When Urban Adventures offered me the opportunity to try one of their city tours with a twist I was unable to say ‘no’ and confirmed my New York Craft Cocktail Tour for a walking tour of the East Village with occasional pit stops for cocktails and came away thirsty for more.

The walk began in Tompkins Square Park which has been at the heart of the East Village since it’s creation in 1850 when I met my tour guide Jessie who advised me the heat wave broiling Manhattan had forced several tour participants to cancel. I was bracing myself for the news that the tour was being cancelled but much to my surprise and relief she said the tour would go ahead with only me, a move that left me left me impressed that the tour company wouldn’t leave a traveller in the lurch for circumstances beyond their control.

Jessie shared some intoxicating cupcakes brewed/ baked by Prohibition Bakery whose shop is a few blocks south of Tompkins Square near a New York deli landmark, Katz’s Delicatessen, while explaining the history of the Temperance fountain on the west side of the square.

photo by author

The sculpture atop the Temperance fountain of Hebe, Roman goddess of youth, is a bronze replica of a marble statue by Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen whose name I’d encountered many times during a recent trip to Copenhagen. The stone canopy bears the word  words Faith, Hope, Charity, and Temperance on its four sides and was one of many donated to the late 19th century temperance movement by Henry Cogswell, a daring dentist from Connecticut who made a fortune in the 1948 San Francisco gold rush. As the quality and availability of drinking water was poor these fountains were erected around the United States to encourage the working class to drink its clean water instead of beer which was the more typical and safer alternative. Depending upon the mythology the jug Hebe carries contains either water or wine, which if it were the latter would be highly ironic for a temperance monument. 

A half block away is the William Barnacle Tavern named for a notorious local sailor which specializes in absinthe, an anise-flavored spirit that is both high in alcoholic content and shrouded in mystery for its connection to 19th century bohemian artists and subsequent banishment in Europe and the U.S. as an addictive drug.  

photo by author

Absinthe was created in Switzerland by mixing local herbs and wormwood, known to botanists as Artemisia absinthium which gives the elixir its name. It’s introduction into France  in the 1840’s and enthusiastic embrace by artists, writers, and intellectuals helped popularize absinthe with all levels of society to the point that in 1910 it was consumed in greater quantities than any liquor or wine. Despite this widespread acceptance barely 5 years later aided by the Temperance movement absinthe was completely banned in France, the U.S. and much of the rest of Europe for its claimed connections to mental disorders and a host of other social ills. The lifting of the French ban is 2000 and a rediscovery if the UK help spark a modern revival that spread to the U.S.

Absinthe is served in the traditional bohemian manner: the green spirit is poured into a glass with a spoon or fork holding a sugar cube placed over the glass rim, the sugar cube is set alight to caramelize it and as it dissolves icy cold water from a decanter is added and the drink is stirred not shaken and consumed. It’s a neat bit of bar top theatre watching the process and adds to the anticipation of tasting absinthe for the first time.

Absinthe Tasting

Absinthe Tasting by Ed Schipul is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The licorice flavor of absinthe is the main taste you appreciate almost immediately but there’s also hints of herbs and an almost rustic taste unlike other spirits. That rustic flavor is aided by the building’s smoky history as a Prohibition era speakeasy which is chronicled in the small adjacent Museum of the American Gangster.

Another tavern specializing in one spirit is Mayahuel which billed itself as an “agave spirit cocktail bar” before a  recent permanent closure when it’s lease ran out. The basement bar featured an authentic Mexican feel with dark woods and ceramic tiles on the bar top, a food menu with familiar Mexican favorites such as tacos, quesadillas, tortillas and churros and an extensive choice of mezcal, tequilas less well known liquor cousin.

Despite joining tequila tours while holidaying in Mexican resort destinations I’d never really understood what set mescal and tequila apart but the friendly Mayahuel bartenders explained that the main difference is while mescal can be distilled from any of 30 agave plants tequila by law is only produced from the blue agave. The two spirits are also manufactured in different Mexican states and the distillation process is different which helps give each its own distinctive flavor.

The last stop is a bar owned by women but called Wise Men named after the first Western-style steak house in Chinatown, which the owner’s family opened. Located on The Bowery Wise Men has a truly retro vibe and funky cocktail menu.

photo by author

I opted for the Roof Is On Fire as having had a taste of it earlier couldn’t resist the jalapeño infused Mezcal mixed with lime and ghost chili honey.  The cocktail wasn’t the fireball as it sounds and the flavor lingered as Jessie and I ambled to the nearby Astor Wines for a quick stroll through its impressive array of potent potables.  As I’d visited the store in past New York City visits I was familiar with its wide variety of liquor and would recommend it to anyone in Manhattan needing a quality bottle for a social event.

The 3-hour tour went by in a blur but I was unsure whether this was due to the extreme temperatures, alcoholic cupcakes, the absinthe or Mezcal. Jessie proved an able guide to the history of the East Village and a pleasant companion in the quieter cocktail moments as we discovered shared interests such as a passion for travel.

Urban Adventures is a division of Intrepid Travel, a small group adventure tour company founded in 1988 that’s grown to guide over 100,000 travellers experience the exotic corners of the globe and it’s a perfect fit as the short day trips deliver a slice of what their longer tours are like. I would highly recommend joining an Urban Adventures tour in cities around the world as with a maximum of 12 participants they are so far from the big group, run-of-the-mill city tour. Sign up for their newsletter and save $10 off your first tour.