Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | October 12, 2009

Henry Public

Photo by Hannah Whitaker of Grub Street New York

Photo by Hannah Whitaker of Grub Street New York

Earlier this year, while taking part in a special tasting dinner put on by Plymouth Gin at PS7s, I had an interesting conversation with Plymouth’s brand ambassador Simon Ford. Simon and I were talking about the trajectory of the craft cocktail movement and cocktail bars. Craft cocktails really started to their resurgence around a number of high end, speak easy style bars and clubs. Places like PDT, Milk & Honey, and Bourbon & Branch come to mind. There was an allure that came with the speak easy style that added to the sensation of finely made cocktails. From their, the craft cocktail movement expanded to bars that while preserving the production of precious, antique, and unique cocktails, didn’t put up such a fuss about being hidden to grow their demand. In this category I’d add bars like Death & Company or Pegu Club. They continued to make incredible cocktails, but were still, for lack of a better term, still scene spots that were hard to get into. Simon and I agreed that there needed to be another evolution in the craft cocktail movement, away from pricey, hidden, bars that regardless of how friendly and amiable the staff were, still conveyed an air of elitism in their craft simply by the nature of their location and business model.

What Simon and I wanted to see was a resurgence of casual, neighborhood bars that were low key enough to be a good spot to have a bite to eat, maybe have a shot of something stiff or a pint of good beer, but nonetheless be able to dispense well made cocktails. We wanted to see bartenders that knew how to make a decent Old Fashioned, which bitters should be used for a Martini or a Manhattan, and made sour drinks with freshly squeezed fruit juice. For craft cocktails to really take the next step out of the niche markets of the bars where they currently reside, there would need to be an embrace of craft cocktail techniques at more low key bars. To put it another way, as the cocktail world stands now, it is gauche to go to the top bars and order a beer or a high ball or a glass of wine. A more casual drinking environment would remove that stigma – drink whatever you feel like – but if you wanted a nice cocktail, you’d still be able to get it.

Here in Washington, DC I saw Bar Pilar and Bourbon as the sorts of places that come closest to this. But since Adam Bernbach left BP, I’ve only been back a couple times and obviously the quality of the cocktails aren’t the same as they were with him there. Bourbon can certainly be a great spot for cocktails, but it’s a bit more incidental to the experience than I’m looking for in the casual cocktail bar (though I’m clearly being nit-picky).

On Friday night, after my failed attempt to get a reservation at PDT, I was invited out by my friends Franz and Mike, who writes Whisky Party, to a new bar in Brooklyn: Henry Public. This was actually the first night that Henry Public was open as part of their soft launch (which included private events earlier in the week). And, quite simply, Henry Public is the closest thing to what Simon Ford and I were talking about as the next area for growth in the craft cocktail movement.

Sitting mid-block in an old tenement style building, Henry Public is decorated like a bar that has been around for about one hundred years. Old light fixtures, a period back bar, and antique, well-worn furniture and bathroom fixtures show a very detailed sense of style. The music is mostly old jazz and blues, played at a comfortably low volume to facilitate easy conversation. The saloon-style bar is owned by the same folks who own Brooklyn Social Club, a more trendy cocktail spot. Talking to some of the staff and owners on Friday night, it was clear that they were looking for a Walt Whitman-style bar in honor of Brooklyn from years past (though in New York Mag partner Matt Dawson notes that Whitman didn’t drink, though they have egg creams on the menu as an option for his ilk). All in all, the decor and ambiance are just awesome – conducive to hanging out and enjoying the company of the people you’re with, along with some tasty drinks.

Henry Public has a very simple food and cocktail menu. The food includes burgers, a turkey sandwich, a delicious grilled cheese, bone marrow, oysters, a few snack items, and fried dough balls called Wilkinsons (I believe). I had the grilled cheese and folks I was there with had the burgers. We heard people at neighboring tables rave about the turkey sandwich and bone marrow. The dough balls were pretty extravagant too — a great dessert to share as a table. In short, the menu was perfect for hanging out over drinks, while not being so big as to become a destination spot for dining.

The one page drink menu similarly included a nice range of cocktails without being overwhelming. Eight of the drinks were $10 and the last four are $11 — priced substantially below many of the high-end craft cocktail bars both in Brooklyn and across the East River in Manhattan. Beers were cheap, too – with a number of fine draft options for $6. The cocktails were all originals, though most were variations of classic recipes. This allows, in my view, Henry Public to have their own identity while bringing novice cocktail drinkers in the door with interesting drinks that included bitters, egg, and absinthe. We were a party of five, so we got to try many of the cocktails, and with one exception everything I had was pretty fantastic.

