It’s a weird question to ask of anybody you’re interviewing, but certainly an odd one to save until last. On the tape you can even hear me stumble through it, not quite sure exactly how to put this strange, unanswered bit of information:
“Umm, so what… Actually one thing I’m kind of curious about, this place that you’ve built here, sort of, how would you describe it?”
In layman’s terms, run through a bumble-removal filter: “What do you do?”
For the previous thirty-five minutes I’d been talking to Greg Boehm, the founder and CEO of Manhattan’s Cocktail Kingdom. Sitting in his office surrounded by books, mountains of vintage cocktail accoutrement and several bottles of liquor that predate my grandparents we’d covered topics ranging from the circular nature of history to the NBA and after all that I still needed clarification; what is this place exactly?
I’d found cocktail kingdom almost on a lark earlier that month. Stuck in Manhattan with an inconvenient amount of time to kill I decided to check out this little place that had gotten a shout out on one of my favorite podcasts,Gastropod. They’d described it as a “mecca of all things cocktail,” so I figured it would be worth checking out to get some color for our upcoming pilot. I didn’t really have any idea what I was getting into. I figured I’d just poke around what I’d assumed was a showroom for a little bit so when the cheerful woman at the front desk asked if I was there for the library I think my response was a very poorly masked “The huh? What?”
For Greg, the library was where it had all started. As a young man his family had owned a publishing company which, among other things, published cocktail books. Through that he met a man named Salvatore Calabrese, a world renowned bartender who at the time worked at London’s esteemed Library Bar. According to Greg, his travels would bring him to London two weeks out of every year, leaving him a potential fourteen days annually to soak up Calabrese’s work. He capitalized on every single one.
Thanks to Calabrese, Greg says, his love of cocktails quickly ceased to become passing. “Being a book nerd I turned to books.. and then I amassed a huge collection of antique cocktail books and then I started meeting bartenders because ‘I heard you have these old books,’ and they wanted to come take a look, and from that I realized it was difficult to get proper barware in the US so I started importing barware and then the imported barware wasn’t exactly what people wanted, some of it was some of it wasn’t, so then I started cocktail kingdom.”
There you have it. A jump from a friendship with one of the old masters to book collecting to barware importing that I don’t think I ever would have made in a million years but is in itself the bare essence of what makes cocktail kingdom tick. It’s many things all at once but every aspect of its eclectic nature is taken seriously; it’s all built to work.
The showroom I was expecting the first time around is there, sure, along a giant wall on the southern side of the building that holds just about every piece of bartending equipment imaginable. The latests from Cocktail Kingdom’s publishing arm, Mud Puddle Books, are laid out opposite the shaker tins and hawthorne strainers but the library I’d stumbled into earlier is separate. Rather, I should say libraries because there’s two of them, a paper one and a liquid one. In addition to a number of rare first editions Greg has amassed an impressive collection of antique spirits which he assures me are for drinking first and looking second.
Today Greg says, Cocktail Kingdom’s mission is twofold: Doing exact facsimile reproductions of antique cocktail books and manufacturing quality barware. The originals in Greg’s collection are still available for perusal in the nicest six-foot by six-foot windowless square I’ve ever seen, housing hundreds of original cocktail books going back over a century and a half. I’ve spent many hours there already preparing our pilot episode, and with a full season ahead of us I’m sure that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Not that the staff at Cocktail Kingdom minds at all. To them, the knowledge is there to be shared.
Hear more from my interview with Greg Boehm and my findings in his fantastic library in the pilot episode of Bar None, a podcast where we explore the history, recipes and style behind some of the world’s most classic drinks, coming next month right here on our website. In the meantime if you’re in New York why not pay Greg and his wonderful staff a visit on the fifth floor of 36 West 25th Street in the Flatiron District? They’re friendly, they’re helpful and they’re ever so knowledgeable; I’m sure whatever your cocktail needs may be, they’ve got just the thing.
Stay tuned here on the blog for more on the run up to our first episode!