The history of drinking in America goes straight through the heart of New York. As with so many aspects of the city, that history has run from gritty to stylish and back again.
For generations, taverns and saloons were largely places for men to gather, drink, gamble and chew tobacco. Those places could be discerning, as with Fraunces Tavern, a still-existent bar patronized in the 18th century by the likes of George Washington and his soldiers, or more suited to the average Joe, like McSorley’s Old Ale House, which opened in the mid-19th century and, until 1970, admitted only men.
By the time McSorley’s had opened, many American bartenders had made a a of inventing what we now think of as craft cocktails. The atmosphere at these locales was often hostile and crude.
Prohibition changed all that. The idea of bars as hospitable, welcoming spaces gained traction when liquor sales became illegal.
With the advent of speak-easies, owners and bartenders suddenly had a new clientele: women. The social appeal of speak-easies pulled them into new and vibrant communal spaces. Alongside the new customers came bar stools, live jazz and a new breed of cocktails.
Despite the end of Prohibition in 1933, these changes to New York’s drinking culture endured, opening up the cocktail scene to a broader audience.
By the 1960s and into the ‘80s and ‘90s, bar culture in New York had become as varied and textured as the city itself. Cocktail bars got yet another revival at the Rainbow Room, where Dale DeGroff took over the drinks program. In the Village, the Stonewall Inn and others became centers for gay culture, while uptown venues like the Shark Bar attracted a mostly African-American clientele.
Today, despite an unfortunate turnover rate, modern New York cocktail bars are doing their best to foster a sense of community and hospitality.
It’s this spirit that an editorial writer for The Brooklyn Eagle captured in an 1885 column (quoted by David Wondrich in his book “Imbibe”). “The modern American,” the paper observed, “looks for civility and he declines to go where rowdy instincts are rampant.”
But American bars are not by definition civil. Luckily, it’s as easy to find your watering hole fit today as it was a century ago.