From Behind the Bar »

Tales from our resident bartender.

From Behind the Bar: Weathering the Storm

About the Author: You may have seen Michael Neff behind the bar at New York's Ward III and The Rum House. He stops by on Wednesdays to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman.

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[Photo: Nicci Silva]

What I'm Drinking:
Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year Bourbon (107 proof)
Anchor Liberty Ale (bottled)

In Southern California, where I was raised, earthquakes are a fact of life. We factor for them in our building codes. They are taken in to account when you buy a home or sign up for insurance. In school, we had "Earthquake Drills," where a loud bell rang out of nowhere, and a prize went to the kid who got under a threshold or beneath his desk first.

You can take the boy out of the earthquake zone, but you can't take the earthquake out of the boy. I tend to think natural disasters should be short, violent, and most of all, unannounced. Being prepared means staying prepared, and keeping your head when the ground is heaving and the liquor bottles are careening off the shelves.

I found myself in a bit of a dilemma when the onset of the recent hurricane was announced. What do you mean, there's going to be a natural disaster? Four days from now? If an earthquake is a swift kick to the head from an invisible ninja, a hurricane is a haymaker thrown by a drunken lumberjack. You see it coming a mile away, and all you can do is hope it swings wide. In this case, the lumberjack's name was Irene, and we all watched as she made her way up the East Coast.

Since we are nestled between the East River and the Hudson, the fact that the crescendo was due at high tide, along with the slow speed of the storm, meant the odds were very high that our rivers could jump their banks and leave downtown Manhattan—and our little bar—under an enormous amount of water.

As nearly every other business near us, bar or otherwise, shuttered their doors, we stayed open. We are a part of our community, and felt it was our obligation to be there in case we were needed. We had ice, food, first aid supplies, candles, water, beer, spirits, and company. Any of which can come in handy when the proverbial rubber hits the road. More than that, we were determined to stay until we were somehow forced physically to go, not because we thought something bad wouldn't happen, but precisely because something might.

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Left: Walking over the bridge to work. Right: Hirsch 16 year. [Photos: Michael Neff]

As for the storm itself? The rain came, first in sprinkles, then torrents. The wind blew in gusts, then gales. Our windows shook a bit, and the power flickered briefly around midnight. The lights on the street went out, which made us think, "Okay, here it comes." They came back on ten minutes later.

We had a small but dedicated group of people who determined to weather the storm amongst friends, instead of sheltering alone in their tiny apartments. Luckily for all of us, one of them is an avid whiskey collector, and thought the moment sufficient to open a series of rare American whiskies. Most people will never get to taste the Hirsch 16 year old bourbon, let alone the finest expression with the blue wax. Every sip taken diminishes the world, and we may never see anything like it again. That was my first dram of the night. Other treats, both rare and delicious, followed. I can't say if we were celebrating or commiserating, but the uncertainty of the hurricane called for a little bit of both.

In some ways, the anticipation of disaster is nearly as bad as the disaster itself. When Hurricane Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm, we looked at the scattered debris around us, the fallen trees and overturned trash bins, and breathed a collective sigh of relief. People who had been cooped up all night searched their neighborhoods for anywhere that would serve them brunch. Restaurants and bars struggled to oblige. I haven't seen so many people drunk before noon in a very long time.

Hurricane Irene did not devastate New York City. But it could have. Neighboring communities were not so fortunate. Ask Cheryl Lins, who owns a distillery in the Catskills. Their river jumped its banks, flooding was prevalent, and she had to evacuate. Ask my friends who own Whiskey Tavern, who are stuck in Vermont for at least ten days. The roads and bridges are destroyed. There is no power. And they are starting to run out of booze. What I know from dealing with earthquakes my whole life is this: sometimes the building falls down, and sometimes it doesn't. New York City dodged a bullet, and I am grateful that we all prepared ourselves for the worst.

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