Live New York History: Get a Drink

If you have been following this loose “guide” to visiting New York, you already know how to avoid Museum Headache and to Ride the Subway. Now you have earned a third piece of wisdom about traveling to New York and how to honor its four centuries of history: go get a drink.

It may not be obvious, but New York City loves its history. It’s been a city for coming-up-on four hundred years, but only occasionally has it done much to remember, preserve or promote that history. Old buildings are torn down in the thousands each year; its population is constantly renewed by newcomers with other interests; the funds that are set aside for “heritage trails” seem to disappear into the ether; and sometimes, let’s face it, that history is embarrassing and inconvenient for how the city would like to present itself to the world. And yet, in a deeply devotional way, New Yorkers enact what practically amounts to a living-history open-air museum everyday: they go and have a drink.

New York is not Boston. It is not a city founded by Puritans escaping religious persecution so as to persecute who they liked in a new land and live sullen and sober lives (And unlike the Puritans who had banned Christmas, New Yorkers invented Santa Claus!). This delightful town was founded as a Dutch trading post and called New Amsterdam. Its namesake, old Amsterdam, was a relatively tolerant place and wealthy from its far flung trade, and New Amsterdam hoped for pretty much the same. It was peopled by those wanting to make a new start—after all it was a big journey in the 1620s ’30s—but they also wanted to make some coin. This was going to be accomplished by the beaver fur trade for many, but also by the time-honored tradition of selling alcohol to one another. A brewery was set up right away by the Dutch West India Company, and other breweries and distilleries followed. In the 1650s, after the city was formally incorporated, its new city hall, the Stadthuys, was also a tavern, where they could now hear the court cases often caused by too much booze, such as that of the “Troublesome Turke”, Anthony Jansen. In fact, in that little town at the tip of Manhattan, it is estimated that one in four of its buildings were some kind of place serving alcohol: taverns, grog shops, and back room dives. These were often just a part of someone’s house, though still regulated by the town (specifying standard serving sizes, etc). People met to drink, gossip and talk politics, to trade and find pleasure, spouses or a ticket out of town (not always voluntary). New Amsterdam was “Dutch”, but one observer counted at least 18 languages among its 3,000 inhabitants, and people came to its shores and taverns from Sweden to Angola. When the British forcibly took the city in 1664 and gave it the less sparkling title of “New York”, everyone pretty much shrugged and continued on as before. The City Hall moved from the old Stadthuys next door to another tavern, called the Lovelace, and the toasts and drinking continued.

New Yorkers in the early days drank all sorts of things. They drank the rum made from Caribbean sugar, they drank beer and all varieties of wine, but they loved most of all gin. Gin was a particularly Dutch drink. In Dutch it was called Genever, after the Latin name of its primary botanical ingredient, juniper. This is where the English name comes from, shortened to “Gin”. The older Dutch-version of gin with its slightly funkier flavor remained one of the most popular drinks in New York and eventually the United States well into to the late 1800s, until London-style dry gin took over. Not everything happened in a tavern over a drink of gin, but that wasn’t the goal. Most days, a tavern was a place to pass the time with friends and strangers.

All the same, a lot did happen in New York’s bars: In the 1690s sailors in New York saloons had their tabs paid for by ships captains anxious for a quickly-assembled crew. This is how the famous pirate Captain Kidd got his final crew for his ship the Adventure and his fateful voyage that would find him hanging from the gallows soon after. Later, in 1741, the city’s largest slave revolt was planned by slaves and working-class whites at the Hughson Tavern near the Hudson waterfront. The conspirators called themselves the “Geneva Club” after Genever (Dutch gin) they were drinking (and illegally selling). In the 1770s the revolutionary group Sons of Liberty who were agitating for reform in the colony (and later full-on rebellion) in taverns like Fraunces on Pearl Street. At one point, in retaliation for stealing some weapons, a British warship fired a cannonball through its roof (injuring no one). Later George Washington threw his farewell party at the end of the war at Fraunces. Soon after that, in New York tradition, the new country’s departments for war, finance and foreign relations were all housed in the tavern. Everyone used booze to help forget that just months before during the Revolutionary War–when New York was firmly a loyalist town and headquarters for the British Army in North America–eager New Yorkers (surely deep in their cups) hurried to sign an ill-advised “Declaration of Dependence” to the crown at places like Scott’s Tavern on Wall Street (some 700 signed it in the end).

