Three Wonders of Williamsburg: Brooklyn Bars from Basic to Sublime

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Known now as a hipster hub, Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s bar scene is transcending its ‘hood to become a cocktail destination that’s both basic and sublime. With spring in the air and gin on our minds, we set out on a bar tour that took us down the rabbit hole and around the world.

DONNA: Jeremy Oertel takes a painterly path

Lookin’ for My Donna…the psychedelic urchin of HAIR has become a down to earth cocktail habitat where Brooklyn-brewed gin (Dorothy Parker from neighboring Greenpoint) is served in a space, which was once a flophouse (the building dates to 1850).  The owner, Leif Young Huckman, dubs it “an elegant space for dirty kids” – an environment that’s unvarnished and authentic, but not without sophistication. The cocktail menu at DONNA is as painterly as artist-mixologist, Jeremy Ortel’s true calling as a realist painter.  He studied at the Savannah College of Art and Design and went on (after stints at other notable art schools in NY and Philadelphia) to create still lifes with trompe l’oeil imagery; a path he credits to his most imaginative aunt, Catherine Meader, who had him making giant dragons out of sand as a youngster. Like the Pied Piper, she led him and his buddies on a journey of creative exploration.

An equally well-schooled mixologist as he is a painter, he considers cocktails simply another medium for his art. Celebrating a year now at DONNA, Jeremy is also the in-house “mixologist” for the SoHo and Tribeca Grand Hotels. Another reason he’s too busy to paint these days is that he’s applying his artistic sensibilities to creative consulting projects with his wife, Natasha David, also a bartender. Most recently they collaborated on Sunshine Co. in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

“Painting” with flavors and essences, he makes drinks working with a palette that draws inspiration from color and from music too – intuitively enriching or minimalizing shades and tones as his artistic instinct allows. A self-confessed “obsessive craftsman,” he seeks exquisite balance in every drink he makes at this playful place where customers come to relax and have fun. The priority at DONNA is to let your hair down, dance on tabletops, just let the good times roll. There’s no pretentiousness here in this relaxed and spontaneous spot where flights of tequila and autographed bottles of bourbon are as popular as Jeremy’s artistically-crafted cocktails.

DONNA    27 Broadway Brooklyn, NY 11249 donnabklyn.com (646) 568-6622

Monday through Thursday 6:00 PM – 2:00 AM,

Friday 6:00 PM – 4:00 AM, Saturday 4:00 PM – 4:00 AM, Sunday 4:00 PM – 2:00 AM

RESERVATIONS REQUIRED FOR PARTIES OF TEN OR MORE

info@donnabklyn.com

A cocktail colorist, Jeremy Oertel sees gin as shades of yellow and green. In honor of the rabbits hopping over grassy-green fields in one of his favorite books (the Richard Adams bunny-centric epic), he’s named his first cocktail for MILLENNIUM’s MIXOLOGY….

Watership Down

1 ½ oz.  Dorothy Parker Gin, a smooth, balanced spirit infused with a blend of traditional and contemporary botanicals including juniper, elderberries, citrus, cinnamon and hibiscus, from

New York Distilling Company, made in Brooklyn (available at www.drinkupny.com for $29.99).

Dash Orchard Street Celery Shrub Bitters – from Bittermen’s. A zingy taste of Manhattan’s lower East Side combining celery, apples and vinegar, adds brightness to fresh cocktails (available on www.amazon.com for $18.95).

1 oz.  Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry made of fine wines and botanicals found in Alpine Meadows, this vermouth is light and dry with a fresh, restrained, elegant nose. (Available for $15.99 at www.drinkupny.com)

¾ oz fresh squeezed lime juice

½ oz ginger syrup (use a professional juice extractor to secure juice from an unpeeled, chopped chunk of ginger –  then add 2 parts sugar to 1 part ginger juice to make your own ginger syrup).

