The space looks and smells new with fresh paint and unscathed wood tiling. Its soundtrack is loud, beat driven rock and roll. I gaze at the extensive cocktail list; all drinks notate antique and original cocktail books and recipes. I choose the “Arawak” adapted from Trader Vic’s Bartenders Guide of 1947 (pedro ximenez sherry, jamaican rum, angostura, lemon twist and cherry). It is deep, rich, perfectly diluted, and served up in a delicate yet already chipped coup.
The rest of the list is adapted cocktail classics from the 30s and 40s, including low ABV cocktails at an affordable $11 while the general cocktails are $13. A market price bartender’s choice option punctuates the list, a clever method to allow variability to an open-ended cocktail option. The backbar is organized by type of alcohol. I note the extensive rum selection.
My second drink is the Dragon’s Breath (calvados, dry vermouth, apricot liquor, hot sauce, pickled walnut) adapted form 1700 Cocktails for the Man Behind the Bar (1934). I order it because it sounds like the strangest collection of ingredients. On the side of the drink I receive a thimble containing the pickled walnut. I ask for direction. The bartender says maybe take a sip of the drink and sip the pickled walnut juice; he cautions not to pour the whole thing into the drink. It is crisp, boozy, almost effervescent. I take a bite of the walnut; it is so acidic it hurts, with a unique richness of flavor for a pickling liquid. I am at a loss for the function of the walnut in the already balanced drink and fear I would have ruined my drink by dumping the thimble into my glass if I hadn’t asked for instruction.
I recognize a neighborhood bar owner who recognizes someone else. I get the feeling this night is somewhat laced with neighborhood industry roaming the space with excitement about a new bar from such reputable forerunners as Dutch Kills. Everyone overeager, both staff and patrons bump into one other.
A few weeks later I revisit Fresh Kills. Every seat at the bar is full, as are the booths. I snuggle up to the service bar and immediately develop concern. Only one person seems to be in charge of the ten 2-top tables and service bar for the five booths (each up to six people) while another bartender focuses only on the bar. It is clear most people are seated expecting some sort of table service that simply isn’t available. The overwhelmed bartender seems stressed, and rightfully so. Her bar back is helpful but it seems like more support is necessary. All things considered no one is anxious yet, but the ordering process remains unclear, so I wait patiently to be called upon like the shy kid in class.
The hype around this bar says that it will be good for cocktail seekers. True. The major difference from many of the other cocktail beacons is a doorman, causing the current state of affairs. She apologizes about the wait. I not on a timeline so I don’t mind that I have no drink in hand. I hand two girls a menu who seem confused “do you know if the tables are first come first serve?” I attempt to help, no longer knowing if and when I will receive the drink ordered quite sometime before. Then it is handed to me: a Better and Better, the title ignites hope. Its ingredients are mezcal, over proof Jamaican rum, velvet falernum. It is boozy and smokey as requested and served on a beautiful, clear piece of ice with a lemon twist. The ice itself is so clear that it takes on the colors around it.
Finally another person arrives to assist the bar; relief is here.
I continue sipping and the flavors expose themselves past the mezcal. It becomes syrupy while remaining spirit forward. It gets better and better, aptly named. I notice the way I must put my nose on the piece of ice to obtain the last sip, making my nose slightly wet and cold, like a dog. The music is turned up. The vibe of the bar suddenly matches the vibe of the patrons.