Behind the Bar Snap Shot

3 Drinks That Show Why Sunken Harbor Club Is NYC’s Best New Escapist Hideaway

It combines nautical whimsy and incredible cocktails.

Head bartender Stephen Bielawski pours a cocktail at Sunken Harbor Club in Brooklyn, New York
Head bartender Stephen Bielawski pours a cocktail at Sunken Harbor Club in Brooklyn, New York Image:

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No one knows a bar better than the people behind it. For “My Bar in 3 Drinks,” the people running the best bars around make and discuss three of their bar’s most representative cocktails.

Venture through the door next to the “historic communication device” inside the newly reincarnated Gage & Tollner restaurant in Brooklyn, go up the stairs and through the wooden-beaded doorway, and you’ll find yourself in what appears to be the hold of an ancient galleon, seemingly in the midst of being tossed by a wave. The ceiling slants; the walls angle; a ship’s wheel adorns the wooden bar—which you’d be forgiven for overlooking, since the lighted mermaid mural behind will likely command your full attention. Listen closely if the music hits a lull, and you’ll discern the sounds of creaking wood. 

You’ll have found yourself in Sunken Harbor Club, a cozy, wood-lined bar run by the same crew as the restaurant downstairs. A quick glance at the drink menu would lead most drinkers to assume it’s a Tiki bar: tropical fruits, rum blends, the works. But that’s clearly not the full story. There aren’t any palm trees or hula girls or Maori-face mugs to be seen. This place is about escapism, to be sure, but of a vastly different type than the norm. It’s more like an adventurer’s hideaway, located at the nexus of Explorer’s Club and seafaring pirate’s den. Vintage globes are affixed to the ceiling; model ships line the walls; lights glow from within old glass buoys. It’s as though guests have joined the process of travel, of transportive escape, rather than having reached whichever fantasy tropical-isle destination is portrayed at a normal Tiki bar. As the cliché most often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson goes, “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” So, too, is Sunken Harbor Club.

Sunken Harbor Club

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The concept began in 2014 as a weekly Thursday pop-up at Fort Defiance, a bar-turned-general store in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn helmed by St. John Frizell, one of the partners (with Ben Schneider and Sohui Kim) who resurrected Gage & Tollner. They found the space to make the pop-up permanent in 2017, and spent the next couple of years—and then, unexpectedly, a year and a half more—building it out and then developing the drinks program. Stephen Bielawski, who headed up the pop-up at Fort Defiance, continues as the head bartender at Sunken Harbor Club.

But that’s the real history. The bar’s team has fabricated a fake backstory for themselves, and it’s too magnificent not to relate. The way they like to tell it, they found the space above the restaurant boarded up and uncovered ancient ledgers behind the bar—the Bibendium Compendium—written in code by the members of the secret Sunken Harbor Club and updated over the course of centuries. The club originally had dozens of locations, they say, scattered around the globe; its members, supposedly, explored the world in search of good drinks, and recorded them in secret codes during their secret meetings. The modern-day bar’s menu, then, consists of drinks deciphered from that ledger. “It kind of gives us carte blanche to do what we want,” to make unusual and wildly creative drinks, says Bielawski. “Because we have that beautiful MacGuffin of, ‘It was in the book!’”   

In truth, the actual bar itself is so weird and whimsical that its fake history seems superfluous. All you need to know is right in front of you: the thoughtful drinks with global inspirations, the off-kilter surroundings, the sublimely curious and detail-oriented decor assembled by the owners from thrift stores, antique shops, and estate sales over the past few years. Schneider himself studied shipbuilding and did all of the bar’s carpentry alongside a couple of colleagues.

“I think everyone involved in this project isn’t ashamed to be a big old nerd,” says Bielawski. “We love the fantasy element and all of the things that are attractive about Tiki: the immersion and the fun, playful drinks and the creativity.” One thing the team is aiming to leave behind, however, is the problematic cultural appropriation endemic to Tiki. “I think in this day and age, it’s time for Tiki to take a back seat,” he says. “Because that razor-thin line between appreciation and appropriation is often trampled all over.” The team asked themselves: What are the elements of Tiki that are fun, and what’s unnecessary? The key elements, they decided, are the immersive, transportive element and the fun, playful energy; what you don’t need are hula girls and religious idols. “All of that’s very much superfluous, especially in 2021; it’s not time for that anymore,” says Bielawski. “But I think we landed on something pretty cool.”

These are the three drinks Bielawski feels best represent Sunken Harbor Club.

