One of the best ways to quickly get a feel for a new city is by visiting one of its bars or pubs. War correspondents have a saying for this – it’s called covering the story from ‘mahogany ridge’ – and nowhere is that phrase more apt than the beautifully kept wooden bartops of some of New York’s best cocktail bars.
The spiritual home of the cocktail is currently enjoying a revival in drink mixology, thanks in no small part to the popularity of the TV series Mad Men, which sees Don Draper and the gang reach for the highball glass at every available opportunity.
Smaller speakeasy style spots have opened up, away from the tourist trap zones and gaining notoriety on a slow word-of-mouth basis.
With this in mind, I’ve enlisted Dale DeGroff, a master mixologist and native New Yorker dubbed as ‘the King of Cocktails’, to be my drinking partner and tour guide for the evening. Like the Mad Men, Dale is an old-time advertising exec, although he’s now better known as a multi-award winning bartender who spearheaded the Manhattan cocktail scene throughout the 80s.
We also have a film crew in tow, who are capturing this spirit-fuelled odyssey for Expedia.co.uk’s People Shaped Travel video series, which reveals unique experiences in cities around the world. Sadly, they’ll be sticking to soft drinks all night. Sorry chaps.
Our cocktail safari starts at Employees Only, one of the pioneers of the new speakeasy movement and a favoured watering hole for New York hipsters.
Dushan Zaric, co-owner and bartender lovingly crafts a Provencal cocktail for us – lavender-infused Plymouth gin mixed with dry vermouth, Cointreau and herbs de Provence, finished with a flaming peeled orange – while outlining the bar’s philosophy.
“The speakeasy was where when the fun happened during Prohibition,” he says. “Women started to socially drink in public, everyone was breaking the law. It was a sexy, carefree time. We are celebrating that feeling.”
I’d love to linger but Dale is keen to show me the next hotspot, a Soho-based artisanal cocktail lounge called Lana Kai.
Sidling up to the bar with the practiced ease of a man used to getting served first, he introduces me to owner Julie Reiner.
“When I heard about a place doing wild recipes with peaches, tea and blood oranges I knew I had to check it out,” he says.
There’s a big city meets the tropics feel to the place – like a blend of the Manhattan cocktail with a Mai Tai – and it fits perfectly with the pulse and edge of Gotham.
We try a Gold Coast Punch, a mixture of aged rum, allspice syrup, pineapple, lime juice and a champagne splash. It’s the South Pacific in an oversized brandy balloon.
“This whole place is a love letter to my native Hawaii,” explains Reiner.
Our final nightcap comes at PJ Clarkes, a Manhattan institution with, says Dale, New York’s best bartender at the helm.
He is Doug Quinn, impeccably clad in old school ensemble of white shirt and bow tie, and the bartender of choice if you are after the true Mad Men-style cocktail drinking experience.
“That TV show has definitely driven sales of more traditional drinks,” he says. “Gibsons, Sidecars, the Old-Fashioned, Manhattans, people have developed a taste for tried and tested authenticity.”
As we retire to a table once permanently reserved for Frank Sinatra when he was in town, Dale DeGroff looking every inch the cocktail patriarch, I notice the other bar staff looking at him in almost reverential awe.
Clearly, for New Yorkers, the cocktail is king.
How to do it
Four nights room only at the five-star The Ritz-Carlton New York, Battery Park is from £1,059 per person, based on two sharing a Statue of Liberty view room. This includes direct return flights from London Heathrow to JFK with American Airlines, departing on 1st December 2011. Located three blocks from Wall Street, this luxury hotel is a short walk from Battery Park, the Statue of Liberty ferry terminal and National September 11 Memorial.
For reservations, visit www.expedia.co.uk or call 0330 123 1235.