Harlem is awash with seriously good things to drink.
Earthy and surprising blends from Serengeti teas; at least a dozen coffee shops where seemingly everyone stays all day. Craft beer booms at Bier International, Bierstrausse, East Harlem Bottling Co. and Harlem Public.
But like a meal, one quality that makes a drink a destination is its uniqueness.
None of the following neighborhood establishments intends to draw crowds through gimmicks. Their uncommon assortments derive from something closer to a collector’s instinct, coupled with a willingness to share. Sure, you can dive deep into these curated selections at these neighborhood bars if you want … or you can just simply have a drink.
At Clay, Pure and (Not So) Simple Spirits
The bar at Clay, a cozy and comfortable but still elegant spot nestled on the corner of 123rd Street and Manhattan Avenue is slightly disorienting—those staple liquor bottles you expect to see are just not there.
“Putting together the bar was a massive undertaking, and it’s always changing. It’s a breathing organism,” says bar director Andrea Needell Mattelliano.
An oversimplification of Mattelliano’s liquor-sourcing strategy would be to say that she doesn’t bring in anything with artificial colors (even caramel—there go most of your favorite whiskeys). But her standards go deeper than that. Mattelliano knows just as much about the people and the agriculture behind the bottle as what’s inside.
Read more: Harlem’s Clay Is a Family Friendly Spot Where You Can Feel Like an Adult
She seeks out small producers with a real connection to their ingredients and process, eschewing genetically modified ingredients and corn syrup. Like an extension of the natural wine menu the restaurant’s known for, she factors in sustainability and general transparency in a calculation that is more akin to instinct than math.
“We’re not perfect. It’s a very tenuous thing. But our whole philosophy is that we’re going to do the best we can most of the time,” she says of the philosophy shared by chef Gustavo Lopez and wine director Gabriela Davogustto.
Finding the unique liquors and sippers was easy—by now the distributors of rarities know her well. Whether it’s brandy made from 72 different varietals of tomato (aptly called 72 Tomatoes) or La Gritona Tequila Reposado made by one of the very few female master distillers in Jalisco, Mexico—there is plenty to try. From Neversink to Coppersea, some of New York’s best spirits are in the lineup, too.
But what about the well? It’s tough when most staples are off the table.
“It’s easy to find this stuff and get caught up in the romanticism of it and then realize that you’ve priced yourself inaccessibly for all of your guests,” she says.
She landed on Aloo for clear spirits from Seattle-based distillery Oola. The gin is bright with strong juniper and lemongrass, and the vodka has a slight vanilla finish.
Matteliano doesn’t profess to be a collector, but the bottles behind her bar come with a specific taste. They also come with stories and memories of how she discovered them—almost like a photo album of decades in the restaurant industry. “You know how I found out that bottle? I was eating with…”
A party from the past at Solomon & Kuff
If you ask Karl Franz Williams about a bottle of rum, he’s more likely to give you a history lesson than a list of tasting notes.
“The reality is that rum came out of colonization. The British in Barbados were feeding molasses to the slaves and the livestock, and the slaves brought beer-making techniques over and started fermenting this molasses. The British saw this and distilled it and that became rum,” he says.
Williams’s West Harlem rum bar Solomon & Kuff is a shrine to Caribbean flavors. And while the rum punch gets most of the love on the weekends, there are up to 100 different bottles of rum behind the bar at any given time—appropriately consuming the entire top shelf.
A few of the rums currently in stock he’s brought back from travels to his ancestral home of St. Vincent, but most rums at Solomon & Kuff walk in the door from distributors that know Williams’s weakness.
“Somebody is invariably going to walk in here and say ‘Karl I’ve got this new rum you’ve got to try it.’ And I’m going to taste it, and that’s going to be my new girlfriend for the week.”
Solomon and Kuff’s cocktail menu has 11 drinks containing just as many different rums. Most cocktails involve multiple bottles mixed to create balance, and the add-ins like sorel and ginger beer are made in-house.
“[French-style] agricoles go great with traditional English style or dirty Jamaican-style rums—that really strong flavor that you think of from the pot. It goes nicely with the dryer, grassier agricole style,” he says sipping on an HSE aged agricole with a smoky finish that lands more like a whiskey.
As a child, Williams collected die-cast cars and coins. Now he has to keep a lid on his rum collection, because though Solomon & Kuff is somewhat of a destination for rum-seekers—there aren’t quite enough connoisseurs yet to justify dozens of bottles.
In the spring, this electrical engineer turned restaurateur will start a process of whittling down the list to its essentials, taking down some of the old bottles but, inevitably, adding some new ones, too.
“It’s time to refresh the shelf.”
By Locals, for All at Harlem Hops
Kevin Bradford, one of the three founders of Harlem Hops on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard between 133rd and 134th streets is a teacher by day. He swears that he’s not even that nerdy about beer, but the menu at his bar would suggest otherwise.
It’s an ever-changing board of almost exclusively local beers from Finback in Queens, Long Island City Beer Project, Interboro from Brooklyn, Iconyc from Long Island City and of course Harlem Brewing Co. less than a mile from the bar. Co-founder Kim Harris estimated that 80 to 90 percent of the selection is local even as the taps fluctuate.
Bradford learned what he knows about beer by constantly trying new brews—expanding his horizons starting with a Yuengling from the grocery store and moving out from there over the course of a few decades of drinking.
“Everybody just knew that I was the guy with the good beer,” says Bradford. But you’ll find no Yuengling on tap at Harlem Hops.
Bradford’s Detroit roots helped develop an appreciation for brewing, since the Midwest caught onto craft beers early. And when he met cofounders Kim Harris and Stacey Lee, two events professionals who knew how to turn a great beer menu into a comfortable place, something clicked.
On a Saturday afternoon there’s a crowd of people watching the game at the bar while a large group laughs at the back tables and a first date awkwardly gets going in the front window.
“I kind of laugh a little because Kim didn’t want TVs. I said ‘I promise it won’t turn into a sports bar.’ It was very important for us to have that relaxed atmosphere,” says Lee. Fluffy pretzels, brats and Guma spicy pies, the African version of an empanada, make it easy to stay a long time.
Now Bradford doesn’t have to go seeking out new and unique flavors in beers, they come to him, but he still visits new breweries, especially at home in the Midwest. Not a collector he insists. Maybe an explorer, then.
Photos by Christopher Simpson and Liz Clayman.