The moment was almost too good to be true. I was sitting at the bar at Existing Conditions, looking over my shoulder for co-owner Don Lee. Just a moment before, he had been fiddling with one of the huge nitrogen tanks in the corner, which sit next to two old-fashioned soda machines, now rejiggered to dispense bottled cocktails when a custom token is dropped in the coin slot.
Suddenly, Lee, dressed in black, re-emerged from behind a curtain that hides the bar’s lab from the public. Alongside him was Dave Arnold, the other creative force behind the bar, also wearing black. Of course, they came out from behind a curtain. What other entrance would be appropriate for the two reigning Ozs of American cocktail culture?
For cocktail geeks, this new partnership is a big deal. Imagine if Grant Achatz and Wylie Dufresne opened a restaurant together. Now translate that to the bar world, and you’ll get an idea of the level of anticipation that attended the announcement that Lee and Arnold, along with bar entrepreneur Greg Boehm (Mace, Boilermaker, Katana Kitten), were teaming up to open a bar. It was a molecular-mixology supergroup—the Cream of the rotovap set. What sort of fizzes and whirrs would greet the patron as they walked in? What would such a bar look like?
As it turns out, it would look like a normal, almost anonymous Manhattan bar—just one with really great cocktails. In physical terms, Lee and Arnold’s collaboration is true to its name. They and Boehm accepted their Greenwich Village address—formerly another bar—pretty much as-is. They polished and spruced it up, but it remains an understated arrangement of rooms, booths, tables and stools, with a long bar along the left and the requisite exposed brick wall along the right. It is, I dare say, an almost boring space.
The flashiest things about the interior are those vintage soda machines, which stand as a very smart and playful totem of the bar’s way of thinking. Bottled cocktails are old hat by now, but nobody had attempted the next logical step of self-service until Lee and Arnold. Even before Existing Conditions opened, word of the vending machines spread so quickly that their contents—premixed and bottled Martinis (50-50s), Manhattans (rye) and highballs (a butter and popcorn-infused Rum and Coke)—became a first-visit must-buy for every customer. All three varieties taste good, but not as good as it feels to open that glass door and yank out a bottle, like some lucky kid at a 1950s gas station.
The more you visit Existing Conditions, the more its minimalist trappings feel apt. The cocktails are the centerpieces here, with the surrounding space acting as a picture frame. The bartenders are similarly in service of the concept and product. Dressed, like Lee and Arnold, in black, they nearly fade into the background like an invisible army of cocktail ninjas that you only notice when they gracefully place your finished drink in front of you.
The understated service belies all the work that goes into finessing these drinks. As he did at his previous bar, Booker & Dax, Arnold—along with Lee, a frequent collaborator—deploys a host of scientific techniques to perfect and “correct” the flavors and textures in cocktails—to turn them up to “11,” as it were. “When we do classics we want to have our own twist,” Arnold says. “Most important, even though we are using new techniques, we want the drinks to look and taste like proper cocktails. The mantra is: We don’t want to change the way you drink, we want to change the way we make cocktails.”
The Toki Lowball is a good example of EC’s quietly iconoclastic ways. “Not a Toki Highball,” declares the menu subhead; far be it from a place like this to serve something so prosaic as the now-ubiquitous Japanese whisky and soda. EC’s version is combined with a syrup made of three teas, including Hōjicha, Oolong and Lapsang souchong. The latter smoky tea lends the drink an illusion of peatiness, which Toki does not possess. It’s a savvy upending of sensory expectations.
The bar makes another often-dull classic surprisingly compelling with the snappy Saratoga Paloma. Here, the salt rim is left behind in favor of super-salty, naturally carbonated mineral water drawn from a spring in upstate New York. Clarified grapefruit and lime juices further goose the tequila base, which is pre-batched. It’s the best Paloma in town.
These cocktails come unadorned. Going against the cocktail world’s current garnish-happy ways, EC may be making the most starkly naked drinks in New York since Mayahuel, which closed last year. This is in keeping with the pared-down aesthetics of Booker & Dax, Arnold’s first bar, where drinks were also complex in creation but simple in presentation. Arnold is concerned with carbonation, coldness and directness of flavor. He probably couldn’t care less about the visuals that so preoccupy drinkers of the Instagram Age.
Which is not to say the patrons aren’t having their fun anyway. The core concepts informing Existing Conditions might be on the theoretical side, but the bar itself is not. The atmosphere is actually quite laid back and friendly. Engaging with the bartenders is easy; not engaging with the bartenders is even easier. You can set your own scene. And, based on a few recent visits, that’s what customers have chosen to do, asking a few choice questions about the drinks but otherwise talking about anything but cocktails, and largely to each other. As Lee said in a recent interview, “We’re not here to shock and awe anyone. We’re not here for people to be challenged. We want people to come in and feel comfortable.”
They’ve achieved that goal, and it’s a welcome step forward for molecular mixology, one that shifts the spotlight from the wizardry to the customer experience. Trips to places like Aviary are good fun and have their place, but taking in that sensory overload every day would be tough on the nerves. Science’s most sustainable role in the creation of cocktails should be of the supporting kind.
Among the most approachable of the drinks is the Canary, made of fino sherry, saffron-infused gin, yellow Chartreuse and a bit of saline solution. It’s simple and brittle, tasting mainly of the sherry, a pleasant palate cleanser. The Waffle Turkey 101 is an early crowd-pleaser. A waffle-infused, syrup-lined, bourbon Old-Fashioned, it’s a bit simple-minded; molecular mixology for the peanut gallery. But it works. It’s a liquid joke that puts a smile on your lips. (It’s also an inside joke: It’s a sly nod to Lee’s most famous drink, the bacon-flavored, fat-washed Benton’s Old-Fashioned.)
Another Old-Fashioned riff, the Professor Plum, however, is too simple by half. Merely prune-infused bourbon with Angostura bitters, it’s on the harsh side, tasting like Unicum, the Hungarian plum liqueur, and it strips your mouth dry.
The best drink I had was the Barry Huffman, made of the unlikely combination of Old Duff genever, Wray and Nephew rum, Bénédictine, green Chartreuse and acid-adjusted lemon cordial, served on a large cube in a rocks glass. As advertised, it does taste like “malt and herbs.” The complex array of Chartreuse and genever notes meld seamlessly, and it has a honeyed sweetness that’s not cloying. It’s the sort of fascination in a glass you expect from this team.
One of the last drinks I tried—appropriately, as it turned out—was the White Flag. It’s the cheeky work of Jack Schramm, EC’s affable head bartender, who said the drink started as a kind of joke, but turned out so well it couldn’t be denied a place on the menu. A kind of high-end rum Mudslide, it holds two ounces of five-year-old rum, Frangelico, cold-brew coffee and cream syrup (a blend of cream and sugar). The name is appropriate. It’s a coma-inducing Death by Hazelnut, against the deliciousness of which there is no defense.
But there is no need to fear surrendering to the White Flag, anymore than there is to the other aspects of Existing Conditions’ liquid assault, partly because the bar’s attacks on typical drink-building are barely perceptible as such. Arnold and Lee may have achieved a sort of revolution in how cocktails can be made and thought about in a high-volume context—but it’s a Velvet Revolution. Everything you need to know is in the glass. The rest stays behind the curtain.