GIN & TONIC WITH A TWIST from Jeremy Oertel at Donna

Off-duty, relaxing at home, Jeremy and his wife, Natasha, both cocktail aficionados, don’t make complicated concoctions. They enjoy simple pleasures like a rediscovered old favorite, the classic gin & tonic, but here with a new twist – not only the essence of fresh lime (peel alone, no juice), but a dash of bitters for zest and brilliant flavor.  The recipe is simple, but remember to keep the proper balance in the drink 1:3 – 1 part gin, 3 parts tonic.

2 oz. Plymouth Gin (favored in this classic drink for its deep earthy notes and a wonderfully fresh juniper and lemony bite. Slightly sweet, this gin’s finish is long and dry (available at most liquor stores).

Add a dash of Peychaud’s bitters (more sweet than bitter); Peychaud’s delivers a fresh, floral lift for even the most basic cocktails (available on www.whisknyc.com).

6 oz.  Fever-Tree Indian Tonic Water, for its authentic flavors and champagne-style carbonation (available on www.amazon.com).

Pour over ice in a tall glass. Garnish with twist of lime. The acid in the lime juice itself changes the drink, so Jeremy recommends using only the peel.

“There are ten families of cocktails,” explains Justin Noel, mixologist extraordinaire at Williamsburg’s BASIK in Brooklyn, “like the royal houses of Europe.” As Princess Diana would attest, it takes training to manage the expectations that come with the effortless creation of exceptional cocktails. The mantra of the bar is “back to the basics” and indeed its bare bones concrete space is simple; but saved from starkness with the long 19th century butcher block bar, salvaged from an abandoned packaging plant and eased further with the rustic whimsy of the back garden.

There’s a consistent discipline to making fine cocktails, Justin reveals, like going to the gym daily. He should know about such dedication as his start in bartending came as he opted out of a career as a professional soccer player (he quit playing for Blackpool and for teams in France and Holland after too many injuries). He joined the drink culture because, as he humorously puts it, “bartenders got to entertain the girls and make money at the same time” while apparently, effortlessly having fun.  A lifestyle apparently “not too different than a rock star,” Justin observes, “chefs hide behind a wall, but bartenders do it all out in the open. And like it or not, their performance is immediately critiqued.”  It all comes down to the amount of care one takes, he explains. “You can’t call yourself a chef or a mixologist if you don’t understand the basic elements.

“Just because you cook at home, doesn’t make you a chef. Just putting alcohol and some muddled fruit in a shaker doesn’t make you a mixologist. It takes study and understanding of the balance of flavors for the creative juices to really flow. But there is still a template, a backbone…even when you think you created something totally original, odds are somewhere is the world someone else already tried it once.” Justin believes in whetting his customers’ culinary appetites, “educate people and their taste level rises,” gone then are silly, sweet cocktails now replaced by fresh, innovative drinks that “activate the senses.”

When Justin began his cocktail journey in Miami in 2004, “cocktail menus consisted of 20 martinis.” Even then there was imagination in the mise en place, the display of vibrantly colored fresh fruits – yellows, pinks and more sizzling shades dressed the bar. Ever the traveler, Justin went on to New Zealand, Australia, Asia and then Europe, experiencing different ingredients and spirits firsthand and appreciating the seasonality of flavors. “I bring part of my life into the bar and for me, making a cocktail is like taking a trip around the world…I go to Indochina for raw spices, Polynesia for luscious coconuts, Africa for exotic flavors…all these worldly components come into play when I create a drink and serve as the theme for 1534, the Manhattan bar I founded.”

Getting back to basics, a trip to BASIK is a pleasant and stress-free way to enjoy cocktails that are approachably understated. They speak for themselves, says Justin, and express a connection to natural, accessible unpretentious ingredients. Justin’s simplest summer cocktail?  Oxley Gin, his preferred sipping gin, served on the rocks with a twist of grapefruit zest to bring out its refreshing citrus essence. Justin’s secret sequence to presenting the ultimate cocktail: Looks first, scent second and taste third. Like a royal wave, it all takes practice to perfect.

