Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a bar that employs New York City’s first pommelier—the cider equivalent to a sommelier.
LOCATION: Lower East Side, New York City
ON THE JUKEBOX: David Bowie, The Pretenders, Talking Heads
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Cider flight (either American or International)
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Hudson Valley Farmhouse Scrumpy, a cloudy and funky cider that’s brewed upstate
WHY WE LOVE IT: Depending on whom you ask, cider is either the next wine or the next beer. But really, it’s the next…cider. “Cider is something that is very old, but very new too,” says Jennifer Lim, owner of Wassail cider bar in New York City’s Lower East Side. “It’s urban and it’s rural, but its mission and tradition have kind of been lost in the U.S. The cider industry is still very new here.”
In most of the world, fermented apple juice has a rich, and still living, agricultural and cultural history. Cider was once the drink of choice for colonial Americans, too, but lost its way during Prohibition. (Cider, by default, is alcoholic.) The apples used for making cider—thousands of bitter, heirloom varieties—were replaced in orchards with only a few sweet apple varieties preferred for eating and baking. In the past 20 years, however, American cider-makers have renewed their interest in cider-specific apples and entrepreneurial farmers have begun planting orchards of diverse crops.
Cider bars have been catching on in the apple-rich Pacific Northwest, but recently, nothing of that sort existed in New York, the second-largest apple growing state in the country. “A few years ago there wasn’t a lot of cider that you could even get in the city,” Lim says. “In terms of what bars were carrying, it was only Angry Orchard and Magner’s, the sweet stuff.” Seeing an untapped market, Lim and her business partners opened Wassail last year. They named it after the winter ritual in which the English bless their apple trees for a good harvest in the spring.
At Wassail you can get a dozen ciders on tap—local and international brews—and more than 100 bottled varieties. “We get all kinds of crazy stuff,” head bartender Jade Sotack says. “Whatever we can get our hands on. And the list is always growing.” Currently they have ciders from the East Coast, West Coast and countries including Spain, France, Great Britain, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Lim says they are trying to get their hands on Japanese, Australian and Croatian ciders at the moment, but there are strict distribution laws regulating what they can sell. “Cider is being made in a lot of different countries that we can’t yet get access to,” she says.
Sotack also has a cocktail list featuring drinks made with cider, perry and apple brandy. The Fatal Flying Guillotine, for example, is made with coconut bourbon, pommeau (a French spirit made by mixing apple juice and apple brandy) and Unicum, a bitter liqueur. Because ciders vary wildly from sweet to briny to barnyard-y, clear to cloudy, still to carbonated, Sotack has fun tinkering with the drinks. “I’ll use a French cider to replace sugar or a Spanish cider, which is high in acid, to replace lemon juice,“ she says. "It’s just like putting the pieces together but with different ingredients.” Since opening, she has had to dial her ambitious cocktail program back a bit because of cider’s still-new reputation. “Cider can be overwhelming to some people,” she says. “You come in and get this giant menu and have no idea what any of these things are. I try to keep the drinks a little more approachable. Cider alone is a big enough obstacle to tackle.”
Keeping cider approachable is Wassail’s primary goal. Cider geeks—the equal to beer nerds who travel the country looking for unusual bottles—are still pretty rare in New York, but Wassail gets plenty of local beverage directors who stop in after work. “We’re kind of like a library where these people who are cued into it can taste a whole bunch of different things that they never would taste otherwise,” Sotack says. And for those who don’t know much about cider, Sotack offers a broad range of flights. "Oftentimes people don’t even know a lot of this stuff exists,” she says. “Tastings are a good experiment to figure out what you do and don’t like. You could love French cider but hate Spanish cider. Or really like still cider or dry cider or fruit-forward cider. These terms don’t really translate into something meaningful until you put it in your mouth.”
Sotack, and other members of the bar team, contextualize cider by talking about it the same way they would talk about wine: The process of making cider is similar to that of making wine, and in much of the world, its vintage changes year to year based on the climate and terroir. “The concept of terroir in American cider-making isn’t super fleshed out at the moment,” Lim says. This has to do with the fact that they are just now rediscovering old, diverse apple varieties. “But if you compare a French cider to an American cider to a Spanish cider, it expresses the geography of the places very starkly.”
To Lim, contextualizing cider so drinkers can understand it is all part of the fun. “We want people to feel like they can come in, try this cool beverage and not be intimidated,” she says. “We like to think we are able to convey all of that information but are also welcoming and warm and feel like a real neighborhood place.”
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep