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Why Panamanian Rum Will Be Your New Favorite Drink

Top-shelf rum is finally having its moment. According to International Wine & Spirit Research, the high-end rum market is expected to grow 5.5 million cases by 2019.

Mirroring the uptick in global spirit sales, there’s an influx of bars serving specialty cocktails in the the up-and-coming Casco Viejo district of Panama City. Partially thanks to the country’s wealth of sugarcane — which contributes to Panama’s stockpile of rum — this high-quality liquor has crossed the border and is destined for New York City.

Panamanian Terroir

What makes Panamanian rum different from that of other Caribbean or Central American countries? Can local sugarcane transmit an identifiable terroir?

Around Pesé — a town located in a fertile valley of the Azuero Peninsula and home to the Varela Hermanos, S.A. distillery — distinct weather patterns exist and create an unmistakable terroir. According to Ron Abuelo Rum’s global brand ambassador, Cristóbal Srokowski, the region boasts a unique climate called the Arco Seco, or Dry Arch, defined by the area’s lack of summer rain. “The confluence of air from the Pacific Ocean with heat from the Caribbean creates a microclimate of stable temperature and humidity,” says Srokowski. “This is important for controlling the aging process, and — of course — the sugarcane harvest.” Climate stability allows for precise calculations about the evolution of the rum as it ages.

As is often the case with spirits, true terroir-driven differences are often muted by producers’ hands. “I think the distiller and blender play more of a role in the final outcome than the terroir of the cane,” says Tim Cooper, who uses Panamanian rum in cocktails at Sweetwater Social (643 Broadway; 212-253-0477).

 

Worker hand-harvesting sugarcane in Pesé
Worker hand-harvesting sugarcane in Pesé

A Closer Look at Styles of Panamanian Rum

Ron Abuelo: Dark and oak-aged

In 1908, a young Spanish immigrant named Don José Varela Blanco relocated to Pesé, where he established the country’s first sugar mill. By 1936, he and his three sons began distilling alcohol from fresh-pressed juice. Nearly a century later, Luis Varela — a third-generation family member and head of the Varela Hermanos, S.A. — continues to distill spirits, including the premium Ron Abuelo line, from nearly 3,000 acres of estate-owned crops.

Ron Abuelo is one of Panama’s oldest and most popular rums. The company controls 100 percent of their production process: They grow and hand-harvest their sugarcane (without setting fire to the fields, a common practice) before distilling and aging the spirits at their estate. The company also transports a small percentage of cane to the distillery by ox and cart. As part of their sustainable, green initiatives, Ron Abuelo recycles water, uses alternative fuel sources, and helps local communities recycle bottles.

There are four core products in the Ron Abuelo family, and all are dark, oak-aged rums. The Añejo ($15.99) is delicately spiced, lending itself to use in cocktails. The 7 Años ($23.99) has notes of caramel and coconut, and works well with cigars — Ron Abuelo even developed a line of cigars, with Gurkha, imbued with the 7 Años flavor. The full-bodied 12 Años ($34.99) should be sipped…as should the richer, more complex Centuria ($140), a limited-edition bottling that draws from 30-year-old reserves aged in American whisky barrels using a solera system.

The company will soon release a trio of cask-finished rums using port, oloroso sherry, and cognac barrels. They debut in New York in two to three weeks, with an anticipated retail of $70. The rum finished in port barrels conveys the red-fruit intensity of the cask’s previous inhabitant, while the sherry barrel version extracts the nutty, savory notes of its predecessor. The cognac barrel’s effect is subtler, rounder, and slightly sweet.

Caña Brava Rums
Caña Brava Rums

Caña Brava: Cuban-style white rum

In distinct contrast to the local legacy of the family-owned Ron Abuelo, Caña Brava is a contemporary brand created by New York bartenders, for bartenders. Simon Ford, Jason Kosmas, and Dushan Zaric — cofounders of the 86 Co. — went around the world asking top bartenders what was missing from their bars’ rum reserves. The answer was always the same: a “Carta Blanca” expression.

Recognizing Panama’s abundant and “incredible” sugarcane, Ford says the team met with eleven distillers for their new project, but had trouble finding a shared vision for the partnership. “We almost gave up,” Ford explains. Then they had a chance encounter with Panamanian national Carlos Esquivel at Miami’s Rum Renaissance in 2010. After hearing the trio’s idea, Esquivel connected them to Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez. Fernandez had made rum in Cuba for 35 years as the Cuban Minister of Rum (yes, that’s a real job) before he moved to Panama to apply his talents to the local agriculture, according to Ford.

Before long, the 86 Co. team hopped on a plane to Central America, and a business was born. Their first rum launched in 2012, intended as America’s answer to Havana Club. “The style of rum we make is based on old Cuban traditions of the classic ‘Carta Blanca’ style,” Ford explains. “It is dry, which makes it a dream to work with if you are a bartender — especially for making drinks like the daiquiri — and it carries a lot of the flavor of the raw ingredient.”

