Red Hook, I love it. The place has a faded sense of history, the polyglottal shouts of long-dead stevedores hanging in the air. It retains an atmosphere of waterfront decay à la Season 2 of The Wire that has been excised from other neighborhoods better served by public transport, even as much of Red Hook’s actual waterfront has been landscaped into parks and recreation areas. Still, looking out over the harbor, especially during the winter, one can be forgiven for concocting anachronistic adventure fantasies of hauling aboard a steamer ship bound for Singapore. As the proposal to build a street car from Atlantic Avenue down to Red Hook looks doomed, perhaps the neighborhood will continue to hold fast to its uniqueness, a sensibility that persistently remains in the face of IKEA and Fairway, which, truth be told, are very convenient to have around if you live nearby.
If you do determine to make it out to Red Hook, your drinking needs will be well-catered to with old-school bars, including Sunny’s and Bait and Tackle, that are great for a shot of whiskey with a beer chaser. For cocktails, though, the place to go is Fort Defiance.
Opened two years ago by St. John Frizzel, who used to tend bar at Pegu Club, it’s both a restaurant and bar, with good brunch (the Muffaletta sandwich is the size of a toilet seat) and a solid, if limited, dinner menu. Already a fan of Mr. Frizzel’s for his resurrection of the cocktails that were variously recorded and/or just plain made up by 1930s bon vivant Charles H. Baker, including FP favorite the Remember the Maine, I recently attended a panel discussion on the use and overuse of history in cocktails — a bit of inside baseball, to be sure — for which Mr. Frizzel was a member of the panel. I liked his take: a little history’s good, even if it’s made up, but too much and you get perilously close to the ridiculousness of a Civil War reenactor.
What Frizzel’s set up at Fort Defiance embodies this philosophy. The cocktail menu is good mix of new and old drinks — all of which are well-made. I’m told that the Colonial Cooler will soon be back on the menu, too. Ordering off the menu, however, depends a bit more on who’s behind the stick. On a recent excursion, I had a rum old-fashioned with a hard-to-find brand of rum from Antigua, which I enjoyed very much. I also had a great Manhattan variation made to order, with sweet vermouth swapped out for a heavenly glug of Amaro Nonino. My drinking associate had a Corpse Reviver No. 2 and a Morris. A minor detail, but I liked their odd assortment of glassware. In short, the drinks selection is solid, with enough range to satisfy those new to cocktails and old hands alike.
Finally, it bears notice, too, that what most sets Fort Defiance apart in my mind is the hospitality. A strange, ineffable thing, and, as a term, debased by its industrialization, hospitality should be part of any good bar, i.e. one that makes you feel welcome. Perhaps due to Red Hook’s relative remoteness, upon entering Ft. Defiance you immediately feel part of the place, and are well attended to by the friendly staff. It makes a difference.
As we’re discussing Red Hook, I’d be remiss not to mention the cocktail named for the neighborhood; it was created by Enzo Errico at Milk & Honey in 2005.
The Red Hook
2 oz. rye whiskey
½-¾ oz. Punt y Mes
¼-½ oz. maraschino liqueur
Stir with ice; strain into a chilled cocktail glass; garnish with cherry.
A variation of either a Manhattan or a Brooklyn, depending upon whom you ask, it rode the rye whiskey revival and ushered in a frenzy of micro-geographic cocktails that Beta (neé Rogue) Cocktails summed up with its contribution: the NY Brown and Stirred. That said, the Red Hook cocktail is one of my favorites.