Remember the Maine cocktail

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1. Remember the Maine

Rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, Cherry Heering, absinthe

This Charles H. Baker classic is basically a modified Manhattan. It’s certainly not in the style of a typical tropical drink, which is precisely why it was Bielawski’s first pick from his menu. “It’s a good way to show that we’re not just a one-trick thing up here; we’re not just doing the big juice bombs and the huge tropical flavors,” he says. This cocktail is essentially a gateway offering, accessible to drinkers who aren’t (yet) Tiki fans and who might have wandered up from the restaurant below for a pre-dinner drink or a nightcap and are looking for flavors more familiar to them. “It’s Manhattan-style, but it starts to bring up those flavors a little bit,” says Bielawski. “It adds Cherry Heering for some really deep, fruity notes, and then a little bit of absinthe to give it a really nice, bright top-end floral thing.”

This drink’s perfection lies in its very slightly adjusted ingredients and quantities. For example, the team tried many different absinthes, going with St. George’s in the end. “Most Remember the Maines I’ve had are a little bit stodgy-tasting, because Cherry Heering can be kind of a frumpy bully in the glass,” says Bielawski. “But this absinthe elevates it, really perks it up.”

At the end, only very tiny tweaks were made to the classic recipe, says Bielawski. “Because that drink, like anything in the Manhattan family, is already pretty stable and solid, so anything you do to it should be pretty minor, and it’s really just dialing in the proportions, like going one-eighth of an ounce less of Cherry Heering than normal,” he says. “I think it’s a great drink.”

Yellow Tang cocktail

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2. Yellow Tang

Vodka, banana, pineapple, passion fruit

“I call it the happiest cocktail on the menu, because when you sip it, there’s a happy, bright, zippy quality to it that I think is unmatched,” proclaims Bielawski. The drink was created by Garrett Richard, the bar’s “chief cocktail officer.” It’s not a classic Tiki drink, but it falls solidly within the category’s general realm; it’s a sort of long-form play on a Blue Hawaii, one of Richard’s favorite cocktails, according to Bielawski, which Richard often made at his Exotica Tiki popup at the Raines Law Room. It’s a continuation of a cocktail color theme: The color yellow makes many people think of bananas, and from there, “It all fell into place,” says Bielawski. “That’s a drink that came together really beautifully. It’s very much the sum of its parts.”

The drink is a vodka cocktail, employing the unique Black Cow vodka, made in England with whey, a byproduct of the cheesemaking process. “It has a yogurty creaminess to it, that when paired with pineapple and citrus and a banana cordial that we make in-house, gives it a rich, deep, super-pleasant, creamy, banana-y quality” that was missing when the team tried using other vodkas in the drink, says Bielawski. “It’s not something you’d think at first belongs in a tropical drink, but the way it nestles into those other flavors is really cool.” 

Sultan's Good Counsel cocktail

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3. Sultan’s Good Counsel

Vodka, fino sherry, sumac, sesame, za’atar

“One of the ways we’re stepping away from being a Tiki bar is by using techniques that were born of that movement but applying new flavors to them,” says Bielawski. This drink certainly exemplifies that aim.

It employs flavors from the Middle East, or really the former Ottoman Empire: za’atar and sumac and sesame, ingredients Bielawski grew up eating and remains extremely fond of but which are rarely seen in cocktails, “probably mostly with good reason,” he says, since they can be challenging to balance. Za’atar replaces the typical baking spices found in many tropical cocktails, those that incorporate Angostura bitters and are topped with grated nutmeg. He uses sesame seeds to make what he calls an “orgeat analogue,” steeping sumac, marjoram, and thyme into the toasted-sesame milk he makes. “For a cocktail, it’s a pretty savory flavor palate,” he says. 

It’s balanced out with vodka, fino sherry, and a touch of raki, plus lemon juice and a bit of guava. “For some reason, guava and sumac love each other,” says Bielawski. “The guava really couches the sumac and pulls it through the whole drink, and gives it a big, fruity, juicy note that sumac already sort of has, because it’s such a fun spice. It’s a little bit floral, a little tomato-y.” The drink gets a mint-sprig garnish and a spritz of rosewater on the side of the glass to give a floral top note. 

“For me, I think this is the future of doing Tiki-esque drinks, where you are celebrating a set of flavors and a culture through its culinary heritage but not bringing all of the tacky trappings,” says Bielawski. “I think this drink is emblematic of that philosophy. That’s something I’m really passionate about pushing: celebrating those Tiki vibes but getting away from all of the baggage.

“No city in history has been as diverse and as full of flavors; we can really get anything from all over the world here,” Bielawski continues. “I think New York City is the perfect place for this kind of bar because of exactly that. It’s not just drawing from world history in a very general sense, but literally every population in the world is represented in this city in some fashion.”