NEW YORK – Not until the third stop of the evening did we realize the impossibility of our mission. But I’m so happy we didn’t surrender.
Our goal on a recent midweek evening was simple: Visit as many of Manhattan’s whiskey bars as possible to determine the very best. Because this island – thanks in part to our nation’s booming interest in the lovely brown liquor – seems practically brimming with bars vying for the title of top pour.
With research and word of mouth, I narrowed the list of candidates to four – Daddy-O in the West Village, Brandy Library in Tribeca, and Maysville and The Flatiron Room, both in the Flatiron District.
After grabbing three friends and mapping out the best route for hitting all four, our adventure began at Daddy-O, a deliciously dark joint with a chill vibe and a smattering of tables and stools. It screams neighbourhood haunt in the most wonderful way.
Manager Pamela Montalvo dropped a stuffed three-ring binder on our table – a listing of all 200-plus bourbons on offer. At her suggestion, we skipped the front of the book and flipped to the back, the “black pages.” Which are just that – black pages with white text labeled “By appointment only bourbons and ryes.” These are the whiskeys you came for.
Daddy-O has been slinging whiskey since 1999, and it seemed only right we start the evening with the house bottle, Daddy-O Bourbon, an 8-year-old single barrel that owner Phillip Casaceli selected – actually, bought the entire barrel – from Wild Turkey. It was smooth and easy to drink. We paired it with the bar’s signature snack – deep-fried Tater Tots. Yeah… We went there. It was a why-haven’t-I-done-this-before moment.
From there we moved on to two bottles of Angel’s Envy, a bourbon and a rye. We resisted the urge to sample the A.H. Hirsch (no relation, sadly), which pours for a mere $600 an ounce. But Montalvo did let us smell the bottle of Angel’s Envy Cask Strength, which clocks in at just $106 an ounce.
Clearly _ and sadly _ it was time to move on. We headed to The Brandy Library, home to several hundred whiskeys and a slam dunk reputation. We disagreed. The space was unwelcoming and staid, as though we’d wandered uninvited into a club for angry old men. It didn’t help that several of the bourbons we tried to order were unavailable.
We finally found two we were interested in – and were in stock – but were admonished by the waitress, who told us we needed to order four. She held fast to this even after we’d ordered food (forgettable) and explained our mission (and desire to remain coherent as we drank for the next few hours). So we drank our bourbons, then bolted.
Next up, Maysville, a sleek, hipster whiskey bar and restaurant. Ample bright lights and especially beautiful people made the whole experience a little too glossy for our liking, though the bourbon selection and food (crispy fried grits with country ham and bourbon aioli (!!) and crispy oysters with chili mayo and pickled peppers) were wonderful.
It was now 11:30 p.m. and in the interest of being able to work the next day, we suspended our search until the following night. And that’s when we struck gold.
The minute we entered The Flatiron Room we were in love. The vibe is classic speakeasy and the lighting is intimate. A dark wooden bar stretches down the right side, shelves of backlit whiskeys line the left, and at the far end a stage is flanked by opulent velvet curtains. The live music is best described as jazz from another, better era. Actually, you could describe the entire bar that way.
With more than 1,000 whiskeys to pick from, selecting our drinks was deliciously difficult. But the knowledgeable bartenders were happy to guide us and offer samples. Even the crowd was welcoming and relaxed. It would be easy for a period-inspired bar such as Flatiron Room to feel kitschy, but this one never does. Owner Tommy Tardie told us he’d wanted to create a place both upscale and comfortable. He nailed it.
We’d found our winner. We loved Daddy-O and certainly would be back. But we really loved The Flatiron Room. And we did go back. Every night for the next four nights. It’s that sort of place.