What do you do when your organized whiskey tasting is canceled? The answer is not “go home with a whiskey-less belly.” The answer is to start an epic whiskey crawl through the East Village, and in the process uncover a secret Japanese speakeasy.
I’m sure the organized whiskey tasting at Scottish-themed St. Andrews Restaurant & Bar in Times Square would have been classy. I envisioned settling into a well-worn Chesterfield, sipping something brown and neat, hunting for notes of toffee and vanilla, while someone in a tweed coat and shepherd’s cap gave a long-winded history of Scottish whiskey. So you can imagine my disappointment when they pulled the plug on that titillating experience. Instead of moping about a dry Monday, a friend very helpfully suggested that we just do our own “tasting.”
When organizing your own alcohol tasting event, there have to be rules, otherwise you’re just getting drunk and calling it “education.” We selected five of the East Village’s more notable whiskey bars (spoiler alert: we only made it to four). At each bar on the list, we would ask the bartender for a good “starter” whiskey — something easy to drink that would appeal to whiskey neophytes. We would follow this up with “Bartender’s Choice,” which is anything the bartender wanted to serve us: his or her favorite, the best-seller, the most expensive, a fun whiskey cocktail, etc. Structure laid out, there was only one thing left to do: drink the whiskey.
Whiskey 101 started at Copper Still, an Irish-themed whiskey bar and pub with a wall devoted to international whiskeys, scotches, and bourbons. Copper Still bartender Stephanie started us off with Deanston Virgin Oak whiskey. The blend is described as having flavors of sweet barley, vanilla toffee (told you), and heather honey. It was slightly sweeter than most whiskeys and perfectly sippable. For Bartender’s Choice, Stephanie served us a “Still Fashioned,” the bar’s take on the Old Fashioned. The cocktail calls for Woodford Reserve bourbon, and cherry and orange liqueur instead of the traditional muddled cherries and oranges. After a few sips of this potent potable, the greatest flaw (attribute?) of our plan made itself abundantly clear: This may have been a horrible decision; we were going to get smashed.
But I believe in commitment, so the journey continued to d.b.a., a craft beer and whiskey bar on First Avenue. The bar was surprisingly empty (still baffled by this, as Monday seems like a fine night to barhop). Here, bartender Jeff started us off with Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon. The taste is smooth, but decidedly more boozy than the Deanston Virgin Oak. Big flavors to look for are plum, cherry, caramel, and cocoa (no, thank you Google). Bartender’s Choice took us to Michter’s Sour Mash, served neat. Here is where the educational portion of evening started to unravel…apparently after four whiskeys you stop being able to discern between their subtle differences. I’m sure the Michter’s was delicious.
With a tight schedule to keep, we headed to Death + Company, a speakeasy-style bar that caters to the velvet rope crowd. Unaware that this was an exclusive, guest-listy type space, we barreled in, four drinks deep in a burst of cocktail enthusiasm. This gusto was quickly diluted when the bouncer asked us to wait our turns outside at the back of the line we had apparently just cut. #buzzkill. However all icy attitudes were forgotten once we were admitted into the selective fold.
Cozying up to the bar, the waitress recommended we start with the Double Dragon, the bar’s most popular whiskey drink. Served with Yamazaki 12-year Japanese single malt, Sombra Mezcal, Port Syrup, and Bitter End Moroccan Bitters, this whiskey cocktail packs a smoky punch. While I was busy making hungry eyes at the mysterious bearded bar-back (call me), my partner in crime was busy working on the next task. Bartender’s Choice was the Beach Goth, served in an absurdly creepy skeleton tiki mug, combining Old Forrester 100 bourbon, Ramazzotti, Giffard Banane du Bresil, pineapple juice, creme de cacao, and lemon juice.
We were all set to head to our next location, when the bartender asked us if we had ever heard of Angel’s Share, a Japanese whiskey speakeasy tucked behind a restaurant. Unaware of this ethereal whiskey heaven, and a sucker for anything “secret,” I was intrigued. He told us to head to 8 Stuyvesant Street. Up a stairway and inside a Japanese restaurant was a secret back room serving some of the highest quality Japanese whiskey in the city. Visions of Bill Murray and “Suntory Time” swirled in our drunken heads. Immediately all other whiskey bars on our list became irrelevant.
Walking Stumbling up Second Avenue, we turned on Stuyvesant Street and searched for the number. After a few confusing moments (blame it on the six whiskeys…), we made our way up to the front restaurant.
“Angel’s Share?” We mumbled to an elderly Asian man at the top of the stairs. Without so much as a grunt he tilted his head to a door on the left. Pushing it open, we left the raucous restaurant and entered a quiet, darkened library-looking study. Couples were deep in conversation, sipping delicately shaped glasses full of rare Japanese whiskies. Time to go big or go home, so we left it entirely up to Bartender’s Choice. What we were brought was a brand-new Japanese whiskey that has just started being distributed in the U.S. For a whopping $35 a glass, we felt this was the right way to cap out the night. While I’m sure it was excellent, I really can’t swear to that because Meagan ceased to exist at this moment; I was pure whiskey in human form.
It was becoming decidedly clear that this was to be our last stop. Six hours of whiskey education is hard work. There was a serious debate about whether or not I should return to Death + Company and profess my love for the bearded busboy (seriously, if you’re reading this…call me), but that plan quickly, thankfully, dissolved.
With that last drink, we rang the final bell on Whiskey 101. Though I’m sure not as officially educational as the St. Andrews’ tasting might have been, to say we didn’t learn anything would be incorrect. For example: There are five to seven whiskey regions in the world, there are more than 5,000 types of single malt whiskey, a secret whiskey Japanese speakeasy exists (which I think is the most important lesson of all), and somewhere in this great city there is a bearded bar-back who has captured my attention for at least the next 48 hours.