If you go down St. Mark’s Place, between First and Avenue A, you’ll find a hotdog place–Crif Dogs, to be exact. If you go into Crif, you’ll see a counter at the end serving hotdogs. Two old arcade machines sit on the right. On your left there’s a phone booth, unremarkable since payphones were last used when those arcade machines were brand new. But if you go inside the booth, you’ll notice that there isn’t a payphone, but a normal one with a note saying to dial 1. Dial 1, tell the man how many people you have, and the wall of the phone booth will open to your left. You walk into a low-ceilinged, small oak-panel and brick room. A few stray taxidermied animals hang on the walls, including a genuine jackalope (a jackrabbit with deer horns) and a bear wearing a bowler hat. Welcome to PDT.
PDT—an acronym for Please Don’t Tell—is one of a growing number of speakeasies opening up around New York City and the country as a whole. Of course they’re not actually speakeasies; they have real liquor licenses, and no one drinks bathtub gin out of the vases. But the places are styled like speakeasies, with little advertising, low lights, and an old-fashioned formality—at Little Branch, across town, there’s only a small brass plaque on the door and the whole place is lit by kerosene wicks. And, of course, they serve heaven in a glass. These drinks are mixed with the care and precision fine chefs reserve for their filets. Bartenders match particular brands of alcohol for the specific taste they will produce, as well as different bitters, fruit juices, home-made syrups, and even jams.
Usually you want to go out and let the professionals work their magic, but now PDT has published a cocktail book of its own. The book has to be the most detailed of its kind in print. It literally tells you how to replicate PDT on your own, from floorplans to descriptions of all the equipment and recipes for their own house specialties—including, more Spiced Macchu Pisco or bacon-infused bourbon than you could know what to do with. And the tips on technique come with scientific precision: “We pour the smaller, less expensive quantities specified in a recipe in ascending order concluding with the base spirit.” Or, better yet: “Our drinks are shaken or stirred with approximately 10-12 cubic ounces of 1.25” ice cubes for 8–12 seconds. With smaller cubes, the preparation time and amount of ice required to properly chill and dilute cocktails may vary.”
Best of all, of course, are the drink recipes themselves, each of which comes with the drink’s history marked next to it. In 1860, for instance, Jerry Thomas invented the Japanese Cocktail—cognac with orange syrup and bitters—for a delegation of Japanese dignitaries staying across from his bar at the Manhattan Hotel. In 2009, a bartender played off “Dutch Courage”—the English’s nickname for Genever, after observing the bravery of the Dutch under its influence—and created Japanese Courage: hot sake, Bols genever, yellow Chartreuse, ginger liqueur, and honey syrup. One of the quirkier recipes is the Paddington—named for the bar’s own bowler-wearing bear—which consists of rum, Lillet Blanc, grapefruit and lemon juice, and a spoonful of marmalade.
As much fun as they may be, though, these speakeasies are not entirely frivolous.They offer two real goods—goods I might go so far as to call virtues. First, they mix excellent drinks. The bartenders really are masters at their craft. A mint julep comes in a frosted tin cup with tiny balls of ice, just as it should. Sipping one of their many concoctions gives the satisfaction of enjoying something tasty because it’s well made. Craftsmanship is valuable in life, whether it comes from well-carved oak or the best Pink Lady you’ve ever had. Second, and as a result, the place engenders real convivium. Most bars offer blaring music and crummy pick-up lines. Speakeasies are an island for adult behavior in a world of perpetual adolescence. Many of them have small signs with the house rules. Little Branch, for instance, informs its guests that if they would like to get to know another patron, they should ask the bartender for an introduction. PDT’s etiquette list puts it more directly: “Do not interrupt other guests: if you came here to hit on strangers, you’re in the wrong bar.” And my favorite: “No PDA at PDT.” Far from being turn-offs, such rules do what social regulations can do best: create an environment in which all parties are comfortable and respected. Judging by how hard it is to get a reservation, there is a market for that sort of environment after all.
The combination of fine drinks with good company adds up to a memorable evening. The first time I went to a speakeasy, I had a Pisco Sour and discovered that I didn’t like Pisco. I followed this with something called a Cock ’n Bull Special, created at an establishment of the same name in southern California. It came to me a perfectly proportioned glass of cognac, bourbon, Benedictine, and Cointreau. A chiseled block of ice floated in the middle. I was surprised at how smooth it slid down. When I finished, I left the kerosene-lit world below, returned to the grit of the West Village, and floated off on the city lights.
Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in theology at Boston College.
The PDT Cocktail Book: The Complete Bartender's Guide from the Celebrated Speakeasy by Jim Meehan & Chris Gall
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