Dives of Distinction: Cocktail Culture Comes Down to Earth
The era of the overwrought cocktail is giving way to a more informal style of imbibing. Welcome to the age of the high-end dive
By Noah Rothbaum
Jan. 13, 2016
FROM CONSTANTLY changing phone numbers to secret entrances and whispered passwords, finding a great cocktail over the past decade has often required privileged intelligence.
The so-called contemporary speakeasies-located everywhere from New York to Las Vegas and, at this point, most smaller cities between-forced drinkers to channel their inner Eliot Ness to hunt down a table. The establishments’ generally clubby décor and mazes of dimly lit rooms provided perfect cover for hushed exchanges of information, and the air of exclusivity extended to the drinks, as well. These were temples to the obsessively crafted cocktail. You might wait 15 minutes as a mustachioed mixologist added arcane ingredients via eye dropper to your chosen concoction, all the while barely acknowledging your presence at the bar. Behave the least bit rowdily or, heaven forbid, order something so pedestrian as a vodka martini, and things could get very uncomfortable indeed.
Now, a new breed of watering hole is winning favor. These bars are mashups of sorts, combining the relaxed atmosphere of a dive or pub with the panache of craft cocktails (minus a superfluous ingredient or three). And while these haute dives might not take themselves overly seriously, they’re still committed to using top-shelf booze, fresh squeezed fruit juice and impressively large ice cubes.
In a way, this moment mirrors the one that followed the 1933 Repeal of Prohibition, when the original speakeasies found themselves suddenly unfashionable. After years of underground drinking, both figuratively and literally, a new generation of Americans wanted to experience the joys of simply walking up to a bar and ordering a drink without a chaser of fear.
Today’s shake-up of drinking habits may be less dramatic, but this new generation of watering holes aims to offer some of the sophistication of contemporary speakeasies without their pretensions. The change may also reflect waning fascination with the Prohibition period-“Boardwalk Empire” is, after all, off the air-and renewed attention to the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.
While New York City launched the recent speakeasy trend with pioneers like Angel’s Share, Milk & Honey, Employees Only and PDT (Please Don’t Tell), it has also spearheaded the new style of dive. Look no further than St. Marks Place and its beloved, dumpy Holiday Cocktail Lounge, a storied haunt of punk rockers past. After a three-year renovation, the proverbially gritty East Village neighborhood bar has been spiffed up (though, thankfully, not too much) and given a new cocktail program by notable bartenders and brothers Michael and Danny Neff. It still serves a cast of neighborhood characters but also attracts well-dressed hipsters sipping cocktails that involve everything from blended Scotch to cachaça to mezcal.
A few blocks south you’ll find Boilermaker, which, naturally, offers a full menu of Boilermakers-the cocktail pairing a beer and a shot-featuring different whiskies alongside a range of brews, from lowbrow to craft. The joint, which opened in fall 2014 with a decorating scheme running to old beer cans and welding accouterments, also serves plenty of other well mixed cocktails, including several on tap. Its drinks program was cocreated by industry veteran Don Lee, who rose to fame at none other than New York speakeasy PDT. “Most people don’t go to nice bars but to neighborhood bars. And neighborhood bars are behind the times,” said Mr. Lee. With Boilermaker he wanted to create “the standard for the middle, just higher.”
A short jog uptown, on the border of the Hudson Yards housing development, mega-restaurateur Danny Meyer launched Porchlight, his first stand-alone bar, last spring. The vast, nearly 4,000-square-foot space is the polar opposite of a speakeasy, with a large sign, big windows that look out on Eleventh Avenue and plenty of room for chatty parties and boisterous last-minute post-work outings. The drinks, a range of new creations and seasonal old favorites, are designed, clearly, with Instagram in mind.
The trend has gone beyond the five boroughs, too. Louisville, Ky., boasts the Silver Dollar and the Haymarket Whiskey Bar, which both, naturally, offer long whiskey lists, as well as a generally lively atmosphere. The Haymarket has vintage pinball machines and skeeball, which you can play while sipping a bourbon highball.
I’ve seen an analogous change in the cocktails served, too. While many contemporary speakeasies specialize in fantastically complicated modern creations and resuscitated pre-Prohibition drinks, the new high-end dives often serve up simpler two- or three-ingredient classics or spins on classics, like Old-Fashioneds, Negronis and Dark ‘N’ Stormys. Legendary bartender Dale DeGroff has been forecasting the trend for years. We’re “getting back to what bars were when they were bars and not craft bars,” Mr. DeGroff said recently. “That’s why everybody’s saying we love dive bars.”
The Normandie Club opened last January in Los Angeles with a big curvy bar built to serve plenty of thirsty patrons. High ceilings give the place an airy feel and a refreshing openness. (If you desire more of a speakeasy experience there is a second bar in the back, which you enter through a door near the restroom.) The menu’s small, with just seven drinks that are all house variations of standards, such as a Daiquiri that calls for apple brandy in addition to rum and lime juice. But on a recent night, the talented staff was more than willing to fix me a drink not found on the list-one that called for (gasp) vodka. It was an order that would have elicited a withering sneer in many of the speakeasies. Here’s to the repeal of that sort of “service.”