the ins and outs of the experience, so read more if you interested in purchasing!
The best way to explore New York City is simply by walking the streets, discovering the different neighbourhoods and stopping for food and drink at as many restaurants, cafes and street carts as humanly possible.
Well, that’s what I thought until last week, when I went on the Craft Cocktail Tour of the East Village; I can now surmise that the best way to explore NYC is by way of a cocktail tour. During this two-and-a-half-hour excursion we stopped off at three different bars in the East Village to sip different cocktails, while learning about the history of the cocktail movement in the city and how it evolved over time.
Happily, the tour kicked off with a snack. Lining your stomach before an evening of drinking is always a good idea, so this seemed pretty sensible… but these weren’t ordinary cupcakes. These were boozy cupcakes – very boozy cupcakes, where the alcohol hadn’t been cooked off at all. They tasted great, and we learned that people began baking boozy cupcakes during the prohibition era, when drinking was illegal, so no one could tell they were imbibing booze.
Prohibition became one of the main themes of the evening, and it was fascinating to learn how this movement shaped the alcohol scene in the U.S. Before prohibition kicked in in 1920, the cocktail business was booming, and the late 19th century and early 20th century were seen as the golden age of the cocktail. From 1920 – 1933, Americans had to find new, more surreptitious ways to enjoy a drink.
The first bar we went to was a Cuban-themed bar called Cienfuegos. It’s the type of bar you would walk right past if you didn’t know it was there; it’s basically just a doorway, but when you walk up the narrow staircase you’re greeted by a warm and buzzing bar. In keeping with the Cuban theme, the first drink we tried was a rum punch, which was served in a large communal bowl.
We ladled the punch into our glasses and got to sipping. It was delicious: the bold flavour of the dark rum was offset by the refreshing hints of Aperol, lime juice and cucumber. Though the punch was strong, we nibbled on some insanely good yuca fries to help keep us level headed. This was only the first stop, after all!
The next sojourn was an old speakeasy, William Barnacle Tavern, where we learned more about how prohibition affected the cocktail movement. The risk of police arriving and arresting drinkers was very real, so people no longer wanted to wait around while the bartender mixed a complex drink up. They wanted a quick fix… and what could be quicker than Absinthe?
At William Barnacle, we learned that absinthe was technically illegal in the U.S. until to 2007. This was due to a smear campaign against it, where critics insisted that one of the ingredients in absinthe – wormwood – had hallucinogenic properties. This isn’t true, but it took a long time to reach the conclusion that it wasn’t the wormwood that was causing the hallucinations… it was the alcohol.
We drank the absinthe in the traditional way: the absinthe is poured into a glass over sugar cubes positioned on slotted spoons. As the luminescent-green liquid drips onto the sugar, it’s then set alight to create a richer texture before cold water is dripped on too. Sweetened by the sugar, the absinthe had a much more mellow taste than I anticipated – I actually really enjoyed it, although if you don’t like aniseed it’s probably safe to say it won’t hit the spot.
The last stop was at The Late Late, an Irish-inspired bar located on Houston Street. The Late Late is modelled on a 1960’s period Irish residence, and is named after the Late Late Show, Ireland’s longest running TV talk show. Forget the idea of the stereotypical “Irish Pubs” that are so prevalent in the U.S. today; The Late Late utilises key ingredients of Irish hospitality and then adapts them to fit modern New York society.
The signature cocktail here is the Late Late Old Fashioned, a unique variation on an Irish-influenced classic. American Rye by Jim Beam is topped with rhubarb and wormwood bitters, and then a cherry-infused Guinness reduction is added. Lime zest gives the drink a refreshing citrus finish, and helps balance the roasted notes from the Guinness reduction and the sharp rhubarb bitters. While not a whiskey fan on the whole, I really enjoyed this drink. Though the idea of a cherry-infused Guinness reduction initially threw me, it’s safe to say I’m now a convert.
After we’d finished our drinks the tour was over… but the night was still young. Fuelled by our three different cocktails (as well as those boozy cupcakes), my friend and I decided to head back to where we started: Cienfuegos, for another round of that delicious punch.