|The Seelbach Hotel|
|The Rathskeller Bar at the Seelbach|
|The Seelbach Hotel|
|The Rathskeller Bar at the Seelbach|
A visit to McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York is as much a step back in time as it is game of numbers; open for nearly 160 years, only for the last 40 of them have women been allowed inside, 5 dollars gets you a pair of mugs full of suds and McSorley’s serves only 1 thing, beer, but it does come in 2 styles, light or dark.
Nestled in the East Village, Manhattan has risen around McSorley’s over the last century and a half; it sits as low and quiet as an old shed tucked deep in a back-yard now overcrowded by old trees. But to step through the saloon door is to step out of the madness of Manhattan and into a space of calm and Comradery, a place where beers are taken in hand to forget the technological driven worries of the day and to celebrate the timeless human spirit.
Inside, portraits of presidents, New York politicians, firefighters, policemen, barkeeps and the faces of men lost to time watch over the saw dust covered floor while a chair which Lincoln once occupied sits stoically above the bar keeping the peace below. The thick dust and sticky cobwebs which drape over the collected artifacts and drip from antique light fixtures seem more out of a Hollywood horror film set than part of the setting at one of the country’s most famous watering holes. McSorley’s is legendary for its antiquity, its refusal to change over time, the number of historical figures who had tipped back a pint at the bar and of course for only serving its own beer.
The story of the Ale House starts with John McSorley, an Irish Immigrant who left Ireland during the potato famine to seek a better life in America. In 1854, McSorley opened what he called the "The Old House at Home" at 15 East 7th Street. John’s son William apprenticed under his father and took over the business after his father’s death in 1910. A brief experiment with selling liquor ended as quickly as it began and McSorley’s cemented it self as an ale-serving house only. However, the longer Nobel Experiment did not deter McSorley’s – after all, the politicians and the police needed someplace to drink – and the Ale House served what they called “near-beer” brewed in the basement.
In 1936 McSorley’s was sold to patron Daniel O’Connor, who was the first non-family member to own the bar. However his ownership was brief as he died three years later leaving the business to his daughter Dorothy. With a strict no-women allowed policy, fears of change rumbled around the wooden walls but she abided by her father’s wishes to stay out of the bar, turning the management duties over to her husband Harry Kirwan. Change in the women only policy came after McSorley’s was sued to allow female patrons. The bar briefly considered becoming a private club to avoid the change but finally relented in 1970 and women were allowed to lift two mugs of McSorley’s beer to celebrate the win. In 1977, Matthew Maher, the night manager of McSorley’s and also an Irish Immigrant who Harry Kirwan had met when his car had broken down on the side of a road in Ireland, bought the bar.
The formula for the saloon’s original golden lager, is credited to Fidelio Brewery who brewed the beer until the enactment of prohibition in 1919. With the brewery shuttered, beer making operations had to move to the basement of McSroley’s. After the repealed, Fidelio re-opened and again took up McSorley’s brewing, making both the Cream Stock and Golden Lager. Rheingold Brewery took over Fidelio’s business after the company went into receivership, and McSorley’s legendary beer was now being brewer across the river in Brooklyn. Rheingold would also eventually close its doors and brewing operations now went to Schmidt's Brewers of Philadelphia and so the ale was now being made without New York's legendary water. In early 1990's Stroh Brewery purchased the McSorley's brand and brewed it until they too were bought, this time by the Pabst Brewing Company.
The beer may have changed slightly, the neighborhood a lot, a few owners have seen over the saloon, and faces have come and gone, but McSorley’s still remains McSorley’s, a rest-stop off the concrete and steel landscape of Manhattan. To step on the saw-dust covered floor and put a foot on the brass rail at McSorley’s bar is to be a part of history and the human spirit, whether lifting the copper hued lager to be clinked with friends in celebration of the day or a solo visit to contemplate life in the reflection of the black stout. To be in McSroley’s is to be a friend of all who have imbibed at the Ale House, past and present. But while at McSorley’s remember one thing above all, “Be Good, or Be Gone”
There is an old joke in the bartending world, “What lasts longer: A bottle of Angostura Bitters or a Marriage?” At Nelsen’s Bitter hall on Washington Island, where nearly 10,000 people a year pass through for a shot of Angostura, there can be little doubt that a bottle of bitters will not outlast any marriage, even the most explosive ones Hollywood can dish out.
With a current year-round population of roughly 600 people, Washington Island is a tiny speck of land that sits six miles off of the tip of Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula and across the legendary Death’s Door passage. Here in 1899, Danish immigrant Tom Nelsen opened his bar, and for 20 years served beer and alcohol to the summer tourists and the year round residents, who were mostly farmers. With the approach of Prohibition in 1919, Tom needed to maintain his way of living and developed a creative idea around the ban of alcohol sales in the United States. Tom applied for and was granted a pharmacists license. Tom could now continue to “dispense” these medicinals to his guests; claiming to the Feds that he was simply providing cures for stomach ailments despite Angostura being at 90-proof.
A bottle of Angostura, brown in color with an oversized white wrapper with way too much small script and a few fancy seals on it, is something that could be found in most homes and bars. But finding a bottle was the easy part, for a long time finding something to do with it was the tough part. Sure it was used in a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned, and maybe a Champagne Cocktail if you could find a bartender who knew what that even was, but really how much should be used? And would anyone notice if it were left out? After all they are bitters and what are bitters? They just sound…well…bitter.
Bitters got their beginnings as pharmaceuticals, medicines usually intended to cure stomach upset and digestive ailments and most pharmacist and barkeeps made their own version. Many commercial brands existed as well, the leading being Angostura from Trinidad. Prohibition not only killed the craft of bartending in the United States, but also many of the ingredients used in pre-prohibition cocktails particularly in the world of certain liqueurs and bitters. But at Nelsen’s Bitter Hall in Wisconsin, prohibition did not kill anything; it actually spawned a tradition and a legend. All throughout prohibition, customers would stop in at Nelsen’s to enjoy a full shot of Angostura bitters. Tom himself drank 16 oz a day and attributed his healthy longevity - he lived until he was 90 years old - to his large daily ration of Angostura.
After the repeal of prohibiting in 1933, Tom could of course go back to serving other alcohols, which he did, but by this point the Angostura shot had become a tradition and almost a ledged of sorts at Nelson’s. To this day, visitors to Washington Island make a stop at Nelsen’s, now known as Nelsen’s Bitter Hall, for a full shot of Angostura Bitters.
Your entrance into the Bitters Club will be consummated with the presentation of a membership card bearing your name. After you complete your shot, your bartender or server will dip their thumb into the liquid left over at the bottom of the shot glass and mark your card with a brown-reddish thumbprint print and their initials in the corner. Guests can also sign their name in a register to permanently mark their experience.
Nelsen’s claims to be the largest consumer of Angostura in the world as well as the longest continuously open tavern in Wisconsin. If you never find yourself on Washington Island, you can still partake in its famous tradition. The recipe isn’t hard: Just pop off that yellow restrictor on the top of the bottle, pour, raise a glass to Tom Nelsen, and shoot.