Through the explosion of the city’s population throughout the 1800s, drinking kept pace. Energized German immigrants began using the available fresh water springs in Brooklyn and elsewhere to start massive breweries with a new “lager” technique, where the beer had to be carefully purified and stored before being sold. Soon the beer barons of Brooklyn were supplying nearly a third the beer to the whole of the United States. They (thankfully) brought German beer gardens with them, which in New York could hold thousands, especially along its southern pleasure coast of Gravesend Bay and Coney Island. In the city’s busiest saloons bartenders were inventing cocktails at a feverish rate: Martinis, Manhattans, sours—everyone quickly lost track in the boozy blur of who invented exactly what and where. This meant everyone was free to to create a legend and claim the invention for their own. Meanwhile, in the very dingiest dives in Five Points African American and Irish drinkers combined talents to invent tap dancing. 

Various people tried to stop all the drinking. A young Teddy Roosevelt in his role as Police Commissioner betrayed his own old New York Dutch roots by trying to ban selling alcohol on Sundays in the 1890s. It didn’t last long. Federal prohibition in 1929 dealt a massive blow to the big operations like the breweries, but New Yorkers hardly slowed down. There were the speakeasies and bathtub gin of course, but since a certain amount of homemade wine was allowed for “family” consumption, little Italian restaurants found a way forward (and had something to serve loyal customers). Makers of liquors like Fernet Branca (who had a distillery in Manhattan at the time) realized they could rebrand as medicinal and sell their wares at pharmacies. Prohibition was eventually repealed and with great enthusiasm in New York.  In celebration, team of clydesdales pulled a wagon full of beer casks down Fifth Avenue. This was the first appearance of the new marketing scheme by the St. Louis brewer Budweiser. The NY governor–standing in front of the Empire State Building–was happily presented with a case. In the 1970s the last of the male-only bars opened their doors to everyone after refusal to serve a woman at McSorley’s Tavern was taken to the Supreme Court. The gay rights movement began during a night of too-much police harassment in 1969 at bar called the Stonewall Inn. Despite the resulting riot, the Stonewall opened the next night for business. More drinking and rioting ensued. 

Bars provided places for people to gather after (or before) work and late into the night. Others provided familiar smells and sounds of home. The Mohawk Steel workers met at the Doray near downtown Brooklyn; the Gotschee (a long lost German-Speaking principality) met at the Gotscheer Hall in Queens; sailors on shore leave met at Montero’s on Atlantic Avenue. Thousands of bars and taverns and saloons and dives came and went in waves. Many persisted for decades and even longer. Some of the newest ones look like the oldest ones; some are keeping close to the newest trends or trying to invent them; some are nearly forgotten except by a handful of regulars. Many are newly founded breweries and distilleries—after decades of neglect, New York remembered how to make its own beer and whiskey. Many, many are just mediocre. And everyday, a sizable portion of New York makes a stop in one of these places for a happy hour cocktail, or an after dinner drink, or a beer, to gather with friends. It’s quite possibly the most historically accurate thing you could do for this four-centuries old town and its a great way to get to know its quirks and routines, to people watch, and, of course, to have a drink. Thanks to the cocktail revolution of the last decade, most bars carry a bottle of Dutch-style gin, like Bols Genever, on their shelf: instant-time travel. Or you can sip a Fernet, or wine or rum or beer. You can argue about politics or the price of your drink or talk about love or gossip or nothing at all. Hopefully, your bartender will be grumpy (this is for historical accuracy) and the music just right. You can do it in a dive, at a roof-top bar, at beer garden or neighborhood saloon, on banquette or bar stool or standing. You can do it with oysters (which is a real double-down on old-time New York) or a pickled egg or a small plate or chips. You can raise a glass to 400 years of getting a drink, of oceans of spirits washed across the city, of lives lost and found.


It’s almost impossible to recommend any particular bar, there are so many. Many of the ones mentioned above are still open, like McSorley’s, Montero’s, Gotscheer, and even Fraunces. There are hundreds of new-style cocktail bars, but I wouldn’t presume to tell you how to navigate that web—but it can be fun to climb through a secret phone booth or to be served by a bartender ninja and be wowed with the latest discoveries. You can practically have a drink in New Amsterdam itself along the pedestrianized Stone Street near Hanover Square; or you can check out the new breweries in Brooklyn and Queens and relive the 1800s. Perhaps the best advice it what to avoid (just as a rule of thumb): anything serving something like “pub” food and anywhere full of 25-year olds talking about their jobs at full volume (other subjects are permitted).

Okay, okay, here a few more places to go get a drink:

Swift on East Fourth. Best Guinness pull in New York City? Killer jojos “Irish” curry.

Small municipal beer kiosk (“Table Green”) in Battery Park (unexpected post-Sandy spruce up bonus and amazing views).

Pilot ship in Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6 for Oysters and drinks.

The Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station for plymouth Gin Martinis (and oysters, of course)

Liman in Sheepshead Bay for on-the-water Turkish Raki with mezze.

Kafana (Serbian for “tavern”) in the East Village for balkan beers, a basket of friend smelt and fruit brandies to finish (quince, anyone?).

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