The team’s Caña Brava line has two rums: the “Carta Blanca” style 3-Year-Old ($27.99), and the richer, more aged 7-Year-Old ($39.99). The list of New York bars working with the spirit reads like a who’s who guide to mavens of the NYC drinks biz: Suffolk Arms, Dante, Employees Only (which was founded by Kosmas and Zaric), Dead Rabbit, Nomad, Dear Irving, and more.

Cooper, of Sweetwater Social, vouches for the results: “I love Caña Brava, quite simply because it checks the box for all things that rum should be. Namely, it is clean, aromatic, rich, and complex. Caña Brava is helping to reestablish the Carta Blanca style of rum-making used as the foundation for the classic daiquiri and mojito. What’s not to love about that?” He adds that it’s one of the driest rums on the market, admitting that’s a bold statement to make, “but one I’m willing to be challenged on.”

Other brands of Panamanian rum

While Ron Abuelo dominates the retail space, and Caña Brava caters to bars, other Panamanian products have cropped up — though none are as widely available. For example, Ron de Jeremy is a limited-release developed for porn star Ron Jeremy, marketed as “the original adult rum.” It’s a seven-year-old dark rum crafted by the same Fernandez who distills Caña Brava.

After 50 years of making high-end booze for others, Fernandez finally released his own line of three age-expression rums called Don Pancho Origenes in 2014. The most accessibly priced is the eight-year ($40) — it is assertive and complex with tropical fruit, vegetal, and notes of sweet spice and vanilla. Aged in American white oak barrels, the rum has found its way into cocktails at the NoMad Hotel.

The Washington's Crossing at Sweetwater Social
The Washington’s Crossing at Sweetwater Social

New York Mixing with Panama

Despite the 86 Co.’s influence on the Manhattan drinking scene, Panama’s rums are still a blip on the radar. Striking up a conversation with a couple of off-duty bartenders last week — coincidentally bellied up to the one of the bars using Caña Brava — I got blinks and blank stares in response to questions about the category. “We know Guatemala, Nicaragua, Venezuela,” said one of the bartenders. “But I don’t believe Panama is really a thing yet.” Perhaps because Caña Brava is associated with a style more than a place?

However, at Murray Hill’s Salvation Taco (145 East 39th Street, 212-865-5800), Henry Avila does know about Panamanian rums. “Besides appreciating the history of Ron Abuelo, the brand reminds me of my own abuelo and his love for rum and fresh pressed sugarcane juice,” he says. Avila, of a mix of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, grew up in Miami. He’s been slinging drinks at Salvation Taco for the last three years, and bartending for five.

Avila uses Ron Abuelo 7 Años in the “Ron Picante” (check out the recipe below). “I chose seven-year for the base because it’s made from the fermented juice of fresh-cut sugarcane, which I think gives the rum a brighter flavor and a different kind of sweetness,” he explains. His cocktail is a variation on a classic daiquiri, made with Ancho Reyes, demerara syrup, lime juice, and a touch of Contratto orange aperitif.

At Sweetwater Social, Cooper works both Caña Brava rums into different drinks. “The Washington’s Crossing is made with Caña Brava 3 Year and is a seasonal daiquiri with Gala apple, lime, cinnamon, and maple. The vanilla, cane, and spice quality of Caña Brava works perfectly with the apple aspect. It’s essentially our shameless play on a fall daiquiri.” With Caña Brava 7 Year, Cooper makes a Pistachio Mai Tai, because he believes “the seven-year has the perfect amount of spice and complexity to play with the aroma of the pistachio and orange in the drink.”

If your spring travel plans don’t include a flight down to Panama, why not sample the rums here in New York? All these rums are available locally, and Avila shared his “Ron Picante” recipe for Voice readers to shake up at home.

The Ron Picante, a spicy twist on a daiquiri.
The Ron Picante, a spicy twist on a daiquiri.

Salvation Taco’s Ron Picante Courtesy of Bartender Henry Avila

Ingredients
1 oz Ron Abuelo 7
1 oz Ancho Reyes
1/2 oz Contratto Apertif
3/4 oz Lime Juice
1/2 oz Demerara Syrup

Preparation
Rim the a chilled coupe glass with guajillo chile salt. Lightly shake the ingredients in a cocktail shaker and strain into glass. For garnish, set a lime wheel on the rim of the glass.

Lauren Mowery is a drinks and travel writer, and Master of Wine candidate.

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Forget About Drinking Alone — Sip This Romantic Cocktail for Two

Remember the classic spaghetti scene from Lady and The Tramp? (Hint — it involves two smitten pooches and one plate of pasta and meatballs.) With that sharing sentiment in mind, Moses Laboy of Bottle & Bine (1085 2nd Avenue; 212-888-7405) created a Valentine’s Day cocktail intended to encourage public canoodling.

