With new cocktail dens such as White Star and Apotheke opening every other week, modern cocktail history is being made on the streets of New York City, even as I write this sentence. But whatever delectable potions today's mixologists come up with, they have much to live up to. There are few cities that compete with Gotham when it comes to cocktail history.
The revived cocktail culture of the 21st century has brought along with it a mini-boom of bibulous historians, turning once obscure bartenders such as Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson into demigods of America's rich mixology heritage. For them, and in toast to the commencement of the fall drinking season, we offer this local walking tour of tippling history. Keep in mind, this tour is not meant to be comprehensive, but is rather a selection of historical sites.
And, one caution: Do not drink and walk. Walk first, then drink.
Bemelmans Bar, Carlyle Hotel
35 E. 76th St. at Madison Avenue, 212-744-1600
For the blue-blooded patrons of this snug piano bar, the traditional cocktail hour never went into eclipse. The Bemelmans — named for Ludwig Bemelmans's whimsical murals — is one of the last classic hotel bars in a city that used to have dozens. Adding contemporary currency to its cocktail profile were recent stints by bartenders Dale DeGroff, now a famed consultant, and Audrey Saunders, founder of the West Village's Pegu Club.
King Cole Bar, St. Regis Hotel
2 E. 55th St., between Fifth and Madison avenues, 212-753-4500
Jog a block west to Fifth Avenue and 20 blocks south (okay, take a cab if you like) to the St. Regis Hotel. Part of the problem with a Manhattan cocktail walking tour is that developers in the city tear down old hotels and bars with reckless abandon. Many of the places where famous drinks were first purveyed no longer exist. A happy exception is the St. Regis's ritzy King Cole Bar, with its celebrated Maxfield Parrish mural, "Old King Cole," from which the bar takes its name. Fernand Petiot, a former bartender at Harry's New York Bar in Paris, came here in 1934 and brought his invention, the Bloody Mary, with him. Oddly, they called it the Red Snapper at the King Cole. They still do today.
21 W. 52nd St. at Fifth Avenue, 212-582-7200
Walk down Fifth Avenue and hang a right at 52nd Street to the '21' Club, one of the last former Prohibition-era speakeasies that still operates as a drinking establishment. No famous cocktails were born here, though the restaurant still promotes the almost-certainly apocryphal story that it is the birthplace of the Southside, a gin concoction with mint leaves and lime juice. (I'll give them this: A lot of Southsides are drunk here.) Stand at this age-old wooden bar, and you can easily imagine how cocktails were enjoyed back in the day.
59 W. 44th St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-840-6800
Walk down Sixth Avenue to 44th Street and turn right. Inside, the Algonquin doesn't look much like it did when such famous lushes as Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley made it their second home. But it's a survivor. They serve a drink called the Algonquin Cocktail, consisting of whiskey, dry vermouth, and pineapple juice. (Not my cup of tea, but hey — the cocktail's more than 60 years old, so it must be popular with someone.) This is also where Benchley supposedly once said, "Let's get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini."
Walk to Broadway and down two blocks south to the Crossroads of the World. Unsurprisingly, a lot of drinking history occurred at this intersection. On the southeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street, you can still see the Mansard-roofed beauty that once was the Knickerbocker Hotel. The bar was so favored a watering hole of uptown swells in the first two decades of the 20th century that it was called the 42nd Street Country Club. (It was also the original home of Parrish's "Old King Cole" oil painting.) Its main importance in cocktail history, though, lies in the once-prevalent claim that its head bartender, Martini di Arma di Taggia, invented the martini in 1912. This is balderdash, since mentions of the drink had been appearing in print for decades prior to that. But give ol' di Taggia a quick salute, anyway.
Directly opposite Broadway was the Hotel Metropole, another popular way station for actors, politicians, and the like. Its house cocktail was the Metropolitan, which is basically a Manhattan, but with brandy standing in for the rye. It hasn't retained the fame the Manhattan has but is still a damned decent drink.
Hop on the N, R, or W subway line and take yourself down to Madison Square. From the 1860s to the turn of the century, before Times Square fully bloomed, this was where the action was — socially, theatrically, politically, and alcoholically. On the corner of 23rd Street and Broadway was the exclusive Fifth Avenue Hotel (1859-1908), a Republican haunt purported by some to be the birthplace of the Rob Roy (basically a Manhattan made with Scotch). Up the street, between 24th and 25th streets, was the Hoffman House (1864-1915), a Democratic lair that had a world-famous bar. Here was christened the Hoffman House Cocktail, which looks suspiciously like a 2-to-1 gin martini, and a Hoffman House Fizz, an ornate, creamy affair now on the menu at Brooklyn's Clover Club. Up at 30th Street and Fifth Avenue, on the southwest corner, was the Holland House Hotel, the progenitor of the Calvados-based Widow's Kiss.
Walk to the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 26th Street for some serious cocktail history. There are naysayers to every tale of cocktail origin, but an argument that the Manhattan cocktail was invented at the Manhattan Club remains fairly strong. The Club sat at this corner, in the Leonard Jerome House, built in 1859 and now long gone.
Before we leave the area, walk down to the southwest corner of 22nd Street and Broadway, the current location of Restoration Hardware. Here, according to David Wondrich's book "Imbibe!" (Penguin), Jerry Thomas, celebrity bartender nonpareil and author of America's first published cocktail guide, owned a popular saloon in 1866.
There's more to cocktail history in Manhattan, of course. But, by now, you've run out of leg-power, and I've run out of space. So, swing down to 37 W. 19th St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues, to the Flatiron Lounge, where the bartenders can mix you a shining example of any of the libations mentioned above. Tchin-tchin.