Ruthless cocktail man Francis Wexler breaks New York’s cocktail game

New York City is a mecca for spirits lovers of all ages. From old-world gems like the Metropolitan Club in Harlem, to sippers of smaller cults like Fever-Tree’s winery-driven sweet tooth at James Beard award-winning Wine Bar, there’s much to admire about the city’s entire cocktail culture. In less than two months, Francis Wexler came to Manhattan with an idea to introduce the pair-distilling process for drinks.

Wexler was trying to get to know the culture of drinks, including the prohibition era, when drink was a drug and to revive the spirits business in New York. But, he noticed the same spirits makers, same mixologists were doing the same old things.

Related Image Expand / Contract Louis C.K. in 2009 hosting a show at the Metropolitan Club in Harlem. (Getty Images)

“This house was where the 1903 Prohibition Craft Cocktail Meeting took place, and out of that we have two of the most successful cocktail makers in America today,” he said. “I wanted to see how we could bring American distilling back.”

With an ambitious visit to over 40 of the city’s cocktail bars, Wexler found his muckraking days behind him. Just like booze itself, New York’s cocktail scene attracts a more sophisticated crowd who’ve been conditioned by American bartenders to think much of what they’re getting is bad.

Wexler’s specific mission is to showcase three distinct types of New York cocktail: the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned and a small-batch made spirit in the 5th and 6th Streets Market, where people can “buy spirit.”

Tack on city prices, transportation and complicated instructions from servers, and the total cost of a Manhattan is much higher than those at bars without an extensive selection of rare spirits. Some sections of New York can be pricey, too.

“It seems to be even more expensive here,” remarked a newly-minted NYC visitor during a visit to the Library Bar. “If you’re not a cocktail nerd or know how to mix drinks, this is not going to make you happy.”

Wexler, as an answer to that buzzy narrative, said he created the “basic” cocktail bar experience. Prices aren’t high, because they don’t plan on throwing in much from the wholesale supply market. Any ingredients from the bulk martini can be packed into a simple-to-make drinks cup and just popped in the whiskey or rum bottle. It’s made with classic ingredients of the American cocktail world, but not with any new or exotic ingredients. Some selections, like the all-American-strength Tabasco, are pretty out of the ordinary, but it’s among the classics that he believes the drink culture in New York has the right to claim.

For drinks to be small batch, the flavor level is important, so Wexler hopes to keep within the National Bourbon, Rum, Whiskey and Tequila recipe when possible. The Manhattan, with its gingersnap rim, is the most common product, and 6.5-to-7-percent proof is a typical quality in his book.

Wexler helped launch the National Bourbon, Rum, Whiskey and Tequila Cup in 2011. Most of the contestants are craftsmen who work in their own businesses and aren’t looking to go into the wholesale market. “The voters are doing it as a hobby,” said Richard Lent. “It’s like a frat party.”

New York City isn’t the only place where craft cocktails take a stand. Using a pot still in his 1830s farmhouse in Tennessee, Bob Evans has been making Kentucky Straight Bourbon in bottles for about 50 years. But he recently opened the country’s first craft distillery and boutique bar called Moonshine, where you can have your own 4.7-percent bourbon poured straight or infused with a mixture of peppermint creamsicle liqueur, Japanese sake and mandarin wine.

Bartenders point out that the single-distillery cocktail is a fascinating style. “I think that they are just trying to make something that’s different from what you have in your house right now,” said Blanca Collins of James Beard award-winning Belgo. “And it’s easy to make it simple with old traditions, but it can be complicated with new traditions and then it’s even more complicated and intricate to make a small-batch cocktail.”

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