When punch began its comeback as the cocktail geek's latest "it" tipple, regular drinking folk were surely stumped. Why was every mixologist in town getting all excited about the kind of boozy soup served at the lame parties of one's youth (and ladled out of a fancy crystal vessel like those your Aunt Helen is fond of sending as wedding gifts)? But, as drinks historian David Wondrich's latest book
"Punch" teaches us, the communal cocktail was indeed the first cocktail. It dates at least the 17th century, and was once synonymous with merrymaking. Punch invokes a shared experience, a convivial setting and can even be used to measure the life of a party: as the ice melts in the bowl, the punch becomes weaker and, eventually, the evening comes to a close. (Either that or people switch to the harder stuff.)
It's early days still at The Drink, but this new East Williamsburg bar is already gaining a following among those eager to bring back the practice of punch. It's not the first bar to serve it, of course, but it may be the first to have only punch on its cocktail list, which is scrawled on a blackboard over the bar. Wondrich's book sits on a shelf next to the board, suggesting the inspiration for some of bowls. We recently stopped in for a ladleful or two.
Digs: A vaguely nautical theme permeates the space, with sailing ropes piled in a corner, a few paddles and fishing poles adorning the walls, and a piece of driftwood mounted over the toilet. It ties into the beverage program; punch was popular among British sailors before single-serving cocktails were the norm. Upon first entering, the bare look of the place portrays newness: it looks like they've pretty much just moved in. Brightly lit and sparsely furnished, there's an array of mismatched chairs, tucked into pushed-together tables. The reclaimed wood bar looks onto a back bar reminiscent of an old apartment kitchen.
Staff: Ask the bartender for a cocktail list and he'll politely point you to the punches, explaining that these are the specialty of the house. When we visited, we were also informed that the bar staff could make pretty much any cocktail we desired. Provided you're not a bartender's nightmare who likes to show off his drinking expertise by requesting drinks like American Trilogies and Remember the Maines, this is pretty much true. The staff is well trained in all the best-known classics and makes them according to original recipes.
Crowd: Open a bar right before the first big snowfall in December and you're sure to meet the neighbors. Locals seemed to be the only ones braving the weather when we visited, but as the new year begins and real life resumes, it's sure to attract cocktailing folk, who are already atwitter (and posting on Twitter) about the place. Even then, The Drink will likely retain a "real bar" feel. As many beers and glasses of wine are being knocked back on a given night as glasses of punch.
Drinks: Aside from the ever-popular bowls, the drinks list includes several craft beers, including Cotrell Old Yankee Ale and Blue Star Wheat, as well as a couple wines by the glass. When we visited, a hot and cold punch were featured, each at $5 per glass. The hot, a Wassail punch, consisted of pineapple, mango and lime juice, apple cider and a blend of spices including cinnamon, allspice and red peppercorns. It was available with rum or bourbon—the bourbon had a more satisfying bite—and went down as well as anything warm and boozy on a cold night. Entire bowls are available for $43. Cocktails (classics, as aforementioned) were well executed; an Old Fashioned came with both lemon and orange oils freshly squeezed from their peels, per the original 19th-century recipe.
Music: The tunes contribute to the real-bar vibe of the place. Everything from blues to indie rock might filter through the speakers. The funky sounds of Stevie Wonder and Joe Simon serenaded us as we sipped our cups of steaming punch. But then, at other times, there was no music at all, giving the impression we'd stumbled into a rustic boat lodge, the bundled patrons fresh from a day of ice fishing.
Bottom line: For some time now, mixologists and their cocktailing disciples have bemoaned the exclusive, sanctified arenas many serious cocktail bars have become. They long for the casual, convivial "real bar"—a place where you can get a good beer just as easily as you can expect to be served a finely made Manhattan. Where you can loaf at the bar or loiter at a table, without being asked if you've made a reservation or if everyone in your party has arrived. The Drink is such a bar: a home away from home for locals and peripatetic punch buffs alike, as well as any sailor worth his salt passing through.
228 Manhattan Ave. between Grand and Maujer Sts.
Photo by Sam Horine