Laboy’s drink for two, which he calls the “Get Lucky”, employs vodka as the base. While other spirits like bourbon, rye, and mescal can be acquired tastes, vodka is the ultimate neutral. The bartender adds Cherry Heering for sweetness (and a romantic red hue), fresh lemon juice, ginger liqueur, and orange bitters for a little bite.

“I take my cues from the kitchen; I always have,” Laboy says. And the drink features another special touch —  an ice cube with a loving message inside, which is slowly revealed as the ice melts.

Laboy is also making a version of the cocktail with gin, for drinkers who want to spice up the night a little more.

Get Lucky by Moses Laboy
1 1/2 ounces Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur
1 ounce vodka
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce Cherry Heering
4 dashes Regan’s orange bitters
Ice

Write a Valentine’s Day message on a strip of paper, laminate the paper, and put in an ice cube tray. Cover with water and freeze.

Add all ingredients to a shaker with ice. Shake vigorously until cold and double strain over two ice cubes. Serve in a glass big enough for two straws.

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Bushwick’s Yours Sincerely Opens the Door to Cocktails on Tap

Yours Sincerely's Pineapple Express, a draft Pina Colada served in a beaker over crushed ice.

The name of the new bar Yours Sincerely (41 Wilson Avenue, Brooklyn; no phone) may read like the conclusion to a night at Dear Bushwick, the bohemian English dining room next door that co-owners Julian Mohammed and Darren Grenia opened in 2012, but the anonymous storefront – all this time an Airbnb rental hidden in plain sight – has been transformed into a hall in the wall, a narrow passage spouting twenty taps of quick, cheap, and potent sips to start any evening. There are tables where waiting diners can score a perfectly balanced pina colada or negroni faster than a hostess can slip between doors to call their names, and stools that a post-work crowd can snag to shoot a petite beaker of cinnamon-infused mescal and amaro that best resembles a south-of-the-border take on rye, and takes just as long to pour.

“I think people are over the wait for a good cocktail,” says Mohammed. “But we’re industry. We don’t mind waiting, but it’s a long wait and and at some point people are going to be over that. Especially if this happens more often when you’re getting good cocktails at a good speed.” What that means at Yours Sincerely is happy hour prices – shots are $4, cocktails are $8 – paired with dive bar expediency all night long.

Downstairs, Grenia labors to ease the workload of his bartenders, and the wait time of drinkers, by formulating a daily menu of classics, and a few original libations like Transmit The Box, a bittersweet chocolate mescal concoction served on a sphere of ice. After all his prep work, such drinks require no more than an aromatic spritz to finish. 

Co-owner Darren Grenia batching kegs of cocktails in the basement of Yours Sincerely; drinks are piped to the taps upstairs.

The basement laboratory is no bigger than a closet, and the efficiency of Grenia’s program speaks to the future of the owners’ ambitions. “We have partners looking at spots where we can replicate the program, not the look of the space,” says Mohammed. They’ve also begun talking to Allen Katz of New York Distilling about the notion of bottling cocktails for retail sale. “We’d also like to sell cocktails to hotels; it would be amazing to have a warehouse to store them, then we can install them in their bars. You see draft cocktails popping up all over, and bars are headed that way,” says Grenia. “This is the beginning, our testing ground.”

Yours Sincerely is located next door to Dear Bushwick, on Wilson Avenue, and will soon serve small plates from their shared kitchen.

Yours Sincerely wasn’t always going to be a draft cocktail bar, however. Their original idea was to serve only barrel-aged cocktails, until a research trip overseas to the Shoreditch neighborhood of east London convinced them otherwise. They had planned to scout new menu ideas for Dear Bushwick while they were there, when bartenders at basement speakeasy Happiness Forgets put Ryan Chetiyawardana on their radar. “I’ll be forever indebted to them because they pointed us to White Lyan,” says Grenia.

While Chetiyawardana is best known for Dandelyan, his riverfront bar at the Mondrian London on the Thames’ south bank, (which won him both Best International Bartender and Best New International Cocktail Bar at last summer’s Tales of the Cocktail,) he’s also the proprietor of White Lyan in east London, which offers dozens of pre-mixed cocktails and shots at a fraction of the hotel bar’s prices.

“Ryan blew our minds. Darren was picking his brain while we were developing our concept, and he even came to the restaurant,” recalls Mohammed. “He’s a genius and we were never going to get as in depth as he does, but it’s how we made the leap from barrels to batches to taps.”

There are ambitious creations on Yours Sincerely’s menu, spiritous pours that spark and challenge the palate like the Chaos Theory, a shot of chicory-infused bourbon and Jamaican-jerk-infused rum that goes down smooth thanks to a touch of molasses, and a Folsom Fizz, a take on whiskey and cherry Coke minus the cherry, which is simulated by an almond infusion.

And coming sooner rather than later there will be food and bar snacks carried over from the kitchen next door. “We’re just doing small snacks, pork crackling, pickled fish – you’ll know it comes from Dear Bushwick when you taste it,” Mohammed says.

