At the end of March, I found myself in Harlem for 15 glorious hours. Trying to explain the plot twists that led to my trip there would take as long as the journey itself — suffice it to say that I accompanied Unapologetic artists IMAKEMADBEATS, A Weirdo From Memphis, Cameron Bethany, PreauXX, and C Major to a performance at Ginny's Supper Club, located in the basement of Marcus Samuelsson's famed Harlem eatery Red Rooster.
Ashamedly, it was my first trip to the northern New York City borough, which birthed the Harlem Renaissance and is home to the Apollo Theater, Minton's Playhouse, and Strivers' Row.
Harlem is also, of course, legendary for the proliferation of speakeasies during Prohibition. A 1932 map of Harlem created by black illustrator E. Simms Campbell for a publication called Manhattan: A Weekly for Wakeful New Yorkers perfectly depicts the boozy, easy nature of the neighborhood's nightlife, a must-see for wealthy whites of the era.
- Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem
Today, cocktail culture is still king, despite the looming specter of Malcolm X, who warned African Americans against the dangers of drinking. The stretch of Lenox Avenue that intersects the east and west sides of Harlem might have been dubbed Malcom X Boulevard in 1987, but on my visit, I observed a street that's home to dozens of upscale bars, including Gin Fizz, Corner Social, Barawine Harlem, and the Cove Lounge. Most establishments lean French, Southern, or Caribbean, cuisine-wise, with wine lists and cocktail menus that reflect each culture.
Soul food in Harlem is synonymous with alcoholic beverages. Take the legendary Sylvia's Restaurant, founded by Sylvia Wood in 1962. Unlike Memphis' most traditional soul food restaurants, at Sylvia's, you can order up a cup of South Carolina Rum Punch to wash down your smothered pork chops or barbecued ribs. The drinks menu at Sylvia's is as fun to read as it is to sample. Cocktails are rated by exclamation points that run from "Whoa" to "Packs a punch" and "Knocks your socks off." On the genteel side: Waiting to Exhale, a blend of vodka, Amaretto, Grand Marnier, Alizé (a Cognac-based liqueur), and punch. Guaranteed to knock your socks off: Devil in a Blue Dress, a heady mixture of vodka, rum, tequila, gin, Blue Curaçao, and Sprite.
Red Rooster, which is located on Malcolm X Boulevard between Sylvia's and Corner Social, is also known for its drinks. Marcus Samuelsson, an Ethiopia-born, Sweden-raised chef, restaurateur, cookbook author and TV personality, is a shots lover, a wine drinker, and a whiskey aficionado. He concocted a cocktail for the release of his 2012 memoir Yes, Chef that's now on the menu at Red Rooster. The recipe, which is also included in the restaurant's eponymous cookbook, is a bracing medley of vodka, mint, honey syrup, pineapple juice, lime juice, and homemade ginger beer. It's so refreshing that I had to order two at Ginny's.
I was too busy eating to sample much else other than a few glasses of wine, drinks-wise, but just reading Red Rooster's cocktail menu is an intoxicating experience. There are three "punches" on the menu — two, the Rooster Royale and the Rooster Punch, are variations on white and red sangria, respectively — plus the delicious-sounding Earl of Harlem (bourbon, Earl Grey tea, and lemon), the Neighbor (gin, basil, mint, Crème d'Yvette, and Peychaud's bitters), and the tart Obamatini (pepper-infused vodka, pineapple juice, lime juice, and grapefruit juice). And that's just the tip of the iceberg. I beseech you to pay Red Rooster a visit next time you're in NYC.
Back on the ground in Memphis, I can't get Harlem off my mind. Easy research has yielded me an amazing update on a traditional cocktail dubbed, well, the Harlem Cocktail. The drink is simple and tastes of spring. Simply shake two ounces of gin with pineapple juice, lemon juice, Luxardo's maraschino liqueur, and ice, then strain into a chilled glass. Add a few dashes of Angostura bitters. If presentation matters, garnish your glass with a wedge of pineapple. Put on some music — anything from jazz to hip-hop will do. I recommend Nina Simone, Tito Puente, Sonny Rollins, or Immortal Technique.