Estelle Bossy first learned about Kalustyan’s when she was working as a bartender at Del Posto in New York City. When she wandered for the first time into the fluorescent-lit store in the neighborhood sometimes called “Curry Hill,” a stretch of Lexington Avenue known for its Indian and Pakistani food, she was awestruck by the store’s array of spices, chiles, curry leaves, and dried flowers—all the dried flowers. “I would look at every single package. In those first trips it was the flowers that bowled me over. I discovered dried flowers I didn’t know existed,” says Bossy, who’s now the beverage director at Panorama Room on Roosevelt Island.
In particular, Bossy was drawn to small, yellow Helichrysum blossoms that had a distinct savory curry-spiced aroma, and the flowers soon landed in a Del Posto cocktail. Her “Breakfast of Champions” was a bergamot Old Fashioned with a “breakfast-y, balcony-y feeling” courtesy of the Helichrysum. And it’s a quintessential Kalustyan’s story: A bartender browses the aisles, discovers something she’s never heard of, and develops a drink to share that quirky ingredient with the world.
Founded in 1944, Kalustyan’s carries almost every specialty ingredient imaginable, from all over the globe. It stocks around 10,000 SKUs, from paneer and stuffed grape leaves to Szechuan peppercorns, aji amarillo, and isomalt. Just past bins of pistachios and cashews and across from the halva display case, there’s a small room that holds binders labeled “notable restaurant accounts.” There are no bar binders, yet, but New York drink-makers are just as loyal to Kalustyan’s as the city’s chefs are.
“I can’t say enough about how much I love it,” says Jack Schramm, who discovered Kalustyan’s while working with Dave Arnold at the now-closed Booker & Dax. “As with most of the good things in my life, it started from a conversation with Dave.” The Corsair, Booker & Dax’s “best-selling drink of all time,” relied on Moroccan preserved lemons from Kalustyan’s, and Schramm was often tasked with picking up jars when the bar ran out.
The Met of Spices
New York, of course, has other specialty stores, where Schramm and his peers shop. Dual Speciality on First Avenue in the East Village is “Kalustyan’s light,” according to Schramm, and a little further east there’s SOS Chefs, known for its hydrosols, flavored oils, and vinegars.
“SOS is like the Frick, with a high-quality, curated selection,” says Bossy, analogizing it with the famed NYC art museum. “Kalustyan’s is expansive, like the Met of spices. They should have a historian there.”
Kalustyan’s does not have an in-house historian, but it does have Dona Abramson, a former chef and the store’s manager of operations. She oversees one of the most expansive dry-goods selections of any store in New York City, and she’s constantly on the hunt for new ingredients. When the store expanded four years ago, Abramson devoted more shelf space to bar items on the second floor, and there are now 125 types of bitters, high-quality orgeats, about 100 syrups (such as butterfly pea and birdseye chile), marinated lotus root garnishes, all kinds of preserved cherries, rose and orange-blossom waters, tonic syrups, sodas, shrubs, cordials, and more.
"A lot of bartenders will come up here and look around the shelves like it’s a reference library,” says Abramson. “They get ideas, like, ‘Oh, cardamom-lime bitters or cherry syrup, what can I do with that?’ Sometimes I work with them on the drinks. I mean, none have been named after me. But I love doing it”
Stacey Swenson doesn’t spend much time in the bar section and instead gravitates to herbs, roots, and barks, ideal for making house vermouths, bitters, and other concoctions. She once made a root beer syrup with sarsaparilla root and wintergreen, and has an olive leaf tincture she’s just waiting to use in the right cocktail.
Swenson, the bar director for the Matter House restaurant group who moved to New York via Chicago and Iowa, doesn’t remember exactly how she first heard about Kalustyan’s, but now, “It’s my favorite thing to tell people about,” she says. “And when I recruit people, it’s like, ‘I told you so.’”
Swenson also loves Kalustyan’s house tea blends, and at Lodi, the newest Matter House restaurant in Rockefeller Center, she’ll be showcasing a blood-orange tea blend in two of her drinks. The Rosé Frappé has raspberry-infused Cocchi rosa, Lofi gentian amaro, blood-orange tea syrup, mezcal, lime, and sparkling rosé; a non-alcoholic spritz features the same tea syrup with Lyre’s aperitif rosso and grapefruit. (Lodi’s liquor license is currently pending; the N/A spritz is currently available, and the restaurant expects to be able to serve the Rosé Frappé later this fall.)
Orlando Franklin McCray is a hot-sauce aficionado and the head bartender of Night Moves in Brooklyn, and his trips to Kalustyan’s are always a mixture of pleasure and business. For the former, he might grab a bottle of the house red pepper sauce to slather on gyros or souvlaki, and for the latter, he picks up preserved fruit in giant bins in the front of the store.
McCray recently made a Dave Arnold-approved apricot-cognac justino (just blend together apricots and Cognac, add Pectinex enzyme, and clarify in a centrifuge) for the base of a Mai Tai variation. “You can find dehydrated apricots anywhere, but theirs are from Uzbekistan; the quality is higher,” he says. And last winter, he shopped at Kalustyan’s to look for “all the different iterations of coconut in liquid form,” so he could figure out what would be most delicious and cost-effective for a vegan coquito.
Other standout sections: dried chiles (Schramm says he used to just stand before the chile shelf and read), sugars, frozen fruit purées, and acids. “They have them all: citric, malic, tartaric, lactic. Also liquid phosphoric. They have all the ingredients you need to do high-tech bartending,” says Schramm.
The Shopping Strategy
More often than not, Schramm’s Kalustyan’s runs are centered around picking up acid powders, but he always takes time to wander the store. “I am always there for the experience. If I need to do a private event and don’t have time to batch everything, I’ll run and get Liber and Co. orgeat. I can spend 20 minutes just looking at tea,” he says. “Give yourself at least an hour.”
Recently for “High Bar,” an interactive cocktail show he co-hosts, Schramm had to develop classic cocktail riffs and found himself grazing the aisles for inspiration. One such result: a green curry, coconut Mai Tai with Cointreau, aged rum, jaggery, orgeat, coconut water, and makrut lime leaf syrup. “I never would have set out to make that drink, but drinks become obvious when you're walking around in that store,” he says.
There’s less room for kismet in McCray’s Kalustyan’s strategy. “I hate when people wander in grocery stores,” he says. “I get a list and bang it out quickly. I don’t work with grains and flours. I don’t bake. So I don’t go to sections I don’t have any business in.”
McCray also cautions: “Make sure you have a way to transport what you buy, and go with a friend, because you’ll be coming out with bags.”
Swenson and Bossy have an approach somewhere in between McCray and Schramm. They make lists and even set time limits so they don’t haul way too many ingredients back to their New York City apartments. But they still leave some time for browsing. “I usually get two extra things that aren’t on my list. I have to constrain myself,” says Swenson, who also recommends bringing cash for a small discount on your bill.
Even as a longtime shopper, Bossy still finds surprises on the shelves and joy in subtle changes to the layout and inventory, and even if she buys ingredients like fresh turmeric elsewhere and in bulk, they will always be connected to her Kalustyan’s experience. At Panorama Room, her Long Flight cocktail features turmeric-infused tequila, Jamaican rum, Grand Marnier, lemon, and a rim of dehydrated turmeric, lemongrass, salt, and pepper. She had never experienced the pungent bright-orange rhizome until eight years ago, on her very first shopping trip to Kalustyan’s.