If I were to rate The Shanty Bar in Williamsburg on decor alone, I’d give it top points.
Anyone can build attractive modern woodworking, provide spacious seating and display vintage booze bottles and memorabilia. This joint takes it a step further by having an actual functioning distillery in full steaming view behind a window over the banquettes. Why? Because The Shanty is not only a cocktail and beer bar, it is also the headquarters of the New York Distilling Company, the first legal bar and distillery combo in New York City.
In fact, this is the only one on the East Coast for now. Hard to imagine a forward-thinking enclave such as Billyburg would have to catch up to a trendsetter like Boise, Idaho. The first of its kind, Bardenay Restaurant and Distillery, opened there in 2000. Others followed, mostly concentrated in the west, like Rogue and McMenamins throughout Oregon; Sun Liquors in Seattle; Syntax Spirits in Greeley, Colorado; Sam McNulty’s in Ohio City, Ohio, and High West in Park City, Utah. But it still took a long time for these types of establishments to emerge, considering Bardenay opened 67 years after Repeal.
One of the old jokes about modern boozing is that it was easier to get a drink during Prohibition. Since 2007, the NY Farm Distillery Law has made it possible to open on-premise distilleries and tasting rooms, as long as at least half the product is New York born and bred. Licensing for such establishments can still take years under strict legislation that varies by state. It took New York Distilling two years to open.
The place was conceived by brew aficionado Tom Potter, spirits ambassador and educator Allen Katz, spirits sommelier Bill Potter and Master Distiller Jason Grizzanti. Another distilling expert, Nathan Dumas, heads Shanty’s bar program. When it opened in Nov. of 2011, their gins, Perry’s Tot and Dorothy Parker, were menu-ready, and are also now sold retail. Their rye is still being aged for a bit, although their Rock n Rye liqueur using younger spirit may be available later this year.
Perry’s Tot is the first American version of Navy Strength gin, bottled at 57% ABV. To give it added local significance, it’s named for Matthew Calbraith Perry, a 19th century commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. This is a weighty, flavorful gin that has traces of local wildflower honey mixed in with the other botanicals to give it a slight sweetness. I also detected a bit of saltiness in the finish to match its nautical affiliations.
Bottled at 44% ABV, Dorothy Parker gin, like the lady herself, is a contrast in daintiness and bite. Hibiscus, elderberries, cinnamon and citrus are among the botanicals. There’s a distinctly floral note which dials up on the palate into ginger and spice.
Shanty has an inspired drinks menu, naturally showcasing the proprietary gins. The Dorothy Parker gin is in the Acerbic Mrs. Parker cocktail, a refreshing mix with lemon and hibiscus syrup. The Sauvetage is Bitterman’s American Sauvage, Carpano Antica and grapefruit. Perry’s is both in the stirred, sweet and bitter Opera Cocktail with Dubonnet Rouge, maraschino and orange bitters, and in the 700 Songs Gimlet, which belts its way out of the mold with cinnamon and hellfire bitters. Don Q tonic is available for the Tot &Tonic, but would also be great with the DP gin.
Two favorite cocktails which did not feature the gin were rye-based, brooding Lonesome Hero and the Wizard Staff, a rounded, nutty concoction which balances rum, Oloroso sherry, citrus and walnut bitters. If cocktails aren’t your thing, don’t forget that a bunch of beer mavens are at the helm, with excellent brews on hand. There are also maple bacon peanuts (hello!) and an assortment of cheeses and cured meats to help soak up the boozy goodness.
New York City has definitely come a long way since the Volstead Act. As I toured the facility and sipped my cocktails, I kept thinking about my late Grandma Nina, who made bathtub gin in the NYU pathology lab in the 1920s. I somehow doubt she ever rubbed shoulders with Dorothy Parker in her day, but I’ll bet she would have loved sitting in this comfortable bar with the stills in the background, drinking good hooch named after her. With no fear of a raid.