Though most of us aren’t intimately acquainted with bathtub gin, have never had trouble with Prohibition agents, and couldn’t tap out a Charleston to save our lives, we’re more than familiar with the speakeasy. The biggest trend in cocktail drinking in the past decade, the 1920s-style modern speakeasy relies as much on aesthetics – low lighting, creaky jazz tunes, braces-wearing barmen – as it does on cocktails (serious, classic, often bespoke).
It’s been a successful format for a long time. And in 2014, following the speakeasy’s near-global domination, it’s officially time to bid it adieu.
For what comes next, we turn to New York. As the speakeasy’s birthplace (see classic bars like Milk & Honey, PDT, and Death & Co), the city is practiced in launching drinking trends. Now, a number of New York cocktail bars are doing away with the passwords-and-secret-doors routine in favour of less charted territory. The inspiration is broad: from more recent historic eras to cocktails with a culinary twist, these spots are all harbingers for what’s next. Sip up, then – no Charleston required.
One of the best bar openings in recent memory is The Dead Rabbit, found on Water Street near Manhattan’s southernmost tip. A historic venue that skirts around any 1920s trappings, The Dead Rabbit instead takes its inspiration from a specific moment in New York history: the 1850s, when Lower Manhattan was home to notorious street gangs (the bar is named for The Dead Rabbits, an Irish American group who featured in Gangs of New York).
Once inside, you’ll find few pugilistic gang-members and more cocktails. Far more. The menu is vast, and is the product of years of research put in by co-owner and head bartender Jack McGarry, who was named International Bartender of the Year at 2013’s Tales of the Cocktail. Just 24 years old, he’s crafted a menu of 72 different drinks, from punches to possets. The result is a bar that successfully conjures up a specific time period without relying on the décor to do its historical heavy lifting.
Historic themes don’t have to stretch back over 100 years to be engaging, though. Golden Cadillac looks to a more recent (and surprising) period in drinking history: the 1970s.*
A carnival of gaudy gold alongside retro wood panelling, the bar looks like it could be a set for American Hustle. While many will raise an eyebrow at the decision to bring back an era that gave us fruit-laced, sugary confections like the Tequila Sunrise and the Harvey Wallbanger, Golden Cadillac is overseen by Don Lee – a bartending maestro who’s done time at PDT – so the drinks are as sophisticated as they are playful. Alongside the namesake Golden Cadillac, you’ll find a Mule that subs in smoky Mezcal for Vodka and a Mar-Tea-Ni that calls for Earl Grey-infused gin. Golden Cadillac is proof that there’s room for creativity even in the supposed “dark age” of cocktails.
Of course, not all in the latest batch of New York cocktail bars are looking to the past for inspiration. Henry: A Liquor Bar, an expansive new operation helmed by London export Ryan Chetiyawardana, is the antithesis of a dim speakeasy: bright, loud, and fully contemporary.
Pitched as a culinary minded bar, Henry’s surprising cocktails read like entrees, often featuring vegetables and other savoury flavours. The bar treats its drinks as a chef might do, using locally sourced ingredients and focusing on seasonality to guide its offerings. It’s a smart move, as New York diners are now well versed in these hallmarks of New American cooking. Why not apply them to cocktail drinking, too?
When the bar first moved into the space (in the Hudson Hotel), Chetiyawardana says he fell into the concept: “There was an amazing array of chefs on hand who could help navigate me through wonderful produce that was new to me, and even more amazingly, a whole room of specialist equipment that wasn’t being used. . . As a result, we settled on a ‘modern seasonal’ menu – trying to incorporate the best from New York.”
Of New York’s most recent openings, the bar that skews most closely to a speakeasy is Nitecap – but only at first glance. Opened by the crew behind Death & Co, it is, admittedly, a dimly lit little den located in a basement below Jewish restaurant Schapiro’s. But don’t be fooled by its subterranean looks: Nitecap was designed to be a bartender’s bar, with plenty of easy-drinking, unpretentious quaffs best enjoyed at shift’s end.
The menu is full of signals not to take it too seriously – you can order straight spirits “by the slug,” shots-and-beer-like combinations are listed on the “Shorty Service” page, and the first section features beverages meant to be downed quickly – like the Beyond the Pale, a mix of Manzanilla sherry, framboise, mint, and sparkling wine. Service is easygoing, and there’s nary a bowtie or flat cap in sight.
It isn’t yet clear which trend will ultimately take the speakeasy’s throne – or if there will be a single successor at all. But it’s about time drinkers had a little more choice in their cocktail haunts. Speakeasies, you’ve served us well – but we’re excited to see what comes next.
Feature image © Daniel Krieger
**As of Autumn 2014, Golden Cadillac has closed. In its place, Don Lee and partners have opened new retro cocktail den, Boilermaker.
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