About Manhattan, New York


Mixing it up recently with the drinking crowd in Manhattan held a number of surprises for me. Sure I knew about the speakeasies and prohibition style bars hidden behind art galleries, tucked off narrow alleyways or down steep stairs to an unmarked door. But a full-fledged winery in the city centre, an underground bar decked out like a two-storey vintage passenger ship and a whiskey saloon with hundreds of dark spirits at half the price of most places. Sleep be gone, there’s too much fun.

When I first started coming to NYC in the seventies, there was an element of danger and I knew to avoid many streets after dark. So the first surprise was I never felt unsafe prowling around at all hours deep into the neighbourhoods of Manhattan. Back then Harlem was a no go zone. Later it was on the tourist map with guided tours for the daring. This time around I found out my friend Carol has bought a trendy Harlem condo and enjoys the neighbourly vibe of the place.

After dinner in Lower Manhattan’s West Village Carol and I walked to Raines Law Room, a cozy hidden bar below ground behind an unmarked door. Overstuffed couches, exposed brick, a tin ceiling and heavy drapes created the speakeasy atmosphere with buttons to push on the walls to summon staff. It was perfect for good conversation late into the evening. (The Raines Law enacted in 1896, restricted Sunday alcohol sales to hotels serving their guests. As Sunday was the only day the working class had off in those days, bars circumvented the law by adding rooms with the unexpected consequence of an uptick in prostitution.)

Nitecap in the Lower East Side takes its cocktails very seriously. David Kaplan and Alex Day, the drink experts behind Death & Co teamed up with bartender Natasha David to open the cocktail lounge in the basement below Schapiro’s two years ago. Eater Magazine picked Ms. David as both their national and New York bartender of the year in 2015 and she was also named StarChef’s 2015 Rising Star Mixologist. David told me it takes the staff about two hours of prep before opening to get all their syrups, infusions, fresh juices and other cocktail ingredients ready each night. The cocktail menus themselves take about three months to develop and change twice a year for the seasons (fall/winter and spring/summer).

“There’re lots of rowdy dive bars in the area,” said Ms. David. “So I think I offer a sense of refuge from the craziness on the street.” Her cocktails have whimsical names such as Third Date (vermouth, Ancho Reyes, sour cherry cordial), Piranha the Pisces (cachaça, Gifford Pamplemousse, all spice) and Dressed to Kill (two ryes, vermouth, Campari, apricot).  They are so good my plan to only have one quickly morphed into two with a desire for even more.

The Ship in SoHo, co-founded by Cervantes Ramirez and Joseph Schwartz both well-known and loved city bartenders, has been lauded for its well-executed nautical theme. Sandwiched between metal-shuttered storefronts, the entrance is almost hidden. After descending the steps of this pseudo-secret basement bar, the big revelation is 19-foot ceilings, recycled ship parts transformed into light fixtures, banquettes made with old sail material, porthole bathroom mirrors, nautical art and more which transforms the space into the inners of a ship. Cocktails, service and small plates (such as lobster buns and Korean-style BBQ short rib sliders) are all excellent.

The Whiskey Ward in L.E.S. goes easy on the cocktails to make dark spirits its focus – about 250 to 300 bourbons and whiskies at any given time. Open 16 years now, it’s a laid back place housed in a building from the 1800s with exposed brick, a long old wood bar and pool table in back. You can get a one ounce pour of rare whiskies such as Pappy Van Winkle for $30 an ounce (instead of $120 a pour uptown) and tasting flights of any three whiskies you choose. It’s all drinks, no food (though you can bring or order in if you wish) with a 4am closing hour. In other words a real no frills saloon.

The City Winery in SoHo in Lower Manhattan calls itself “the world’s first fully functional urban winery”. I met with chief winemaker, David Lecomte, a native of the Rhone Valley in France, and learned that the winery sources grapes from some of the best vineyards in California, Oregon, Washington and elsewhere where he maintains a constant contact with growers.

Once picked the grapes are chilled and express transported in refrigerated trucks. When they arrive at the NYC winery they are sorted, destemmed and fermented on the spot in stainless steel tanks into wine.  Reds are then aged in French or American oak barrels. When ready the wines are bottled and labelled at the winery. It’s a complete operation producing about 8,000 cases of wine annually of chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, merlot and more.

The winery also does custom blends for a limited number of winery members who purchase a barrel of wine (at $8000 to $10,000) which yields them each 252 bottles of their private label. Also at the winery is the cozy 40-seat Barrel Room restaurant serving about a dozen wines on tap, 20 in-house produced wines, 500 international labels and tasty Mediterranean inspired dishes. If that wasn’t enough, in their adjacent 350-seat venue space they host about 320 concerts a year (annually about 250 different performing artists are booked) with food and drinks available at the seats throughout the shows.

City Wineries are now in Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta and soon to be in Boston. The welcome surprize is that Toronto in the plans for in the future, using Canadian grapes from Niagara and beyond.

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