Well, 2016 has been a year, hasn’t it. Bling and bigotry and bloviation triumphant; the revival of that old chestnut from the dive-duck-and-cover years, nuclear war-fighting; safe spaces in the media and, apparently, government for loser Ku-Kluxers and wannabe Nazi pig-dogs; and the untimely deaths of something like a quarter of the people who help us smile through the fear and the loathing. Plus Suicide Squad.
Aside from gaping in horror as the trains steamed in slow motion towards each other on the same track, I spent this year doing what I always do: either chained to the computer writing articles on things such as the history of America’s oldest whiskey brand (in two parts, no less!), the revival of Colonial-era peach brandy, and McSorley’s Saloon as a memory-palace, or ping-ponging from place to place talking about drinks and their history.
Along with that pinging and ponging there was some drinking, some of it even memorable. Here, then, is an idiosyncratic list of eight of the best things I drank this year. Most of them relied on their surroundings to make them memorable, so that’s how I’ll talk about them. There are, however, a couple of others that would be delicious even if you drank them in the lobby of Trump Tower.
Pisco Sours at the Hotel Maury, Lima, Peru
Eloy Cuadros has been behind the bar at this warm, wood-paneled Lima institution for 54 years, which means that he learned to make Pisco Sours from guys who learned to make them from Victor Morris, whose bar made the drink a thing in the first place. He makes his with at least three ounces of pisco (Ocucaje is the brand, poured out of gallon glass jugs), key lime juice, egg white and lots of sugar. He also uses an old electric cocktail mixer, just like the legendary Constante Ribalaigua used to use at the Floridita in Havana to make Hemingway’s Daiquiris. Somehow, sitting in the bar at the Maury, knocking back these (stiff) cocktails with a lively crew of locals and snacking on cancha (parched corn), you slowly get to realizing that life doesn’t get much better.
Highland Park Ice ($300)
In July, I stepped down from my job of 17 years, writing about drinks for Esquire magazine. (New management, plus it was time.) The folks at Highland Park sent me a bottle of this stuff because it is 17 years old. While I appreciated the very kind gesture, the bottle, which comes in a Norse-ish looking wooden cradle of complex mechanism, did not necessarily inspire confidence: I’ve always been in agreement with Sam Spade’s dictum, “the gaudier the patter, the cheaper the crook” and I tend to regard innovative packaging as suckerbait. But then I broke out the bottle one evening while sitting around the table with a bunch of friends who know their whisky. Half-inch by half-inch, damned if we didn’t drink the whole thing. We didn’t plan on it, but even at just under 54-percent abv, it just drank itself. The subtlest, most delightful whisky I’ve had in ages, all heather honey and sweet barley and just a little overt oak to keep it from going all gooey on the palate.
Shots of Paddy’s Irish Whiskey at Tom Barry’s, Cork, Ireland
My wife Karen and I set off to find Tom Barry’s one raw and blustery afternoon at the recommendation of the wonderful Rosie Schaap, poet and drinks-writer, who knows Cork very well indeed. It was not an easy bar to find: it’s in the Lough, a maze of quiet, narrow streets that stretches up a hillside across the river Lee from bustling downtown Cork, and it’s unmarked. By the time we tentatively pulled open the blue door, we were well chilled. “Feckin’ cold out there,” said the bartender as we walked in. Within moments, she had us hooked up with glasses of Paddy, the most under-appreciated of the heritage brands of Irish whiskey. Smooth and grainy at first, it hides a little kick that gets your furnace going on a day like this. We took the second round out to the back yard, where there was an alcove with a fireplace and a turf fire. I don’t know if the Irish saved civilization, but if it was something we could vote on, they’d have my vote.
Backyard Caipirinhas, Brooklyn
Karen and I had a barbecue planned for our little rectangle of backyard in Brooklyn one Saturday last August. Unfortunately, it was 97º degrees out, sunny and humid. Now, we have a rule: rain or shine or 97 freakin’ degrees Fahrenheit, if we say we’re barbecuing we’re barbecuing. We just take steps to mitigate the damage. In this case, that meant tenting part of the yard. It also meant a Caipirinha bar: a pyramid of limes, a bowl of sugar, a chest of ice and every bottle of decent cachaça we had in the house. After a lot of rummaging in closets and cabinets, that turned out to be at least a dozen bottles (okay, I like cachaça), at least half of them unavailable here. (That’s no surprise: Brazil has something like 5,000 brands of the stuff, and only a few are imported.) There is no pleasanter way to spend a sweltering Brooklyn afternoon than drinking a gang of artisanal-cachaça Caipirinhas, testing the various brands against each other and getting to the not-minding stage of heat survival. Among the brands you can get here, the Avuá Amburana, aged in amburana-wood barrels, which give it a black cherry note ($40), and the clean, grassy Novo Fogo Silver ($30) were particularly effective.
