There are great bars and there are great cocktails, and there are of course great barmen who provide their guests with great service, beverages and conversation. But once and awhile, a certain bartender will create a certain drink which transcends the typical and becomes more than a drink. It becomes a classic, a destination and an indelible drinking experience which only one bar can call its own. These posts are an attempt to capture these signature drinks and bars in which they can be called, The Usual.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

McSorley's Old Ale House

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”

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