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The Coolers of Coney Island

What does summer drinking look like in New York? Five beachgoers offer a glimpse of their favorite go-tos.

The air is heavy with humidity and the scent of Nathan’s hotdogs. Droves of New Yorkers fight the heat with 55-mile-per-hour rides on the Thunderbolt and ice-cold Merman IPAs at Coney Island Brewery. Others, eyes on the horizon, head straight for the beach. As the pavement turns to boardwalk and the boardwalk to sand, the smell of fried amusement park food transitions to fresh, salty ocean breeze. This is Coney Island, one of the city’s greatest summer drinking destinations; for every umbrella propped in the sand, there’s a fully stocked cooler underneath.

A black plastic bag holding a wine bottle is discreetly passed across a faded pink floral sheet, peppered with sand and empty Solo cups. A mother and daughter throw back bright red drinks in squat, unlabeled bottles. A couple of 20-something Hispanic men sit around a cooler-turned-table, topped with a bowl of lemons and salt. A few umbrellas down, several older gentlemen smoke La Finca cigars and sip Coors around a half-played game of dominos.

Drinking is not technically permitted on the beach, but that doesn’t stop New Yorkers from cracking a few open. One Sunday in August, with heat advisories in effect across the five boroughs, we walked the beach to survey the coolers of Coney Island.

Shileka and Tesha

Hometown: Michigan

What brings you to the beach today?
We’re on vacation. Visiting our family living in Crown Heights. This is our first time here and it’s been really fun.

Are those nutcrackers you are drinking?
Yes! You have to find the woman selling nutcrackers. You’ll see her. She’s always walking up and down the beach. And they’re so delicious. It’s a pretty strong rum punch.

What else do you have in the cooler?
You missed the rosé—we already finished the bottle, but we had that. Oh, and we have our mini bottles of vodka too. Other essentials include tanning oil, water and stress-free body lotion.

Do you have other drink favorites when you aren’t at the beach?
Oh, for sure Hennessy, put that down. And coquitos too. It’s a coconut eggnog cocktail.

Pastor Bob Izzo (Right) 

Hometown: Sea Gate, Brooklyn

What brings you out to the beach?
I’m enjoying a day with my friend Michael Austin.

Do you come to the beach often?
I get to the beach several times a day, actually. I’m three houses from the water down in Sea Gate; I call it the Hamptons of the West. I was born in Brooklyn, spent 18 years in Ukraine doing humanitarian aid after Chernobyl, and have been back since 2002.

What’s a memorable beach story from your childhood?
So much. Bushels of crabs excitingly carried to Great-grandmother to prepare. Using her great steaming pot and lining the table with newspapers in preparation for the blue claw crab fest. Fond memories of a bygone wonderland. At the amusement park, many of the best rides were free as my family ran two different attractions, and Grandpa Gennaro was one of the boys that ran everything. So at his mention I could ride, re-ride all day if I so chose.

I’m very curious about this black [wine] pouch of yours.
You could not have found a better person on the beach to talk to. Let me tell you about this, it’s really quite special. It’s my homemade sangria. I combine a top-shelf Kagor Monastery Ukrainian wine with blueberries, cherries, strawberries and lemon. Kagor Monastery wine first initiated my taste buds working as a missionary in Ukraine since 1989.

What else did you guys bring with you?
You’ve got to try one of my homemade meatballs. [Izzo takes out a Country Crock container filled with a few meatballs.] And then you dip it in this sauce of quince, peanut, garlic, cayenne and plum. A creation of mine.

Miriam Horta and Spidey

Hometown: Flatbush, Brooklyn

What brings you to the beach today?
Summer is escaping us, and after working 50 to 60 hour weeks [as a store manager], I need to reward myself with a day with family and friends. We try and come out here as frequently as possible. It’s hard to find the time, but when we do, we make the best of it.

You guys look like you’re having quite the party. What’s in the plastic cup?
Are you sure you aren’t going to get us in trouble?

I promise. I like the creativity behind it.
I like you! It’s moscato. The way to go at the beach. Nice and crisp white wine.

What else are you drinking?
We got Patrón. It’s time to open up the Patrón. And have you ever had a nutcracker?

I haven’t. What’s in them exactly?
It’s some sort of rum punch, but you never really know. They mess you up.

You have quite the stocked cooler. What else did I miss?
Ah, these canned margaritas are great for the beach.

Mike Kahn (Pictured), Mark Shaw and Inga

Hometown: Brooklyn, New York

How do you know one another?
From the beach. We’re all retired and have been coming here, to this specific spot in front of the New York Aquarium for seven or eight years. Now we’re all old friends.

What do you guys usually drink at the beach?
Well, I don’t drink, but Mike [Kahn], as you can see, is the bartender and entertainer of the group. He’s got his cooler stocked with Jura Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Tito’s Vodka, you name it.

I like putting my Modelo into an insulated water bottle. It keeps it perfectly cold and if anyone were to ask, I say, “It’s just water.”

How many people usually join your group?
Mike is only a weekender. I’m out here every day; I try and run the boardwalk in the morning and then come down. Today it’s on the smaller side [around 10], but can get as large as 30 or 40 people depending on the day.

Coney Island Beach Coolers

Alanna Cabrera and Esther Gonzalez 

Hometown: Manhattan, New York

What brings you to the beach today?
We’re friends from college on summer break and try to get out here two to three times each summer.

Those look like fun summer drinks.
Yeah, they’re Piña Coladas. We got them right over on the boardwalk and they’re pretty good.

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Michelle Heimerman is a visuals editor for Bon Appétit and a board member of Lens on Life where she conducts photography workshops for Syrian youth at Za'atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. Previously the photo editor and contributing photographer for Saveur, Michelle continues to report and shoot drink and food culture stories across the globe.