Big Ass Can of Genny Cream Ale, Gooski’s, Pittsburgh
Polish Hill, perched on one side of the steep ridge that divides downtown Pittsburgh from the more genteel neighborhoods to the east, is a quiet old neighborhood. Gooski’s however, is anything but quiet. It’s a true rock & roll dive, the kind of bar we don’t have in New York anymore (anyone who used to hang out at the old Mars Bar—now a TD Bank—would feel right at home here). Jukebox, check (with lots of home-burned CDs full of disreputable, loud trash). Bar food, check (fried pierogi!). Rowdy, but not bro-ish crowd, check! As for the drinks, there’s plenty of cheap whiskey and local beer on tap, but show me the dive-bar aficionado whose soul is so dead that he or she can see a huge, frosty green 24-oz can of Genny Cream on the bar without pestering the bartender for one, too. Clean, pleasant and, of course, cheap.
Mojito, La Factoria, San Juan, P.R.
La Factoria is that rare thing, a venerable dive that has been taken over by—and let’s avoid distasteful labels here—a new generation of bartenders, and yet is not destroyed or betrayed in the process. This beat-up old corner bar in an ancient Spanish building in the heart of Old San Juan remains un-airconditioned and open to the street. The bartenders, nattier than in years past, are still pleasant and hospitable, and if they’ve got a list of innovative new cocktails, they don’t mind making the simple old classics. To sit at the bar of an afternoon, sipping a perfectly-made, cooling Mojito (with Don Q, the hometown favorite, of course), as the ceiling fans lazily circle overhead and the tourists pass by, put off by the lack of sports TV and beer signs, is to know contentment.
Ticonderoga Cup, Ticonderoga Club, Atlanta
I’m prejudiced here, as according to the annals of the Ticonderoga Club, I used to be its president, some time back in the Bush years. According to those same annals, though, the Club goes back to the late 1700s, which is a neat trick seeing as it opened in Atlanta’s Krog Street Market only last year. Run by Greg Best and Paul Calvert, a pair of long-time bartenders who pioneered modern drink-making in that city, the TC abounds in goofy history, mythmaking and invented iconography, none of which it takes too seriously. All that stuff, however, falls under the rubric of Bar Amusements, something that great bars used to be rich in but is now generally replaced by “look how innovative our cocktails are.” One of those things is far more fun than the other. But, as the Ticonderoga Cup—a mix of rum, Cognac, sherry and punch fixings—aptly demonstrates, all fun aside, these guys know how to mix a drink. Plus, they’ve got a real kitchen, turning out a small, but not tiny, list of dishes that are as sensible, well-executed and delicious as the drinks.
Boulevardier, Long Island Bar, Brooklyn
Like La Factoria, the Long Island Bar is an old place taken over by a new generation, but while at the former they basically let things ride when it came to the décor, at Long Island Toby “Cosmopolitan” Cecchini and Joel Tompkins, said new generation, put a whole lot of energy into restoring this rundown 1949-vintage bar to its original postwar splendor. They didn’t stop there: they also restored the culture of the bar. With a lively group of regulars and a corps of wise-cracking, veteran bartenders so confident in their skills that they don’t have to show off, the Long Island is unpretentious and excellent at the same time, and also fun. For his version of the classic Boulevardier (basically, a whiskey Negroni), Cecchini bottles up a mix of Campari plus a house blend of whiskies and one of vermouths. Order one and it’s stirred with ice, garnished, poured into a beautiful glass and put in front of you in the time most bars take to get the ice into the mixing glass. A beautiful thing (and also a dangerous one).
In April, 1900, Frank Philip Newman, an English-born bartender of German extraction who was working in Paris, published American Bar, a cocktail book. Many of the recipes in it are for the standard American drinks of the day, but he also threw in a few of his own. Frank’s Cocktail was, not surprisingly, one of them, and it’s a winner. We don’t mix a lot of drinks with white port in this country, or any, really, but it’s one of those ingredients that softens a liquor without masking its flavor. When you’re working with something subtle, like good Cognac, that is a very useful trait. I first mixed one of these up in January and I’ve tried to keep white port in the refrigerator ever since. The drink is rich and…soothing. Very soothing. We need that.
Ingredients:1.5 oz VSOP-grade Cognac such as Hine Rare or Ferrand Ambre1.5 oz White port1 tsp Grenadine or, as Newman amended the recipe in 1904, maraschino liqueur3 dashes Orange bitters
Glass: CocktailGarnish: Lemon peel twist
Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with cracked ice. Stir and strain into chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon peel twist.