As is evidenced by a number of recent misfires, opening a retro-style cocktail bar is a lot easier said than done. There’s a fine line between being cleverly referential and leaning on a gimmick. Despite being one of the more theme-heavy openings of the year thus far, Carrie Nation — named for the turn of the century firebrand temperance activist — seems like it just might have nailed the former.
Anyone can page through a book of stories about pre-Prohibition saloons and pull out a few recipes and reference points — and there is a lot of that here — but if this attention to nostalgic detail fails to filter down to what’s poured in the glass, what’s the point? Bar manager Allan Murphy is aware of this, and a recent visit proved that there is care that goes into the creations here from the team behind Scholars and 6b. Aside from a list of a dozen originals, each with their own era-specific name and history detailed on the menu, there is a group of classics that Murphy says should help to focus and standardize a guest’s experience.
“My thinking behind that was that I hate going into a bar — especially a big bar like we have that’s busy — asking for an Old Fashioned, and one bartender makes it one way, another makes it another way,” he says. “Not to say either way is right or wrong, but I’ve gone into places and asked for four of the same drinks and been given four different plays on it. This is a way for me to have my bar staff stick to recipes. We can’t do every single classic, but let’s get eight of the best.” Among the best are a Vieux Carré and an Aviation. Their Old Fashioned is done in the pre-Prohibtion style, as is their Sazerac — made with cognac i nstead of rye.
Their signature drinks all harken back to the turn of the century and are broken down into themed chapters on the menu, calling out famous politicians, gangsters and journalists from ages past. Of those I sampled, the best was the Ultima Palabra, a play on a “Last Word under the Lawyers and Judges” section. “We’ve got a lot of lawyers and judges around here,” Murphy says. “Judges always get the last word on everything.” In this case it’s made with mezcal instead of gin, along with the traditional Green Chartreuse, lime, and Marascino, making for a smokier, herbal citrus sip. They’ve also got a house-bottled cocktail, which they carbonate themselves — a White Negroni at the moment — and barrel-aged cocktails. During my visit, this latter drink was a 7-month-aged Manhattan.
Whether you come for the drinks, the similarly era-evocative food (rabbit pie, for example), the ambiance (it’s a great-looking, luxuriant space), or the commitment to theme (hostesses in flapper costumes), come knowing that they’ve got a focused eye. An eye trained on not only what made their chosen era so easily romanticized today, but on the drinks that make it all worth remembering in the first place.