By Jennings Brown
Just four years after Brooklyn’s first post-Prohibition distillery began producing Bourbon, the borough has established itself as one of the best Bourbon destinations outside of Kentucky. It might be the only place in the world where you can find 10 bars in a three-mile-radius all dedicated to American whiskey. That sounded like one hell of a good scene to us, so we decided to investigate.
Initially we approached Brooklyn’s watering holes with the same criteria we used for last year’s list of America’s 55 best Bourbon bars: A bar must showcase its superior selection of Bourbons, and educate its patrons. But when you’re ranking bars on such a local scale and personally visiting every one of them, you can’t help but be swayed by preferences and personal experiences.
So know that we endorse every one of these bars. But we enjoyed ourselves a little more at some than others. Besides, what’s the fun in a list if there’s not a little competition involved?
1. Beast of Bourbon
710 Myrtle Ave.
After we walked by the corrugated steel exterior and passed through the unassuming entrance of Beast of Bourbon, we were immediately struck by the sound of live Americana music and the smell of smoky sweet barbecue. But as we approached the first of two bars the scent blended with the aroma of Bourbon. That’s because most the patrons are drinking American whiskey. After all, they’ve got 180 varieties to choose from.
“When you have this many options, it can be intimidating,” says general manager James Lemieux. “So we’re all about educating. It’s the American spirit; One of the only things we make only in America. It’s the history of the country, so we want everyone to know about it.”
Bartenders seem genuinely happy to provide tasting samples, explain the backstory of brands, and discuss what makes each whiskey unique. But Beast isn’t just about schoolin’. They’re plenty welcoming to locals who just want to get drunk. That’s why they also provide 40-oz. Miller Lite in a brown paper bag. Of course, this is Brooklyn, so that’ll cost you eight bucks.
Regulars tend to populate a smaller “Flying V Bar” in its own dark room closer to the entrance, where band stickers litter the walls, and a jukebox and Transformers arcade game are waiting to devour your loose change. All it needs is a pool table lit with a hanging Budweiser pub light to make you feel like you’re in a Kentucky dive bar. Oh wait, that’s just up the stairs, in a room overlooking the bar below.
If you’re feeling a little more lively, walk past this lounge to the main room decorated with mounted longhorns and 15 hanging disco balls. Saddle up at one of eight picnic benches or the horseshoe-shaped bar that wraps around a subway-tiled bar back filled with more than 200 bottles and about 40 beer taps. Then just try to make a decision without an embarrassingly long pause. Maybe go with one of the frozen whiskey drinks from their Slurpee machine. Or better yet, start with an easier decision: Like, whether or not you want brisket, pulled pork, ribs, chicken wings, or pig wings served up for you on a sheet of brown paper.
When we went, a country blues band, Jumbo Brown, was on stage. The upright bass player showed off with a bit of classical opera singing and a tap-dance routine to much fanfare. A member of the audience rewarded his efforts by buying a round of shots for the six-member band. The lead singer responded with a gracious, “Y’all been mighty nice to us tonight.”
2. Sycamore Bar & Flower Shop
1118 Cortelyou Rd.
Ditmas Park, Brooklyn
“This is the best smelling bar you will ever find,” says Marco Gill, one of the bartenders at Sycamore.
It would sound like an odd distinction, if you didn’t know that Sycamore also doubled as a flower shop.
Considering this is Brooklyn, it’s easy to think the florist front is just a gimmick. And, OK, maybe it is, but it’s charming, and it works. Besides, it’s actually a highly respectable flower shop by day. Thank gardenias it doesn’t pretend to be a hidden “speakeasy”—you can clearly see the bar through the windows.
But we’re not here to talk about flowers. This place is just as renowned for its Bourbon selection as it is for bouquets. “We are Bourbon drinkers,” says Gill. “What we have up on the wall is what we drink.”
When we asked how many bottles were actually on the wall and Gill just scratched his head and squinted his eyes. We counted around a hundred, but this was after a couple glasses of Four Roses.
Perhaps the bar’s greatest strength is its neighborhood spirit. Flyers and chalkboards promote local food and spirit events, and Gill and a fellow bartender spent as much time catching up with regulars as they did pouring drinks. The one TV above the bar was tuned to Conan, because Lucius, a neighborhood band with ties to the bar, was scheduled to play. When the host announced the act, the volume went up and every face in the bar was focused on the show. Afterwards the entire room erupted in cheers. It was the kind of heartwarming scene you only expect to find in cinematic denouements.
Mind you, neither of the bartenders here or anywhere knew our reasons for stopping by. Nevertheless, Gill told me my last drink was on them and offered a shot of whiskey for the road. Anyone that embraces the age-old practice of buybacks is cool in our book.
3. Post Office
1888 Havemeyer St.
South Williamsburg, Brooklyn
We think famous whiskey drinker Charles Bukowski would be pleased with the spirit selection of this bar named after his first novel. Post Office serves up delicious classic cocktails, but their main focus is the liquor itself.
When Alla Lapushchik, who helped open Manhattan’s Death & Company, decided to start her ideal Brooklyn bar, she began by reaching out to distilleries and convincing them to distribute in New York. We’re not sure how much she had to do with getting Willet Bourbons out here, but that was one of her early targets. A quick glance at the whiskeys displayed behind the bar and you’ll realize how much thought went into curation.