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Ease Into the Tribeca Cocktail Scene With a Gimlet Spinoff From the Bennett

One of the reasons Meaghan Dorman’s cocktails have been so well received is that she leaves a spot on her menu to incorporate a simple, time-tested drink. At the Bennett (134 West Broadway; no phone), over a dozen specialty cocktails are on offer, but with a bartender like Dorman, whose past credits include stints at such fixtures on New York’s cocktail map as Dear Irving and Raines Law Room, you know that each drink is worth a thousand sips.

You should start off with the namesake cocktail when visiting the Bennett (because you can’t name a bar after a bad drink). “I always have a pretty straightforward sour drink,” Dorman says. A riff on the gimlet, which, like so many cocktails, gained popularity in the 1920s, the Bennett mixes Angostura bitters with fresh lime juice, simple syrup, and gin. The result is a drink that’s refreshing, not too overpowering, and pairs well with several dishes — Dorman’s suggestion is the Bennett’s cauliflower croquettes filled with blue cheese. The contrast of fried cauliflower with pungent cheese works perfectly with the gin-and-lime-juice combination, ensuring each of the flavors gets a turn to star on your taste buds.

The Bennett’s food menu is the most extensive Dorman has worked with for any of her openings, and she says the Bennett cocktail is a perfect way for guests to work up an appetite: “You can drink a few of them and not get too bogged down.” The updated twist in this classic recipe is a house-made lime cordial composed of sugar, fresh lime juice, and a dash of cinnamon. The addition of bitters is also important because it balances out the sweet and sour flavors.

The Bennett by Meaghan Dorman

2 ounces gin (Dorman recommends a London dry gin for its floral notes)
1 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice
¾ ounce simple syrup (one part sugar to one part water)
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Shake everything vigorously with ice in a shaker and strain the mixture into a glass.

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The Mind of a Mescalier: Courtenay Greenleaf of Masa y Agave

Wine has sommeliers; beer has cicerones; mescal has…mescaliers!

Yes, it’s a thing, although there’s only a handful of the certified agave experts scattered about New York’s colossal cocktail landscape. Count Courtenay Greenleaf among them. After earning the distinction three years ago, the New England native set up shop at La Biblioteca, the city’s first lounge dedicated exclusively to craft tequila and mescal. In October, she helped launch Masa y Agave (41 Murray Street; 212-849-2885) — a Mexican-accented speakeasy of sorts — in the basement of Rosa Mexicano’s new outpost in Tribeca. Here’s a taste of what makes her bar and its spirits worth their salt.

When descending into the dimly lit, subterranean den, it’s easy to imagine you’ve wandered into some exotic cantina on the outskirts of Mexico City. This is by design. “We wanted to provide our guests, and even our staff, with a very authentic experience,” Greenleaf explains. When it comes to libations, that means incorporating traditional Oaxacan ingredients into the cocktails. Sal de gusano (worm salt), strained corn milk, and a bevy of house-made syrups and bitters infused with native herbs add a bona fide texture into every drink featured on the menu.

“I honestly think that mescal is the most flexible spirit to mix with,” says Greenleaf. “It shines so well on its own, it complements citrus, pineapple, acidity, sweetness; it’s the most diverse [liquor] in terms of creating a balanced cocktail while preserving its natural characteristics.” That versatility is showcased in drinks such as the “Oaxaqueño,” a semi-sweet, semi-smoky tipple, or the “Dama de Noche,” a barrel-aged concoction fusing blended scotch, agave nectar, and artisanal mescal. Both provide superior entry points for the uninitiated.

House infused syrups at Masa y Agave
House infused syrups at Masa y Agave

But to satisfy inquisitive newbies and seasoned vets in equal measure, Greenleaf compiled her very own Agave Bible, the definitive resource on the subject. The compendium includes detailed information on the more than 400 bottles shelved behind the bar. “It was an absolute joy for me to compile the research,” Greenleaf says of the project, which she considers a work in progress. “It took almost four months. I started putting it together in August, and it was a full-time job until we opened in October.” The leather-bound binder breaks down spirits by distillery, delving into the methods of production and regional idiosyncrasies defining each respective operation. “We wanted to provide a book that would be able to represent each distilling family with great accuracy.”

Her carefully curated tasting flights, ranging from $18 to $45, feature three generous pours tied by a singular theme. The Tahona, for example, highlights mescals produced with stone-ground mills, rather than mechanical shredders, effecting a greater degree of earthiness in the glass. Each flight is garnished in traditional Oaxacan fashion, with orange slices rubbed in chile salt.

To become a mescalier, Greenleaf had to pass a rigorous test challenging her mastery of agave subspecies — any of two dozen of which are frequently used to make mescal. She also had to identify terroir and how it interacts with the palate and recall all the denominations of origin. Yet even with this wealth of knowledge, Greenleaf avoids the pretentious trappings of many a schooled expert. In fact, she seems to derive the greatest pleasure in steering newcomers toward their proper point of accessibility; she recommends Fidencio Unico or Bruxo #1 for those looking to go light on smoke, with more of an emphasis on caramelized sugar. Of course, the excitement also percolates when talking shop with self-proclaimed connoisseurs.

