Like a blended Scotch called Black and White, circa 1940-something. Or a pre-Prohibition bottle of Canadian Club. Or a “charcoal perfected” J.W. Dant 10 Year Old from the mid-’60s.
These are antique whiskeys/whiskies, picked up from estate sales and requiring a special license to serve that’s only available in a few states. And these bottles are a highlight — one of many — at this warm and cozy East Village bar.
“When we get the license, which should be any day now, we’ll definitely have the biggest antique list in the city, with 300 bottles on it,” says Down & Out owner Joshua Richholt, who formerly owned The Wick and The Well in Brooklyn and helped run the Knitting Factory back when it was in Tribeca. “It’s its own kind of calling card; we get a lot of neighborhood people, but it should bring in people from all over.”
Before we nerd out on a 1922 Raccoon Hollow Bourbon or a 1940s Walkers Signet Rye, let’s be clear: You can very much enjoy a night out at Down & Out without knowing a thing about old whisk(e)y. The East Village space, housed in a building that dates back to the 19th century, has a pleasantly old-school ambiance; there’s low lighting, a long bar, tall wood-backed banquettes, copper accents, burgundy drapes and a 1940s piano.
And the space is for more than drinking whiskey. Besides modestly priced $14-$16 cocktails (which are even less for happy hour) that lean heavily on mezcal and gin, D&O has nights devoted to burlesque, comedy, readings, jazz and other live music, plus a sustainable menu centered around oysters.
“There’s a historical focus for everything in this space,” says Richholt. “This area was known for oysters — there even used to be an oyster bar in the basement here. We wanted to nod to that and also do something that was sustainable and build around a raw bar theme.” To that end, the bar also offers an array of specialty tinned fish (anchovies, sardines, scallops, etc.).
The historical focus also shows up in the cocktail menu overseen by Madison Barker (formerly of The Robert in Brooklyn). Utilizing names inspired by George Orwell’s memoir Down and Out in Paris and London, the drinks here include Mon Ami (with saffron-infused, coconut oil fat-washed Sipsmith gin, blanc vermouth and orange bitters), Night in the Saloon (chamomile tea infused rye with lemon peel and thyme in a julep cup — delicious) and The Patron (brown butter fat-washed bourbon, pumpkin spice, bitters), along with an assortment of classic drinks, low-ABV options, a large natural wine list and plenty of craft beer.
But yes, Down & Out also has a fantastic selection of whiskey, old and new and from around the globe (one highlight is a wonderful barrel pick from the local Kings County Distillery, a high-proof option that also serves as the base for their highball). All reasons you can and should enjoy the bar even before the antique spirits license comes through.
“It’s funny because I actually didn’t know collecting old whiskey was a thing you could do,” says Richholt. “My first bottle was a ’60s-era Jim Beam that I didn’t know existed. I got it for $40 and just thought it was cool.”
Cut to today, and Richholt’s kind of an expert on old and sometimes forgotten brown spirits. “The history is the super fun part of it — you find labels that don’t exist from distillers that don’t exist, then you find out what happened, if they got bought, changed hands, or went away,” he says.
While you’ll certainly pay more for a taste of these rare bottles, don’t expect prices to get too out of hand. “Do I price things so people will come in and drink them, or do I price them based on the crazy secondary market?” Richhold asks. “That’s the tough part. The nice thing is that I have a lot of older Canadian whiskies. That’s not a crazy market, and it’s still interesting but you’ll get them for a good price.”
You can certainly find something modern and interesting on the whiskey menu here, particularly if you’re a bourbon or Canadian whisky fan. But Down & Out is unique in that it might not be the place to go if you’re looking for a more recent limited-edition bottle.
“A lot of the allocated stuff is hard to get and not always that good, so I’m not gonna fight people for it,” says Richholt. “But I’ll do anything I can to get a 1940s Old Overholt any day of the week because it’s delicious.”
Down & Out is open daily from 4pm-2am at 503 E. 6th Street
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