It’s curious how these things happen. I recently met the editor of a food publication, who asked about my areas of food expertise and ignorance. Cooking, restaurants, markets, wine – I’ve got it covered. But cocktails… well, “I look forward to learning more”.
For me, cocktails have always, quite literally, been the murky end of the watering hole. I typically stick to wine or the occasional Delirium/Chimay Bleue (though I do appreciate a good gin & tonic or mint-packed mojito). Over the years, my cocktail-obsessed friends have staged several initiations: The mint julep (I’ve always loved Ray Charles’ “One Mint Julep”), the dark and stormy (when in Bermuda…), my first [dirty] martini (love olives! love gin! we’re in Paris!)…they all failed to seduce me. And don’t even get me started on cocktails that don’t remotely taste of alcohol (signing that tab is like signing off on the worst hangover of your life).
But in the week since that interview, serendipity’s crept in. First, a Brooklyn nightcap with jazz musicians. They were sipping Islay Malt, and I was enraptured by the smoke in the air. Though I could only get down a few sips, unlike other dark liquors I’ve sampled before, this one held held my interest and made me want to learn to drink it. The composer and bartender of the group studied me determinedly, ultimately deciding a Campari would be my better companion. Surprisingly subtle sweetness and the scent of orange rind, followed by the bite of grapefruit bitters…I was hooked. As I gazed into the crystal ball of my dazzling pink drink, an optimistic cocktail future opened slowly before me.
Cue The Tippler.
Slated to open in May, the Tippler didn’t make its sub-Chelsea Market debut until mid-September, but the crowds are already more than trickling in. Right off the crossroads of the Meatpacking – where 6-inch-stiletto’ed vixens, charming-but-cocky entrepreneurs, and borderline-legal social-climbers come to play – the entrance to the Tippler could be easily missed. The only sign of their existence, jutting into an otherwise empty alley, is a yellow-bulbed throwback, we’re “OPEN”.
Once inside, it was clear I was still in the quartier of cool. The crowd was not quite pre-Boom Boom Room – perhaps more post-Pastis – but the vibe was decidedly “sophisticated, creative, urban professional”. I was running late and – without even batting an eye at the drink menu – grabbed a glass of (very good) vinho verde. But when I joined my friends at the back table, I sensed that the cocktails spread over the table were not the good ol’ classics of Robitussin-y yore. The raves started at a low rumble, but quickly fixated on a certain “Sea Monkey“. “It feels like drinking celery,” someone said, as the tumbler tilted towards my lips. Sea and celery indeed – but not overly brine-y – and anise, but mellow, like fennel.
Curiosity peaked, I asked the bar-man for another whimsical gin drink. “Curly & the Turk” : Blue curaçao, gin, lemon, hibiscus, chili pepper – it looked like a snowcone for adults, but the citrus and spice more than balanced the sweet.
From there I met “The Marauder of 15th Street” : tequila, gin, chile, bitters, smoked salt – the layers of flavor unfolded like a beautifully-plated, boozy dish. A friend chose the bison grass vodka “Derek Smalls” – the unusual herbaceous kick prompting audible expressions of excitement. In brief, it was if we had landed on the sophisticated, understated set of Charlie & the Cocktail Factory : a bar of “pure imagination”.
Before you dismiss my whimsical musings – I should present some of my more serious bar companions. That night, I rubbed elbows with the likes of cocktail consultants, restaurateurs, and stylistas – veterans of strong drink to say the least. They too were more than tickled by the Tippler, and with good reason.
Because somewhere beyond the immaturity of binge-drinking and the snobbery of cultivated consumption, there is the possibility to revel in a truly remarkable cocktail. The Tippler has beautifully hit the bulls-eye, drink after drink.