The Oaxaqueño cocktail
The Oaxaqueño cocktail

On the food side, Masa y Agave reaches for flavors to correspond with the spirits. And Greenleaf has tasted her way around the menu enough to recommend some killer pairings. One of her favorites — “besides chocolate, of course” — is a bold, smoke-heavy mescal served alongside the Tamale de Cochinita, house-ground masa with a gritty texture wrapped around roasted pork in a guajillo sauce, all topped by a tangy queso fresco. Look for a mescal-friendly, house-made chocolate to land at the bar in the next few months, courtesy of the mescalier.

As one of the fastest-growing spirits categories, mescal is undeniably having its moment. As are the destinations developing its lore, and the knowledgeable specialists promoting it. Courtenay Greenleaf is helping drive this movement. “People are catching on. And they love our little nook down here. It’s a very cozy environment, and we’re seeing a tremendous response.”

What a beautiful buzz, indeed.

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The Ten Best New Bars in NYC, 2015

Far from an arduous task, keeping up with the drinking scene in NYC is one of the ongoing pleasures of living in this exhilarating place. This year we saw mixologists experimenting with exotic spices, spirits and infusions, much to our heady delight. Here’s our top ten list of 2015’s best new drinking establishments. Cheers!

Mace 
(649 East 9th Street, 212-673-1190)
The real miracle on 9th Street wasn’t the Christmastime pop-up former Experimental Cocktail Club barman Nico de Soto brought to the East Village these past two holiday seasons, but what sprung up in-between. Last spring, he transformed the former Louis 649 space into Mace, a steely, muted Parisian boite colored only by the herbaceous ingredients that sharply season each drink on the menu. While the narrow space doesn’t offer much room to breathe, it offers plenty of flavor to inhale deeply, from the assertive Celery Seed, wrapping an infused mezcal with a chipotle tincture in a haze of sherry, to the creamy Chamomile, which swaddles floral notes with brown butter fat-washed cognac. (Adam Robb)

Holiday Cocktail Lounge (75 St. Marks Place, 212-777-9637)
Most beloved dives can’t afford to update their offerings while maintaining their charms, but the spring reopening of Holiday Cocktail Lounge was a happy surprise. The address hasn’t changed but the building has, thanks to a bountiful investment by its owner (and the inventor of Pirate’s Booty.) And the mural dedicated to Holiday’s predecessor has endured as well as the bar’s former patrons, as perennial an ornamentation as Holiday’s twinkling Christmas lights. And if they look a little lost sipping on a menu revamped by Michael and Danny Neff – most recently responsible for invigorating the enduring charm of the Hotel Edison with their Rum Bar – they can still feel at home with the prices, which include $5 cans of Rolling Rock and $7 Long Island iced tea on draft to wash down $6 grilled cheeses. (Robb)

Lumos is the place for baijiu
Lumos is the place for baijiu

Lumos (90 West Houston Street, 646-692-9866)
NYC is filled with specialty bars. There are thousands of whiskey joints, tons of tequila taverns, tiki bars, rum pubs, mezcal haunts. If it exists, it’s in the Big Apple. Baijiu, an ancient Chinese spirit made from sorghum and/or rice, has only recently been acknowledged by bartenders in the West. Baijiu cocktails have been popping up on beverage lists at speakeasies and Asian-inspired eateries over the past couple years, but Lumos is the first bar to deal solely in the celebratory liquor. Since last spring, lead bartender, Orson Salicetti (formerly of Apotheke), has been mixing up a seasonal list of cocktails that enhance the varied aromas of the booze. Look for interesting drinks like the Goji ($15), a rich and smoky riff on a paloma with goji berry-infused Baijiu shaken with mezcal, pink grapefruit, lime, agave and orange bitters. With rare grog and an underground cabaret vibe, a trip here is an experience. Stop by on a Saturday: they offer burlesque shows in  the back room. (Sara Ventiera)

Dullboy's menu leans heavily toward classics such as the Last Word, Paloma, and Gibson.
Dullboy’s menu leans heavily toward classics such as the Last Word, Paloma, and Gibson.

Dullboy (364 Grove Street, Jersey City; 201-795-1628)
Liquor licenses in Jersey City don’t go unused for long, so last February,shortly after Park & Sixth owner Brian Dowling relocated his original restaurant to the south side of Grove Street, he teamed up with The Garret’s Adam Fulton to open Dullboy in its place. It was a quick turnaround, its low-lighted ambiance evoking the drafty chill of The Shining with billowing dime-store paperbacks and disused typewriters mounted to the walls. The menu was limited; fresh oysters shuffled through the pass of the former sandwich kitchen, and the drinks menu was a rough draft at best. Now at year’s end, the room is packed – extending to the benches outside – and you can’t see the decor past someone you know, even as competition’s proliferated over the past ten months. Now bartenders Gabriel Reiben and Grant Wheeler execute a menu of original libations like the mezcal Alejandra, packed with the earthiness of achiote syrup and chocolate bitters. Now clean slurps of oyster are still an option, but so are hot, buttered bar steaks and marrow-slathered burgers. Now’s the time to check it out. (Adam Robb)