The most popular drink was the Wide Awake Cocktail, which every one at my table had at one point except me. It’s a variation of the Corpse Reviver #2, made with gin, lemon, fresh ginger, ginger liqueur, and Islay scotch. It was a pretty great drink. The scotch really performed similarly to absinthe in a Corpse Reviver, giving the Wide Awake Cocktail a bright smokiness that complimented the bracing tart of the lemon and ginger. What was particularly interesting to me was how popular this drink was; Mike and another one of his bloggers at Whisky Party were naturally receptive to the use of scotch, but everyone else, myself included, found it really compelling too.

I actually began with the Oddfellow, a variation on a Papa Doble, made with rum, lime, grapefruit, maraschino, and a house bark and root syrup. While otherwise similar to a Papa Doble, which most readers will know is one of my favorite cocktails, the bark and root syrup gave it a nice spice that added greater depth and complimented the maraschino’s bitter sweetness well.

Henry’s Martini is an interesting type of Perfect Manhattan, made with Old Tom Gin, “two vermouths” and orange bitters. I found out the two bitters were Dolin Dry and Carpano Antica Formula — a pairing that I haven’t seen used before. What made it work so well, and with the strong Old Tom, was that it was about three-quarters of an ounce of Dolin Dry to about a bar spoon of Carpano Antica. The Carpano didn’t overpower the drink at all, something that I would have expected from the use of the light Dolin.

I think the most interesting cocktail of the night for me was the Brooklyn Ferry, made with rye, Carpano Antica, maraschino, and absinthe. This is a really cool variation on a Remember the Maine, with the maraschino liqueur substituting for Cherry Heering. It also played into the rule that cocktails made with most sweet vermouths are cocktails of that base spirit, while a cocktail made with Carpano Antica is really a Carpano Antica cocktail. The fabled vermouth played very strongly in this drink, even up against notably bold ingredients like rye, maraschino, and absinthe. That said, while the Carpano was strong it was nonetheless a well-balanced and complex cocktail.

The only cocktail of the night that didn’t really seem to work yet was the Ward Six, a variation of the Ward Eight, made with applejack, orange juice, lemon juice, and pomegranate molasses. While the apple flavor of the applejack maintained a solid presence despite the heavy citrus, it just wasn’t in balance. The drink was overly sour, though I spoke to to one of the bartenders, Mark, about it and he said they had cut down the lemon juice to only about a quarter ounce. He said they were struggling with the recipe and hadn’t found the right spot yet. I’m not quite sure that my drink had that little lemon; either it was too heavy in the lemon department or the oranges were too sour themselves. Additionally the grenadine was a bit strong too. Hopefully they’ll find a good balance for this cocktail, as having an applejack cocktail on the menu during fail makes great sense.

I won’t go into them, but my friends had a number of other cocktails on the menu. The Kings County Sour, made with rye, lemon, sugar, egg white, and a port float, was reminiscent of The Gibson’s Brunswick Sour, though substantially more frothy and creamy. The Eagle’s Dream was a beautiful drink made with gin, lemon juice, sugar, egg white, and creme de violette. It might be one of the few drinks on the menu that isn’t an original. Cocktail Database has a recipe for the Eagle’s Dream Cocktail that includes creme yvette; the substitution of creme de violette is the only visible difference. The Public Smash was pretty similar to many other bourbon smashes, this one made with bourbon, mint, maple syrup, and aromatic bitters. It’s a nice classic cocktail, but not one of my favorites (hence my decision to, you know, not order it for myself).

One thing to note is that the selection of spirits at the bar was far more limited than what you’d see at most craft cocktail bars. While there was a fairly decent range of gins, the selection of rums, tequilas, bourbon and rye seemed very small. Generally the ingredients available weren’t as precious as most other cocktail joints, something that likely is a duel product of how new the bar is and how casual the owners want it to be. Nonetheless the fruit juices were freshly squeezed, the array of bitters and syrups was large, and the bartenders knew what they were doing. While I wouldn’t say there was the 100% commitment to perfection that you see at bars like Death & Co. or Bourbon & Branch, it was still great stuff…and exactly the sort of cocktail bar that I think we need to see more of popping up, hopefully in a neighborhood near me.

Towards the end of the night we moved to sit at the bar and spent some time talking to Marty, who had previously worked at Brooklyn Social Club. He conveyed the similar attitude about having good cocktails without the craziness of other high-end bars. The other bartender, Mark, noted that while there were plenty of people ordering beers and high balls, most guests seemed either knowledgeable or curious about cocktails. They want the bar to be a neighborhood joint and it seems in its early going, they’re doing well. I rarely go out to Brooklyn when I am in NYC, but I can definitely see myself making the trip to spend another long evening at Henry Public. If you’re in the city, check it out at 329 Henry St. (near Pacific St.), Cobble Hill, Brooklyn — a short walk from the Borough Hall subway stop.

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Responses

  1. […] was in town for the holiday last week, and he, myself and our friend Becky decided to head over to Henry Public, a new bar not too far from my apartment that serves up some great whisky-based drinks. Towards the […]


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