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Pouring through history: Uncovering Brooklyn’s cocktail past

Brooklyn Paper
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They’ve got tales of cocktails!

A group of Brooklyn booze experts will mix together their knowledge and offer a deep taste of the borough’s cocktail history, at a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society on Feb. 11. The speakers at “The Brooklyn Cocktail: A History” are the top shelf of the local cocktail scene, says the panel’s moderator.

“We got Brooklyn historians, craftsmen, and cocktailers,” said Sarah Lohman, who writes about food history at her site Four Pounds Flour.

The panel will include three prominent local bar owners: St. John Frizell, of Fort Defiance in Red Hook, Tom Macy, co-owner of the Clover Club in Cobble Hill, and Del Pedro from Tooker Alley in Prospect Heights — bars named for historical spots from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, respectively. Their expertise covers the past and the current trends in mixology, said Lohman.

“It was important to me to include bartenders and bar owners because I’m always trying to make the link between the past and the present,” said Lohman.

But historically, the Brooklyn bartending scene was not full of movers and shakers, says cocktail historian David Wondrich, who will also speak on the panel.

“It was always a little bit behind,” said the Boerum Hill historian. “There were no famous mixologists working in Brooklyn. The froth of the cocktail culture was in Manhattan. Brooklyn was so German — it was a beer town.”

At the panel, Wondrich will discuss the history of Brooklyn cocktails, and of “the Brooklyn cocktail,” the borough’s oft-attempted answer to the Manhattan cocktail.

“There have been many attempts at making the Brooklyn cocktail,” said Wondrich. “As soon as the Manhattan cocktail became popular, there was an attempt to popularize a Brooklyn cocktail, in the 1880s — none of which really went anywhere.”

New attempts to create a Brooklyn cocktail occurred roughly every 20 years — after the Bronx cocktail became popular in 1905, after Prohibition ended, and in 1945, when “in a completely unprovoked attack, the borough president of the Bronx started busting on Brooklyn for not having its own drink,” said Wondrich.

Among the quickly-forgotten Brooklyn cocktail attempts was a monstrosity that used hard cider, absinthe, and ginger ale, a sweet martini with raspberry syrup, and a “tasty, but not very creative,” daiquiri with dark rum, said Wondrich.

The version of the Brooklyn cocktail that survives today comes from 1908, created by Jack Grohusko, a Manhattan bartender but a Brooklyn native. His variation on the Manhattan became a modern standard just because it was written down.

“It made it into the cocktail books, so when bartenders started haunting libraries and acting like scholars, it’s the one that was there to rediscover,” said Wondrich. “It’s not a very good drink, in my opinion.”

Modern bartenders have generally stayed away from creating another Brooklyn cocktail, said Wondrich.

“Now the fashion is the name it after neighborho­ods,” he said, leading to drinks like the Clover Club’s “The Slope.”

Another currently-fashionable drink, the Last Word, also has links to the borough of Kings, says Lohman, and Fort Defiance’s owner St. John Frizell will reveal the connection during the panel.

“The Last Word also originated in Brooklyn, with a Red Hook connection,” said Lohman. “It has a connection to vaudeville. And I’m really glad to be able to present it in Brooklyn.”

Lohman will next lead a discussion of the history of Brooklyn ice cream at the Society on July 28.

“The Brooklyn Cocktail: A History” at the Brooklyn Historical Society [128 Pierrepont St. at Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 222–4111, www.brooklynhistory.org]. $12.

Reach arts editor Bill Roundy at broundy@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–4507.
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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