Serious drinks in a laid-back atmosphere
Serious drinks in a laid-back atmosphere

Porchlight (271 Eleventh Avenue; 212-981-6188)
When Danny Meyer is involved, you know a place will be worth its salt. This Chelsea pub offers serious drinks in a laid-back atmosphere, comforting mixology novices while challenging booze connoisseurs — a win for everyone. Head bartender Nick Bennet breaks down the selections into four categories: Guzzlers; Classics, Sippers, and Nerdy (“late-night experiments that worked”). You can’t go wrong with anything, but the latter section is worth paying special attention to. There’s a whiskey and cola ($15) that’s a high-end riff on a Jack and Coke with mellow corn whiskey, Fernet Vallet, and homemade cola syrup. The IPA-Mazing is as good as it sounds — a refreshing and slightly bitter mix of Tanqueray, grapefruit, passion fruit, and Other Half IPA. (Ventiera)

Mother of Pearl (95 Avenue A, 212-614-6818)
Even when it’s 70 degrees in December, New Yorkers will forever appreciate an escape to a tropical destination. However, while conga lines and frozen margaritas do have an upside, its the modern tiki bar Mother of Pearl, helmed by Jane Danger, that provides the best excuse to break out a floral-patterned shirt. By maintaining serious cocktails within the wacky world of tiki – think quality balanced ingredients being slurped out of shark’s mouth – the bar demonstrates Polynesian isn’t passé. Mix in a menu of crudos, fried rice, and Southeast Asian-style bites, and you’ll be able to postpone that long awaited vacation just a bit longer. (Billy Lyons)

Loosie Rouge (91 South 6th Street, Brooklyn; no phone)
2015 should be remembered for the resurgence of the piano bar as a reason to go out, mostly because of the efforts of Loosie Rouge. On any given night, you’ll find bartenders whipping up vieux carrés while patrons quietly tap their feet – or perhaps dab in plain sight. Simplistic, refined, and overall straight-up cool, the bar may be named after a loose woman, but its reputation is tight. The New Orleans-style subterranean bar embraces the idea of a cocktail as a global agent of change. Though your ideas may never leave the room – which might happen given the strength of the cocktails – you’ll nonetheless be reminded that when a bar has the lights on and music playing, something good is bound to happen. (Lyons)

Bar Goto (245 Eldridge Street, 212-475-4411)
Although the Lower East Side is flush with drinking destinations, few operate with as much finesse as this handsomely appointed, eponymous offering from Tokyo expat and respected barman Kenta Goto. Behind an L-shaped bar, he and Mat Resler stir and shake inspired cocktails ($15), from the Tom Collins-esque Yuzu-Calpico Fizz (which uses Japanese milk soda and receives a marshmallow topping) to the cherry blossom-garnished Sakura martini, and even a mushroom-inflected bloody mary. While the drinks and atmosphere drip with understated class, chef Kiyo Shinoki’s bar snacks get down and dirty. Tackle joyfully messy miso-glazed wings, burdock root fries, and rectangular slabs of okonomiyaki pancakes studded with meats, seafood, and atypically, sun-dried tomatoes and three cheeses. (Zachary Feldman)

Latin flair in Cobble Hill
Latin flair in Cobble Hill

Leyenda (221 Smith Street, Brooklyn; 347-987-3260)
Inspired by the South American travels of her youth, Ivy Mix opened this Latin-inspired Cobble Hill cocktail bar with her mentor, Clover Club’s Julie Reiner. Mix, who won Best Bartender in America this year at booze industry convention Tales of the Cocktail, fleshes out her drinks list with around twenty offerings, highlighting spirits like cachaça, pisco, and Bolivian brandy, plus plenty of rums, mezcals, and tequilas to boot. Consulting chef Sue Torres complements tipples like the Tia Mia — which melds mezcal, rum, orange curaçao, and almond-like orgeat syrup — with a pan-Latin menu of pupusas, flautas, ceviche, and mofongo. (Feldman)

Slowly Shirley (Downstairs, 121 West 10th Street, 212-243-2827)
With this buttoned-up subterranean watering hole, owners Jon Neidich and Jim Kearns perfectly complement the Happiest Hour, their raucously popular West Village saloon that sits right on top of it. Descend past palm tree wallpaper to a low-ceilinged chamber lined with plush maroon booths and a bar stocked to the brim. Down here, Kearns runs a fastidious program, mixing signature drinks with esoteric spirits and pointed presentations. Don’t miss his Tahitian Coffee (for two). Served in a Chemex coffeemaker, the $35 tipple shakes up Barbados rum with pisco, cold brew coffee concentrate, falernum, honey, and tropical fruits. Slowly Shirley also graciously offers the same In-n-Out-inspired cheeseburger that’s made the upstairs such a hit, should you wish to partake of your meat sandwich in windowless semi-privacy. (Feldman)

