Meet the Brooklyn Cocktail Family

What is it about the Brooklyn cocktail that has spawned so many spin-offs? Kara Newman on the origins and essence of the borough's eponymous drink and its many Brooklyn neighborhood-inspired riffs.

Just like the glittery NYC locale for which it is named, the Manhattan always hogs the limelight. Everyone’s heard of the most famous borough’s eponymous classic, made with American whiskey, sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters. If you’re lucky, you may also have heard of classics—the Bronx, the Queens—named for one of the other four boroughs. But, like the borough itself, over the past decade the Brooklyn cocktail has grown its own cult following, not to mention the half-dozen or more nuanced drinks that bartenders have named for beloved neighborhoods, like the Greenpoint, the Bensonhurst and the Red Hook, to name a few.

“The Brooklyn is not much more than a dry Manhattan, with dry vermouth replacing the sweet,” explains Savoring Gotham, a new book focused on New York City’s culinary history. First found in print in 1908 in J.A. Grohusko’s Jack’s Manual, a book aimed at innkeepers, bartenders and restaurateurs, the original recipe called for equal parts rye whiskey and Italian (sweet) vermouth (changed to dry vermouth in later iterations), plus small amounts of maraschino liqueur and Amer Picon—a French bitter orange liqueur.

In the decades that followed, the Brooklyn cocktail didn’t get much play, while the Manhattan became a mid-century icon. This is likely in part because of its simplicity—and, let’s face it, its booziness: It’s basically a lightly altered glass of rye or bourbon, while the Brooklyn calls for two esoteric liqueurs.

When the cocktail renaissance ramped up in the early 2000s, bartenders rediscovered the classics—but many ingredients, like Amer Picon, were still impossible to find. So the city’s bartenders started to improvise. Some smuggled bottles in suitcases after trips to Europe; others brewed up housemade versions.

While many bartenders gleefully tinkered with Amer-like amari, orange bitters and other ingredients to build a better Brooklyn, perhaps the most iconic nouveau Brooklyn riff—the Red Hook—is also the most streamlined, skipping Amer Picon altogether.

Created as a Manhattan-Brooklyn mash-up in 2004 by former Milk & Honey bartender Vincenzo Errico, the drink is a simple mix of rye whiskey, Punt e Mes (a lightly bitter sweet vermouth) and maraschino liqueur. Bartenders considered it to be something of a revelation.

Pouring Ribbons co-owner Joaquín Simó, who created a Brooklyn riff called the Carroll Gardens while at Death & Co., has called it “a calling card” and “a secret handshake before cocktail bars were on every corner.”

Chad Solomon, proprietor of Midnight Rambler in Dallas, agrees that the impact of the Red Hook can’t be overstated. Incidentally, it was also the drink that, for many bartenders, flagged the versatility of the Brooklyn. Similar to the Negroni, the Brooklyn works with myriad variations—so it has sparked imagination with good reason. Of course, the boom also surely owes debt to the proliferation of bars in Brooklyn, and the fact that so many bartenders (and bar-goers) live in the borough. But there’s more to it than that.

“The cast of characters that were coming in, the regulars were starting to egg on the brown, boozy, spirit-forward aromatic cocktails,” Solomon recalls. “They loved the big, bold Manhattan variations,” such as Pegu Club proprietor Audrey Saunders’s Little Italy cocktail. Solomon chose to riff on the Red Hook instead, mixing Rittenhouse rye (“Pegu was the first account in New York to get Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond Rye Whiskey, and we were going ape-shit over it,” Solomon notes. “There was never another candidate to anchor the cocktail.”), Dolin dry vermouth, maraschino and Cynar into his Bensonhurst. The cocktail appeared on Pegu’s spring 2006 cocktail menu.

Red Hook cocktail aside, part of the allure of the Brooklyn was experimenting with various Italian amari to find an alternative to France’s elusive bitter orange Amer Picon. “We had an old bottle of Picon behind the bar at Pegu,” Solomon recalls. “It was a suitcase import at the time,” meaning it would have been impossible to put a proper Brooklyn on the menu. “The idea was to try something Brooklyn-esque, but using another bitter that could stand in its place. Cynar was where I went.”

It’s not a coincidence that some of the drinks are named for Italian neighborhoods. Simó’s Carroll Gardens calls for Nardini amaro, and he playfully chose to name his drink for the predominantly Italian-American neighborhood. Similarly, Solomon opted for Cynar, and says the strong, austere Bensonhurst drink reflects the “rough and tumble” nature of the neighborhood, where he had spent the summer of 2001 on location for a film (“Locals would come out to heckle,” he recalls).

A number of other variations followed, using the same rye whiskey-vermouth-modifier Brooklyn template, and all of them were named for other Brooklyn neighborhoods. At Milk & Honey, Michael McIlroy created the Greenpoint in 2006 and Sam Ross followed up with the Cobble Hill in 2009; the same year, Phil Ward offered the Bushwick at Death & Co.

When I started digging into these drinks, I thought for sure most of them would be traced back to various Brooklyn bars, but that’s not at all the case. In fact, most can be attributed to the now-defunct Milk & Honey and a handful of other Manhattan cocktail dens. 

It wasn’t until 2008—four years after the Red Hook’s debut—that Julie Reiner brought forth the apricot brandy-accented Slope cocktail, named for Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, as part of the debut menu for her Brooklyn bar, Clover Club. “It’s a play on the Manhattan,” she admits, not the Brooklyn.

But the Clover Club team also developed two Brooklyn riffs—arguably, the first ones actually conceived within the borough: the Bay Ridge, from Tom Macy, made with prune liqueur and Bénédictine, and the Perfect BQE, from Ivy Mix, now of Leyenda, made with equal parts dry and sweet vermouth and green Chartreuse. “It’s a marriage of the Red Hook and the Greenpoint,” Mix explains. “And what connects them? The BQE.”

Of course, not all of the Brooklyn neighborhood cocktails have the immediate staying power of the Red Hook. In 2011, Solomon circled back to the Brooklyn blueprint one more time with a limited-edition drink for Fatty Johnson’s, a West Village pop-up bar hosted by former Fatty Crab chef Zak Pelaccio. The cocktail was made with rye whiskey, Dolin Blanc, Poire Williams pear brandy, a blend of Amaro Nonino and Fernet Branca, and a special aromatic finishing touch: a stanky spritz of what he called “Essence of Hipsters in Heat.”

The name of the drink? The Williamsburg.