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Bar Review: New York’s Pioneering Angel’s Share, 24 Years Later

In "Bar Review," Robert Simonson revisits New York's OG Japanese cocktail bar to see how the trailblazer of the craft cocktail movement has fared nearly a quarter-century on.

Angels Share NYC

It’s all very familiar. The unmarked entrance. The rules of etiquette posted on the wall. Bartenders in vests, ties and arm garters cradling cocktail shakers in a tough-love embrace. We’ve been here before.

Only, the opposite is true. It’s been here. We craft cocktail drinkers are the parvenus, only recently arrived. Before PDT, before Bourbon & Branch, before the late, great Milk & Honey—on which it was a major influence—this snug, second-story speakeasy was showing America what a night of sophisticated drinking could be if both you and your bartender agreed to put on your big-boy pants for a few hours.

Angel’s Share opened in 1993 to little hullabaloo. Since its debut, the cocktail revival has risen up and soared, largely instigated by the model of Milk & Honey, which borrowed Angel’s Share’s church-like atmosphere and sense of decorum. Angel’s Share, however, has not reaped the revolution’s spoils as much as other, more media-savvy bars and bartenders. Though respected as a key progenitor, it was largely left behind—the Chuck Yeager of cocktail bars, earthbound while later bartender-astronauts bounced on the moon and garnered the glory.

Lately, however, drinking trends have come around to make Angel’s Share a prescient trailblazer yet again. The bar represented Manhattan’s first taste of the Tokyo style of cocktail bar: all formality, intimacy and meticulous service. It’s taken a couple decades, but New York has finally started to embrace some of the hallmarks of Japanese drinking.

Kenta Goto, longtime bartender at Pegu Club, scored a success with Bar Goto, his Lower East Side interpretation of East-meets-West drinking styles. Tokyo Record Bar, recently opened on Greenwich Village, is an homage to an idiosyncratic genre of night spot found in Tokyo where music is as attended to as the drinks. And examples of the Japanese style of whiskey highball, more precise and subtle than its American counterpart, can be had at Bar Moga in Greenwich Village, Karasu in Fort Greene, Bobby’s Heugel’s Tongue-Cut Sparrow in Houston and Jim Meehan’s new Prairie School in Chicago. As for Japanese whisky—once an obscure, mysterious commodity only obtained in places like Angel’s Share—well, it’s now among the most sought-after, elusive and expensive juice in the world.

What better time, then, to look in on the bar and see how it’s bearing up under the standard it set. On the face of it, not much has changed. The approach, up a flight of stairs and through an izakaya restaurant, remains one of the coolest in the city. Inside, the lights are low, the space small and romantic. You have to wait to be seated, and parties larger than four are turned away. The bartenders, still dapper and vested, and primarily Japanese expatriates, wield cobbler shakers and do their work under the mock-Tiepolo mural that serves as the joint’s visual focal point.

But other things have changed. In visits long past, I do not recall exchanging many words with the bartenders. They were men at work; I read the signals and left them to their labors. Recently, I found them considerably more chatty and approachable, easily engaging with the customers.

The menu, now a simple piece of paper with selections on both sides, meanwhile, showed an effort to keep up with the times. A clarified milk punch, coffee-laced cocktails, new ingredients such as the Italian liqueur Italicus and menu sections dedicated to mezcal and mocktails all illustrate that no grass had grown under Angel’s Share’s feet.

“We draw much of our technique and aesthetic from the focused, detail-oriented style that has characterized Japanese bartending for the last century,” explained Ben Rojo, the senior bartender, who claims to be the first American-born bartender in the bar’s history. Despite that, he adds, “we view ourselves as an inextricably New York bar,” with a “hybridized house style.”

Action behind the bar is as fussy as ever, with vigorous, tightly controlled shaking of cobbler tins—a hallmark of Japanese bartending, in which technique is practiced and perfected—and much wielding of large tweezers in the placement of just-so garnishes.

Step Inside Angel's Share

On my first visit, I ordered an A’la Mode (most drinks are $15) because it struck me as the perfect meeting point between Angel’s Share’s old style (the drink had a base of melon-flavored vodka, the sort of ingredient once common on the bar’s menu) and new self (that trendy Italicus, as well as mastiha, a Greek liqueur derived from tree resin, espresso and coffee-infused agave nectar). The bartender warned me it was on the sweet side; I stubbornly insisted. It turned out to be in the Espresso Martini ballpark, right down to the espresso bean garnish. The melon and flowery Italicus were discordant notes in the mix and a reminder that in my past experiences balance had often been an issue with the bar’s drinks.

Sweeter still was the April in Paris, composed of Sauternes wine and St-Germain elderflower liqueur. The Champagne vinegar and tomato water, lurking somewhere inside the glass, didn’t stand a chance.

Like many of the drinks on the menu, the John “Malted” Collins (a creation of Shingo Gokan, the bar’s former, long-serving bar director, whose influence on the menu is still felt), employed Asian flavorings. In the glass were a house-made jam made from koji, a fungus used in making sake, as well as a dried soy sauce powder for garnish. As advertised, these touches added an intriguing malt flavor to a frothy long drink that bore many of the earmarks of a Ramos Gin FizzSometimes, Angel’s Share’s too-clever-by-half concoctions break through their thicket of ingredients into something delicious and original.

Like the John “Malted” Collins, the laundry list running below the Dove’s Call didn’t look promising—tequila, artichoke liqueur, grapefruit and lime soda, Chinotto soda and tonic water, crowned by a grapefruit and salt foam and a sprig of parsley—but the effect was, in the end, rather simple and delightful. It drank like a wonderfully weird and layered Paloma—tart, refreshing and palate-cleansing.

Better still was another avian-named number, the Flirtibird, made of barley shochu, fragrant shiso leaf, yuzu juice, agave nectar and a plum salt rim. I’m not much for salt rims, but this one paired perfectly with the liquid, creating something like an alcoholic version of a salted plum soda. The large cube of ice that anchored it was a handy reminder that Angel’s Share was hewing custom pieces of ice long before most bartenders had even heard of Kold-Draft.

All these years later, Angel’s Share doesn’t hurt for business. Even on a weeknight, a line forms a half-hour after opening. On a busy night, the seating process can be chaotic and confusing. But, on my visits, none of the customers seemed to mind the wait, or that the promise of attentive service wasn’t always fulfilled—the unfilled water glasses, the candles that, when burned out, weren’t relit immediately. On one occasion, my drink arrived a full ten minutes before my date’s.

Perhaps they all recognize an original when they see one, and are willing to forgive its faults. Because that is what Angel’s Share remains, the rise in New York of craft cocktails and Japanese-style bars notwithstanding: a sui generis oddball. It is neither resting on its laurels, frozen in time, nor altogether in the slipstream of modern trends. It is, as it has ever been, aligned with itself.

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