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New Year’s Resolution: Try a Tea-Infused Soju Negroni at Oiji

Ryan Te got his start in the kitchen at Oiji (119 1st Avenue; 646-767-9050), but when an opportunity came up to get behind the bar this fall, the first-time bartender got fired up about creating an inaugural drink selection. The Chicago native, whose training includes culinary school, wine studies, and working at The Modern, developed a menu designed to pair with the restaurant’s well received Korean-influenced menu, with a focus on the Korean spirit soju. Though it may take more time to develop the same cult following for soju as the restaurant’s honey-butter chips, Te says enjoys the challenge. “As a cook, you’re always learning. I love learning. I love being able to build something from scratch.”

Soju is particularly interesting to Te because the spirit is on the verge of finding a completely different audience. Due to a variety of factors, using rice to make soju in Korea became illegal at the turn of the 20th century, which is why many people grew up tasting the spirit made with sweet potato and chemical additives. Now that the ban is no longer in effect, soju is taking off not only in it’s native country, but even right here in New York in areas like the Finger Lakes. “We’re just now starting to see a rebirth in the 700 to 800-year-old traditional in soju making that’s all rice, very artisanal, very aggressive, everything like that,” Te notes.

“In my opinion, it yields a very rich product, ” Te says. “There’s kind of a sweetness to it, a fullness of body if you will, that lends itself to infusing very elegantly.” The sweetness Te refers has subtly, which makes the spirit extremely versatile whether its used as a base or a modifier.

A negroni is a classic drink and popular with guests — this variation was the first one to make Te’s new menu. Made with a jasmine tea-infused soju, the drink retains its bold character, but the infused soju tempers the bitterness associated with the Campari-based drink. Aperol and orange bitters are used to play off the jasmine and furthur tone down the impact of the Campari.

Check out the recipe for Oiji’s Hwayo negroni:

Hwayo Negroni
1 1/2 ounces jasmine tea-infused hwayo (soju)
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
1/2 ounce Campari
1/4 ounce Aperol
1 dash Fee Brothers orange bitters
Orange peel

Add all ingredients to a mixing glass and stir. Strain into a glass with one very large ice cube. Add an orange peel as garnish.

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Porchlight Will Ring In 2016 With a Big Easy Bash

New York can often feel like hundreds of cities squeezed together. On New Year’s Eve, New Orleans will be represented in a big way when Union Square Hospitality Group’s Southern-inspired cocktail joint, Porchlight (271 Eleventh Avenue; 212-981-6188), opens its doors for a festive Crescent City immersion. Executive chef and NOLA native Jean-Paul Bourgeois will be cooking up a roast suckling pig, fried frog legs, and crawfish pies to pair with a quartet of cocktails made in collaboration with (and served simultaneously at) the Big Easy’s own Cure cocktail bar.

General manager Michael Shain, managing partner Mark Maynard-Parisi, and head bartender Nick Bennett first hit upon the idea when they met Cure owner Neal Bodenheimer (who did a stint at the Modern before migrating down south) at the epic cocktail fest Tales of the Cocktail this past summer.

“After a few conversations, we were able to create a menu that not only represents our own cocktails but also some New Orleans classics and Cure heavy-hitters,” Shain explains. Of particular note is the Champagne shrub for toasts – a mainstay at Cure made with preserved fruit – and the tequila-based yerba agave. “Yerba agave was a standout right away since there are few tequila-based southern cocktails. This one from Cure evokes a lot of comfort and soothes the soul. It’s complex yet incredibly smooth and easy to drink,” Shain says of the concoction, which also contains Benedictine — an herbal spirit that boasts medicinal roots — and crème de menthe.

Bennett describes these as “old school” as much as they are “NOLA-inspired” while noting that he’ll be pouring ten additional cocktails, half lifted from Porchlight’s whiskey-heavy offerings, like the “Flag Day,” made with Rittenhouse rye, Grand Marnier and the digestif amaro, Cardamaro, and an absinthe suisse, a smooth blend of its namesake spirit (specifically Vieux Pontarlier from eastern France), creme de Menthe and egg white. The other drinks are Big Easy classics like a sherry cobbler, Creole julep, and Bennett’s personal favorite, the Café Bruot, made with Louis Royer Cognac, orange, baking spices and coffee. He notes the drink is s a great way to “seal the deal.”

Dubbed “New Year, New Bar, New Orleans,” the border-defying celebration will employ the talents of the retro-jazz group Hot Jazz Jumpers – who could have escaped from a Woody Allen movie – to invoke the Dixieland-spirit of blues and world music that’s at the heart of the city’s famed music scene. The gin-based “Jitters,” featuring the French vermouth Noilly Prat Dry, seems made to be brought out onto the dance floor.

