It was with some sadness that we heard earlier this year that the Highball Lounge had closed. It was fun space in a schizo way with its Viewmaster menus, high end highballs (never our favorite cocktail but give them credit for stretching the category), strong whiskey selection and array of table games to go along with a few seriously good cocktails. But to be honest, we didn’t go there as often as we expected to – it got crowded fast and would take on a more of a clubby/scene feel than we really wanted. We had some good times at the Highball Lounge, especially with company events but never considered it one of our must-go destinations.
Any regrets were blown away with the announcement of the space being reborn as the Better Sorts Social Club with Naomi Levy at the helm. Naomi’s career has been one long string of accolades, with numerous international awards and an acclaimed stint at the renowned Eastern Standard where she created and served me my all time favorite ES cocktail, the Phoenix, a striking genever, burnt sugar, egg white and lemon ash masterpiece. So a high powered bar where Naomi’s virtuosity with cocktails with bold daring ingredients and easy approachability were front and center? CAN NOT WAIT!
No, seriously literally CAN NOT WAIT. The BSSC’s opening day was the same day as the Whiskey Extravaganza, and yes, sane people would just wait a day or two … but we weren’t sane and the Hyatt (the site of the Whiskey Extravaganza) was just two blocks away so at 5:15 we were blasting through a crowd of likeminded people until we ended up with two seats at the end of the bar, an excellent vantage point to watch the craftsmanship on display.
The menu was full of challenge, whimsy and promise:
Opening day menu – with Bowie, the Clash and Blondie well represented as Pear, Squash and Greens.
We were lucky to get the lady of the hour herself and it was lovely to see that Naomi was still her warm, unassuming, engaging self even on a day that had to be equal parts intense pressure and personal triumph. It was also impressive that the entire staff seemed organized and efficient on their opening night, at least for the duration of our stay.
Lorri opened with The Tide is High, incorporating the pineapple bark-infused Plantations Stiggins Rum and Giffard banana liqueur (two excellent ingredients that deliver the signature flavor of their components without being obnoxiously sweet or unctuously intense) and made lusciously green with kale (most likely blended and strained). Kale sounds like something that would get overly bitter and vegetal in a cocktail but in this cocktail it added a subtle depth and creamy mouthfeel (if anything there was room for a little MORE bitterness for a sturdier foundation for the tropical flavors). This is certainly a cocktail with more finesse than its aggressively green hue, expertly executed.
My Return of Major Tom was reminiscent of the aforementioned Phoenix with its bold stripe of ash but the comparisons ended there, despite Naomi’s humble proclamation “Yes, I’m a one trick pony”. I’m usually skeptical of cocktails made with Toki whiskey (Suntory’s recent entry into lower-priced blended whiskey) since it’s essentially a super-light, offensively inoffensive Scotch replacement designed for highballs, but I trusted Naomi on this one. The pear infusion made the Toki much more interesting, the burnt toast tincture (how does one actually make this?) extended the “ash” theme and added a much needed slight Scotch peat-like edge. Incorporate the egg white and you have an cocktail of real elegance and refinement.
Round Two saw Lorri going for the El Chopo, a mezcal and tepache concoction. Tepache is a lightly fermented, low alcohol beverage made from pineapple peel that we see in some regularity in the Southwest but almost never see up here in the Northeast. The ice and possibly the glyceral mouthfeel of the zucchini syrup put this one a bit out of Lorri’s comfort zone but I found it an unusually refreshing mezcal cocktail.
I’ll confess that my intentions in ordering the Cacio e Pepe were COMPLETELY dishonorable. I just wanted the cool black metal coupe I’d seen in the press coverage of Better Sorts (btw, easily the best pre-opening marketing and PR campaign for any new bar in recent memory), not a bizarre spin on a vodka martini (my snotty scorn for vodka documented in many places in this blog).
So naturally I was a little dismayed when Naomi started the cocktail with a standard glass coupe, then course corrected to the black coupe – I know bartenders hate being expected to be mindreaders (“What’ll you have?” … “I dunno, just make me something I’ll like”), but it seems like the best ones kinda DO read minds.
As a bonus for my shallow, easily amused self, she flash cooled the coupe with a instant glass chiller that looked like a cross between a steam cleaner and an instant glass rinser (you know, the thingymabob that bartenders put an upside down glass over so it gets blasted with water). It went WHOOOSH … and everyone went OOOOOHHHH and now I know the first thing I’m getting when I sell my company 20 years from now.
But enough of my childish lust for glitzy coupes and industrial bar devices! The Cacio e Pepe could have been served in a battered red Solo cup and it would have been a knockout, one of those rare creations that permanently broaden your view of what a cocktail can be. Even now 10 days later my memory can still conjure the creamy umami of the gouda infused vermouth, the velvety mouthfeel of the pasta water syrup and the bright prickly finish of the black pepper. I had my first legit cacio e pepe (a very simple yet wonderful Italian pepper and pasta dish) this summer in NYC and this cocktail was a faithful homage to the dish, not a clever gimmick.
By this time we had completely blown past our opening seminar time for the Whisky Extravaganza but I wanted to save SOME capacity for the rivers of whisky poured at the event so I opted for one of the several mocktails of the menu.
The Tea-Totaler had the look and even some of the aroma of an old-fashioned but it was more of an interesting sweet tea drink than an approximation of an old-fashioned.
Lorri apologized for getting a Scotch for our final selection as opposed to a cocktail, but was informed that it was no slight because Naomi had chosen the whiskeys herself and our choice was one of only a few bottles of its type in the country.
This we suspected because “Macduff” has long been my elusive unicorn of whiskies. Back in 2010 on our first trip to Scotland we visited the Michelin-winning 21212 restaurant and I blindly ordered a Macduff because it was one of the few I (a Scotch n00b at the time) could pronounce without humiliating myself. It was the first Scotch that truly slayed me, sunlight trapped in a glass and seared into my memory. I didn’t think to record the details of that specific bottling which turned out to be a tragic omission because Macduff has a complicated history, flipping its name between Macduff and Glen Deveron several times and making it difficult to find.
I’ve tried several Macduffs since and purchased two bottles (a 20 year old Hunter Laing bottling found by my stepdaughter was by far the closest to what I remembered) and had largely given up finding another bottle that captured the magic of my inaugural Macduff … until we saw it on Better Sorts’ menu. At 19 years this bottling by the very respected Distiller’s Art was promising … and BINGO, I was back in damp frigid Thanksgiving in Edinburgh getting struck by a thunderbolt of realization of why single malts were an obsession across the world.
A terrific ending to a terrific beginning for this ambitious establishment – we’ll be back as often as possible to see what other delights Naomi and her crew have in store!