Prohibition-era style, without the hooch
At the onset of Prohibition, New York was inundated with hidden gin joints, and gangster bootleggers like Jack “Legs” Diamond and Charlie “Lucky” Luciano oversaw an underground network of distilleries that extended from Brooklyn into the Hudson Valley. Nearly a century later (and with a few distilleries back in action), New Yorkers eager for a taste of the past are once again ducking into back-alley barrooms.
While you’ll find popular Prohibition-era drinks like the Pink Lady and the Cowboy Cocktail in many revivalist bars, for the most part “craft cocktails are new,” says David Wondrich, a Brooklyn-based drinks historian and author of Imbibe! (Perigee Trade). “Back in the ’20s, barmen made basic drinks like highballs, martinis, and Old-Fashioneds—with low-quality bootlegged liquor.” When it comes to today’s speakeasies, these four Manhattan venues are top-shelf in terms of libations and style.
BATHTUB GIN, 132 NINTH AVENUE
Jazz music and private banquettes create a sultry ambiance. A copper claw-footed bathtub is available for impromptu photo ops. ENTRANCE STRATEGY: Pass through the Stone Street Café (a bona fide coffee shop), and gain access through its false wall.
DRINKS: The Bathtub Gin martini, heavy on the Dolin vermouth, has nice aromatics. The Sloe Gin Ginger Sling—Beefeater gin, Plymouth sloe gin, Cherry Heering, and Orchard apricot liqueur—is a bittersweet crowd-pleaser.
EXTRA SHOT: Nosh on small bites like crab-stuffed mushrooms, and enjoy the occasional burlesque show.
RAINES LAW ROOM,
48 WEST 17TH STREET
Chesterfield sofas, tufted-velvet side chairs, pressed-tin ceilings, and discreet service-chains (yank for prompt attention) make well-heeled guests feel more posh.
ENTRANCE STRATEGY: Online reservations are a must in this subterranean space once occupied by former home-furnishings shop Apartment 48. Don’t look for a marked street address; there isn’t one. Descend the staircase, ring the doorbell, and wait for the doorman to deem you worthy.
DRINKS: The Amber Old-Fashioned—Zacapa XO rum, Elijah Craig 18-year bourbon—has a powerful kick and a lingering finish. The Lion’s Tail—bourbon with allspice dram liqueur—is crisp and balanced.
EXTRA SHOT: Paul Meurens, a Belgian chocolatier—and the bar’s maître d’—sells scrumptious spirits-filled truffles.
APOTHÈKE, 9 DOYERS STREET
A cavernous, open-air “apothecary” inside a former opium den in Chinatown. Antique apothecary bottles line the walls, and bartenders dressed in lab coats (a.k.a. “dispensing chemists”) serve drinks, not drugs.
ENTRANCE STRATEGY: The number “9” marks the approach.
DRINKS: Dr. Ruth—strawberries, rosemary, vodka, Champagne—is a popular greenmarket-based “prescription.” The Madame Butterfly—basil-infused gin, sunflower-blossom tea, and grapes—is exotic and slightly sweet.
EXTRA SHOT: On Prohibition Wednesdays, a secret password is required; New England moonshine flows.
PDT (PLEASE DON’T TELL), 113 ST. MARKS PLACE
Bartenders construct cocktails for up to 40 drinkers; all must remain seated in this intimate space, where ample taxidermy meets Mafia-den atmospherics.
ENTRANCE STRATEGY: A phone booth within the Crif Dogs hot-dog joint is the conduit. Pick up the receiver, and an attendant grants entry via a hidden door.
DRINKS: Go for the Peanut Butter Cup (homemade peanut butter syrup with bourbon) and the Shark (butter-infused rum with Curaçao).
EXTRA SHOT: Grab a Crif Dog, in varieties like kimchi and bacon-wrapped, and peruse owner Jim Meehan’s tome, The PDT Cocktail Book (Sterling Epicure).