Note: First Looks give previews of new drinks and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
"There's no shortage of bars these days that are looking to the past for inspiration," says bar manager Kevin Denton. We're in the dining room of Alder, Wylie Dufresne's casual,
soon-to-be-open open-today East Village bar/restaurant. It's two days before opening and our scheduled photoshoot at the bar is taking place in the dining room instead—there are currently workers pounding in a black rubber-topped bar surface in the front room. Kevin, who has a bucket of ice and his spirits lined up on one of the two dozen-odd two-tops that fill the dining says over the noise, "I mean, I don't want to say that we're trying to be the future of bars or anything like that, but we're definitely taking our inspiration from the present."
The cocktail program Kevin's designed incorporates a few novel—but perfectly logical—techniques. First off: the six taps at the bar. Two of them pour beer ("Naragansett is our house cheap beer and we'll always have a rotating second option on tap"), one pours cider, and three of them pour cocktails.
"The old fashioned way of making cocktails is great, and many of the drinks on our menu are made to order—we'll also obviously make you whatever you'd like to order—but if we can pre-mix cocktails fresh every day, make sure they're in an inert environment, and that their quality is consistent from pour to pour, why wouldn't we want to serve drinks that take seconds to pour instead of minutes?"
To be clear, the concept of on-tap cocktails is quite different from barrel-aged cocktail, where altering the flavor of the drink over time is the intent. On-tap cocktails are designed to be identical pour after pour. It's the logical extension the Manhattan served a couple blocks away at Booker & Dax, Dave Arnold's modern bar in the back of Momofuku Ssäm bar. There, the Manhattans are pre-mixed, pre-diluted, and bottled with inert nitrogen gas so that they stay completely fresh until opened and poured.*
*Fittingly, Dave Arnold and Wylie Dufresne are brothers-in-law.
"We're going to batch our cocktails each day according to how many we think we'll sell that night, then we carbonate them, and run them up the taps from our beer fridge."
The batched cocktails tend to run on the lighter, easy-drinking side—a Pimm's cup flavored with pine needles, an effervescent concoction of horseradish-infused vodka and green apple juice, one with oolong tea and tequila with grapefruit (the "Love Oolong Time," get it?)—while the rest of the menu is more of a mixed bag.
"We're planning on having at least one vegetable juice cocktail on the menu all the time," says Kevin. At opening, it's going to be a carrot juice and akvavit cocktail flavored with tart sea-buckthorn berries and served tall. At some point down the line, Kevin is planning a green juice cocktail as well.
"We take the same sort of philosophy towards our cocktails that the kitchen takes," explains Kevin. "We've got this amazing access to global flavors and ingredients from all around the world, so we really try and push ourselves to think about how those flavors can combine and how to move away from predictable combinations." That's how drinks like the Dr. Dave's 'Scrip Pad were born: a dark mix of Old Overholt rye, Ramazzotti Amaro, yuzu juice, and smoked maple syrup.
"We're definitely not doing anything Modernist or molecular like we might do at WD[-50]. This is supposed to be the kind of bar you could just drop by and order a couple quick drinks and a bite to eat, so we want to keep that quick, simple aesthetic." Despite their unique flavors, these drinks are meant to be drunk, not pondered.