Lavender Fizz

(Basik’s fresh take on the “Marquee Summer Cocktail, gin & tonic”)

Lavender complements the fresh botanicals in Oxley Gin, the first cold-distilled spirit made without heat to preserve the flavors of its natural elements. Justin selects lavender to enhance this go-to cocktail for warmer days, as the fresh floral notes work well with the subtle effervescence of Fever-Tree Tonic Water (fizzy, but not a manic burst of bubbles like American commercially-bottled tonic water) for this variation on a spring into summer favorite.

¾ oz.  fresh-squeezed lemon juice

¾ oz.  lavender syrup (available on amazon.com for $15.95)

2 oz.  Oxley Gin Small Batch from England, classic gin conceived for connoisseurs, lemon tart aroma rounded out with flavors of juniper and anise, light spice and fresh herbal notes for a lingering, delicious finish. (Available at www.caskstore.com/oxley-dry-gin.html for $49.00)

Top with Fever-Tree Indian Tonic Water (available on www.amazon.com)

Garnish with a sprig of fresh lavender

The BASIK Negroni

This drink plays with your senses, says Justin Noel, the aromatic essence of grapefruit is perfect not only as a way to bring out the citrus notes of Oxley Gin, but the zest, the curving peel of the fruit adds a dramatic visual element enhancing its appeal. It’s a lighter version of the classic Negroni, a traditional Italian aperitif (deemed “a satanic delicious hell broth,” by Anthony Bourdain who made this seductive cocktail for Jimmy Fallon).

1 oz Oxley Gin   The unusual signature ingredient, meadowsweet, brings a rounded, almond flavor to Oxley, harmonizing with this gin’s bright, fresh botanicals. (Available at www.caskstore.com/oxley-dry-gin.html for $49.00)

1 oz Aperol Lighter than Campari, this fruity, fresh bittersweet orange aperitif brings a delightful vitality to the cocktail, its fruity notes merging beautifully with Oxley (available on amazon.com for $18.95).

1 oz Amaro Montenegro. More than 40 secret botanicals, including black licorice and saffron, make this aromatic bittersweet herbal liqueur a fresh alternative to sweet vermouth (available on amazon.com, for $20.69).

Garnish with grapefruit zest – be generous! Cut a wide swath and let it seep through the drink

Pour the Gin, Aperol and Amaro Montenegro into a mixing glass.  Add ice.  Stir until chilled, then strain into a cocktail glass. Express the grapefruit peel over the cocktail glass and drop it in.

323 Graham Ave   basikbrooklyn.com

Brooklyn, NY 11211 (347) 889-7597

Monday through Wednesday

4:00 pm – 2:00 am

Thursday and Friday

4:00 pm – 4:00 am

Saturday

12:00 pm – 4:00 am

Sunday

12:00 pm – 2:00 am

MAISON PREMIERE : Jesse Carr charms us into a romantic rendezvous

298 Bedford Ave  Brooklyn, NY 11211       maisonpremiere.com
(347) 335-0446

Monday through Friday

4:00 pm – 4:00 am

Saturday and Sunday

12:00 pm – 4:00 am

Sublime. Truly sublime among Brooklyn Bars, Maison Premiere is a transformative experience, a trip down the rabbit hole to another time and place – back to a romantic, leisurely era when sipping a cocktail was an afternoon’s pastime not a necessary daily de-stressor. Heralding the glories of the American South in its heyday, Jesse Carr, Senior Bartender, crafts exquisite, addictive frothy fantasies that enjoying just once is not enough. With a nod to New Orleans and to Parisian traditions, the superb cocktails at Maison Premiere are a fascination in themselves – not to mention a divine accompaniment to the freshest oysters and most imaginatively prepared seafood this side of the bayou.