Jugglers, magicians and acrobats will mingle throughout the crowd and a tarot card reader will be on hand to let you know how those soon-to-be-made resolutions will pan out. “Given our Southern roots, we thought it would be fun to celebrate the Big Easy’s exuberant culture of free-flowing drinks, soulful food and incomparable live music,” Maynard-Parisi notes.

The open bar festivities will flow from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. with “churched-up” jello shots to imbibe between drinks and “boozed-up” root beer floats and egg nog because, as Mae West famously quipped, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”

Tickets are $175 and are all-inclusive — get them here.

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Featherweight’s ‘The Cleaner’ Cocktail Teams Gin and Bourbon

Creating cocktails off the beaten path sits just fine with Featherweight’s (135 Graham Avenue, Brooklyn; 646-257-0946) Johnny De Piper. Tucked away under a large mural of a boxer, the bar itself is a testament to the obscure — a feather marks a nondescript door, which is the only indication of the warm environment inside.

Cut from the cloth of the Milk and Honey school of bartending, the bar offers a selection of updated classics, one of which is known as “The Cleaner.” Although it sounds more like a boxing moniker, the name is actually a subtle reference to the film Leon the Professional and a similarly dangerous, yet pleasant drink.

“It’s a play off the Hitman [cocktail]. It has the same kind of weird flavors going on,” De Piper says. Those flavors have a lot to do with the use of Virgil Kaine high rye, which the bartender notes has a grassy, floral profile that works well with Aviation gin. Gin and bourbon may not be the most common tag team, but De Piper notes that the addition of high rye helped give the drink “a backbone.” He originally started out using just gin, but found the drink needed to be punched up a little. Once he confirmed the pairing would work well together, allowing each spirit to shine without overshadowing one another, De Piper was able to add flavors he loves such as maraschino, ginger, and fresh lime.

“Maraschino is just such a weird ingredient to me. It’s like nothing else,” De Piper says. He might not have all of the words to describe its flavor, but De Piper’s use of the cherry liqueur balances the cocktail. After all, even tough-sounding drinks named after fictional contract killers need to have some slight, unexplained sweetness to them.
 
De Piper feels that the drink is bold, and its non-traditional ingredients make it more appealing than the tried-and-true standard classics. “I think it’s a little more adventurous. Gin pairs well with a lot of other things, but you rarely ever see it with bourbon,” he explains.

The Cleaner by Johnny De Piper of Featherweight

1 ounce Virgil Kaine high rye
1 ounce Aviation gin
3/4 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice
1/2 ounce maraschino liqueur
1/2 ounce ginger syrup
Angostura bitters

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker. Shake and strain into a chilled glass. Top off with a few dashes of  bitters.

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Pork Taco in a Glass — PDT’s al Pastor–Inspired Tipples Are Drinkable Feasts

Tacos al pastor might not yet be a controversial foodstuff in NYC, but in Mexico City the widespread adoption of this shawarma-inspired snack has led to a diverse array of preparations — and with them, just as many conflicting opinions. “Everyone thinks they know where the best one gets made,” writes chef Alex Stupak on his restaurant group’s blog.

Stupak loves the combination of pork, pineapple, onions, cilantro, and salsas so much that he opened a restaurant devoted to the dish, and his arrival on St. Marks Place last year incited strong feelings in Jeff Bell of PDT (113 St. Marks Place; 212-614-0386), one of NYC’s most storied drinking dens.

Bell, head bartender of the not-so-secret secret bar, went searching for ways to replicate the spicy-porky flavors of al pastor in a cocktail and found fruity salvation in bottles of Pok Pok Som pineapple drinking vinegar, Cabeza blanco tequila, and smoky, spicy Ancho Reyes chile liqueur. The drinking vinegar lends a mild fermented sourness, which Bell accentuates with lime juice.

Yeasty, grain-forward pilsner beer from Pennsylvania’s Victory Brewing company plays understudy to the tortilla’s starchy role. Bell also rims the glass with the cumin-and-chile-forward N. 37 spice blend from Hell’s Kitchen specialty shop La Boîte.

However, he removed the drink from the menu once another al pastor–flavored beverage became available, thanks to PDT honcho Jim Meehan and Evil Twin Brewing’s Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø. Bell tells the Voice the pair “had been speaking about a possible cocktail-beer collaboration [of Evil Twin and PDT], so Jim connected us,” adding that after they tasted through some of PDT’s vast cocktail menu, “the Pils al Pastor was the obvious choice.”

Curious imbibers can find the beer (also called Pils al Pastor) at PDT and in stores around town. Bell was also kind enough to send over his cocktail recipe:

Pils al Pastor

1 ounce Cabeza Tequila
3/4 ounce Pok Pok Som Pineapple Drinking Vinegar
3/4 ounce lime juice
3/4 ounce Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur
Victory Prima Pilsner

Shake with everything with ice, then strain into an ice-filled chilled pilsner glass rimmed with La Boîte N. 37 spice blend and kosher salt (1:4 ratio). Top with 3 ounces Victory Prima Pilsner.