Upon arrival it’s immediately apparent that Lapushchik also has an eye for ambiance. The 600-square-foot bar offers the best decor of any establishment on this list. As we were engulfed by the cozy wingchairs lining the open windows, we felt transported back to antebellum New York. One wall is covered in vintage eagle-patterned wallpaper, the rest are made of dark reclaimed boards reminiscent of, well, a frontier post office. Tin tiles adorn the ceiling and the bar is lit with hanging lights made out of decanters.
When it came to building their small menu, Lapushchik and chef Sam Glinn collaborated to choose sandwiches that paired particularly well with whiskey. By the time we got there, shortly before closing, the grilled cheese with bacon sounded pretty damn good. And yes, it complimented our Michter’s 10 Year-Old Single Barrel Bourbon nicely.
4. Noorman’s Kil
609 Grand St
We found proof that Bourbon popularity has hit critical mass. Located in the heart of the trendiest neighborhood of the hippest borough of the most self-important city, Noorman’s Kil serves around 400 types of whiskey, the majority of them American. That’s about 400 reasons to go on a Saturday night even if you don’t enjoy weaving through a bar packed with tattoo-sleeved, beanie-wearing gentrifiers Instagramming their cocktails. And before you roll your eyes: We wouldn’t rely on the hipster stereotype if that wasn’t exactly what we saw when we got there.
But what else would you expect from a great bar in a prime location? The four owners are whiskey-lovers with pure intentions of spreading whiskey wisdom. Noorman’s Kil regularly hosts whiskey tastings and other whiskey-centric events, and features a library dedicated entirely to books on whiskey and Brooklyn history.
The bar gets its name from a bygone Brooklyn creek. Their website claims it is a nod to the significance of water for whiskey distillation. That seems like a stretch, but we’ll take it.
5. Char No. 4
196 Smith St.
Cobble Hill, Brooklyn
This restaurant was the only Brooklyn spot to make it on to TBR’s list of America’s best Bourbon bars in 2013. And for good reason: It was one of the earliest Brooklyn bars to promote fine brown booze, its name is a reference to the highest level of char that can be given to most Bourbon barrels, it’s entire décor is inspired by Bourbon barrels, and it’s got about 300 whiskeys to select from, with half of those coming from America.
Those whiskeys are listed in a heavy, fancy, leather-bound menu which offers some Manhattan-esque prices for some of the almost impossible to find whiskies. Eight of the listed options cost $100 per ounce. And those whiskeys are neatly displayed on a dimly backlit walnut shelf as if they’ve been placed there with militant precision. And that shelf is lit by several 36-inch-long tube lights—the exact size of Bourbon barrels.
Their upcoming Kentucky Derby Party (May 3rd) is also a must for those who are either home sick from the Bluegrass State or just want to have an excuse to drink Bourbon.
6. Fette Sau
354 Metropolitan Ave.
East Williamsburg, Brooklyn
What is it with barbecue and Bourbon in industrial buildings? Not that we’re complaining.
When the owners of one of Brooklyn’s finest beer bars, Spuyten Duyvil, saw an auto-repair shop across the street was renting out one of their buildings, they jumped on it. Now their restaurant Fette Sau (German for ‘fat pig’) looks like a carnivorous southern mechanic’s vision of heaven—John Deere tractor-seat stools, butcher diagrams drawn on the wall, picnic tables, and beer taps made out of knives and cleavers.
Unlike Beast of Bourbon, Fette Sau is a BBQ joint first and a whiskey bar second. But what it does second best it’s still pretty damn good at. In fact, we’d argue that the whiskey selection is better than the food. The spirit menu is in constant flux, but at any given time there are about 100 American whiskeys available to wash down your dry-rubbed pork or beef. If you want it on the ice, expect one massive rock. Bartenders provide eyedroppers in case you need to dilute your hooch.
253 Conover St.
Red Hook, Brooklyn
If you tell Sunny Balzano that Sunny’s is a Bourbon bar then he’ll probably cock his head with a curious smile. Sunny’s is just a classic neighborhood joint located a block away from the Red Hook waterfront, but there are few places in all of New York that we’d rather drink a glass of Wild Turkey on a Saturday night. That’s when musicians flock to the back of the bar carrying mandolins, fiddles, guitars, banjos, and stand-up basses before engaging in an all-night Bluegrass jamboree.
Sunny’s nautical, dingy interior gives you an idea of what a Louisville dive bar would look like if it were located just a few yards from the Atlantic coast. The Bourbon selection isn’t any more impressive than you’ll find at most other Brooklyn bars, but they’ll serve it up in the best fashion—with hot cider and a side of old-time music.
8. The Whiskey Brooklyn
44 Berry Street
If you had told us a month ago, we would also be surprised to hear that a bar with a name like The Whiskey Brooklyn would end up last on a list of best Bourbon bars in Brooklyn. But that was before we stepped foot in what might as well be a generic bar and grill.
The seven televisions are set to sports channels, and a game room is packed with a foosball table, Big Buck Hunter and other arcade games, mini-basketball, skee-ball, and a photo booth. It’s a setup that makes this a good spot to watch the game with your crew, but not necessarily a place to enjoy Bourbon. There is a decent Bourbon list, but when a menu puts an emphasis on pickleback shots over spirits, it’s easy to tell where their priorities lie.
The Whiskey Brooklyn has two good things going for it, and it’s bookended by both of them. On one side of the bar lies The Whiskey Shop, a small liquor store dedicated almost entirely to the brown spirit. On the other side is The Whiskey Annex, a smaller, detached extension of The Whiskey Brooklyn that opened its doors last year to whiskey aficionados that prefer to avoid the rambunctious crowd next door.
As for us, we’ll just start making our way back up the list.