Jesse got his start young, finding his love of cocktails beginning as he made carefully concocted drinks for his Irish grandma who was born in 1907. Always living with the philosophy that it was “5 p.m. somewhere in the world,” he’d mix Bloody Mary’s and Long Island Iced Teas for his imbibing inspiration, who was never drunk (just delightfully buzzed). Growing up in Virginia’s horse country, where his grandparents owned banks, bars and tobacco, he left at 18 to head West to California. Though he got his start in far from elite establishments, Jesse took his grandma’s mixology sessions to heart and taught himself as he went along, how to excel at his craft.

Bartending tools have become his passion however. “Sterling Silver, in particular, as it conducts cold, “ice,” he says “is our stove.” Cold gin martinis are his personal favorites, especially when paired with this magical destination’s fresh oysters ($1.00 each during happy hour.)  Indeed so enamored of this combination is Jesse, that he joyously speaks of the pleasure of meeting the oyster farmers who come in to Maison Premiere to sell their crops.

Gin, he wants us all to realize, is as unique as oysters; just as there’s a difference in taste between Bluepoints and Belons, so is there a wonderful variety in this juniper-based spirit with Beefeater being “bombastic and American” and Plymouth “easy to appreciate, the vodka of gin.” We’ll have another as we ponder his perceptions. Cheers!

Maison Premiere Carondelet

The Carondelet is frothy, ice cold, lemony and just sweet enough thanks to Orange Blossom Honey and a pinch of sea salt – it is an homage to the New Orleans classic, Ramos Gin Fizz, but now without dairy or simple syrup, it’s recast as an easier to make, lighter cocktail for spring / summer. The Orange Blossom honey holds the cocktail together (embracing the citrus, orange flower water and vanilla), and its luscious texture gives the drink a fresh foaminess that’s airy and light. Named after a street in New Orleans where Henry C. Ramos once owned a saloon, it was created recently in New York by Maksym “Maks” Pazuniak. Perfect with oysters or as an afternoon delight. Bet you can’t have just one!

2 oz. Beefeater Gin (available in most liquor stores)

1/2 oz. fresh lemon

1/2 oz. fresh lime

3/4 oz. Carondelet Syrup (Orange Blossom Honey, Orange Flower Water and a pinch of sea salt)

Pour into cocktail shaker, add ice, shake, strain and pour into frozen coupe glass.

Maison Premiere Spring Pimm’s Cup

Pimm’s No. 1, a gin-based liqueur, is named after James Pimm, the bar owner who created it in the mid-1800s. Bottled by the 1860s, its number one status differentiated it from other “cups,” numbered two through six, based on brandy, rum and other spirits. This refreshing tonic, citrusy and bittersweet, stands out as a summer time favorite, imbibed in surprisingly massive quantities at Wimbledon every year.  Maison Premiere makes their Pimm’s Cup more inventively than most, with strawberry fennel shrub (syrup that’s both sweet and tart) and a splash of pineapple juice. The idea is that one won’t knock you over if consumed in the heat of a summer afternoon. It’s considered a New Orleans drink famed in the French Quarter, where this comparatively low alcohol concoction is ever popular. So if subway is your means of transportation and the box seats at Wimbledon are full, enjoy a Pimm’s Cup in the early evening in the garden in Maison Premiere and imagine yourself traveling down the rabbit hole to discover a magical world of love and leisure.

1 1/2 oz. Pimm’s No. 1

1/2 oz. Beefeater Gin

1/2 oz. fresh lime juice

1/4 oz. pineapple juice

“1/2 oz. Strawberry Fennel Shrub  (a shrub is a concentrated syrup made from fruit, vinegar and sugar). Recipes may be found online at bloomingglenfarm.com or purchased at www.thebostonshaker.com for $13.00.

1/4 oz. ginger

1 orange slice

8 mint leaves

1 pinch fresh ground pepper

Seltzer water (unflavored, carbonated water)

Pour gin in cocktail shaker, add juices, strawberry fennel shrub and ginger with a pinch of pepper. Add ice.  Shake, strain, top with seltzer. Garnish with mint and orange slice.

By Lori Zelenko

Photography by Chris Soto


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