I’m not here to complain about inflation or the recent expectation that $18 for a drink is the new normal. Outside of the quality and presentation of the drink itself, there are a myriad of reasons why your drink is now the price of a fancy brunch entree. Some of those reasons could be good (increased wages for workers, for example). Some may be outside of the bar’s control — Sam Ross at Brooklyn’s Danger Danger told me late last year that the price difference between his bar in Bushwick and his cocktail dens in Manhattan pretty much came down to rent.
What I can’t stand, however, is the $18 to $25 cocktail where the drink itself did not get the proper attention to detail or uses inferior ingredients. You might find these overpriced mistakes in a lesser hotel bar, a touristy restaurant or a neighborhood dive/local that suddenly decided it needed to overcompensate. But if you want a nice drink for the modest price of $12, I found an excellent spot in an area not known for frugality: Back Bar, located in NoMad on the ground floor of the Kimpton Home Eventi on Sixth Ave.
Formerly known as The Vine, Back Bar is a new bar/restaurant helmed by chef Laurent Tourondel and Jason Hedges, the venue’s Beverage Director and author of The Seasonal Cocktail (see our profile of that book here). The focus for Hedges at Back Bar is, natch, seasonality. “You want fresh ingredients and for your drink or food to fit the mood of the time of year,” Hedges says. “I got into that philosophy when I was at Gotham Bar & Grill. We had a whole page dedicated to the Greenmarket. I want to echo that on the bar side.”
Back Bar is an intimate space that can open up during the summer to include outdoor imbibing, and there’s a secret bar in the back behind a bookcase that’s ideal for private events, guest bartender nights and cocktail classes. The bar offers music a few times a week and appears to get a nice mix of locals, curious drinkers and hotel guests, though the vibe feels more like a bar that just happens to be located on a hotel property than a “hotel bar.”
A New Cocktail Book Wants You to Drink With the Seasons“The Seasonal Cocktail” makes a case for farmers market produce in shrubs, syrups and infusions
The mixed drinks here are —no surprise — excellent. There’s also a nice beer and cider menu that emphasizes local brands, along with a good selection of wine and several non-alc options. But what stands out is the Inflation Proof section of the menu, where all drinks are $12.
“Those drinks have the same quality as anything else we do,” Hedges says. “We have, for example, a drink called the Sour Attitude, a riff on a Whiskey Sour with an affordable but good bourbon, where we’re still using cinnamon and vanilla bean and washing it with brown butter.”
For what it’s worth, Hedges has his own theories on the high cost of drinking. “Rent is always a factor,” he says. “We’re in the middle of Manhattan. And labor costs are top of mind — for a program like we have, we need dedicated bar prep that’s going to be working on fresh juices and infusions and fat washes every day. And we obviously use good, fresh ingredients. All of that comes into consideration.”
To counteract the Inflation Proof side, Back Bar’s menu is balanced out by a selection of market-price and even rather decadent mixed drinks (labeled “Extra Fancy”). Their Pappy Old Fashioned, for example, is not going for $12. Nor is something seasonal like the Harvest Moon, which involves a toasted pumpkin seed-washed vodka with a butternut squash foam (that one doesn’t seem to be currently available, but you can find an updated cocktail menu here). Hedges recommends the Desert Paloma, Electric Avenue and the olive oil-washed Stoli Dirty Martini if you’re minding your budget.
Hedges admits the bar isn’t “getting our target profit margins” on the Inflation Proof selection of drinks, but that’s not the point. “Those drinks are built into our model,” he says. “There are ways to offer interesting flavors and cocktails and be thoughtful about how you’re building them, all for a decent price.”
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