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.
Temple Bar, in the NoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, originally opened in 1989 and quickly became a playground for the famous and fabulous. In its heyday, it’s said, it was known as much for its expensive cocktails (ten dollars for a Martini in the late '90s) as for the nightlife crowd it drew. It shuttered at the end of 2017, partly as a result of not keeping up with cocktail trends that were by then widespread.
And just like that, Temple Bar is back, resurrected in autumn 2021. Not much about the space has changed. The elegant wooden bar is original; in the room beyond, the paneled-wood walls, green leather banquettes, and wood-and-leather tables are, too. The only obvious change is the bar seating: The former rickety stools have been replaced by large seats with backs. You can settle into them, Martini in hand, and comfortably stay a while.
The most notable difference between the original incarnation and the new one is probably the drink menu. Old-timers will tell you that various 'Tinis were the thing to order before, and there's a Martini section on the menu now, a nod to the bar's past (as are, ahem, the add-on “caviar bumps”). But there's so much more: a sky-blue Negroni and several other variations on the three-ingredient classic, a festive drink landing somewhere between a Sherry Cobbler and a Pina Colada, a banana-tinged Espresso Martini, and a few Milk & Honey and Attaboy favorites including the Gold Rush, Penicillin, and a particular Dark & Stormy rendition.
The expanded drink selection is the work of two of the four partners in Temple Bar 2.0, Sam Ross and Michael McIlroy, who put together the opening menu. Ross and McIlroy, for those unfamiliar, are cocktail-world veterans known for having helped give rise to the modern cocktail scene with Sasha Petraske at Milk & Honey and are also the folks behind Attaboy. In addition, Ross has created some of the most well-known modern classic cocktails of the current era (think Penicillin and Paper Plane). The other two partners are the nightlife gurus David Rabin and Maneesh K. Goyal, whose other fashionable venues include The Lamb’s Club and Priyanka Chopra’s restaurant, respectively.
It’s no small feat to take a bar with so much history and so many memories attached to it and update it for a modern crowd. It’s an even more significant achievement to strike a balance between the crowd that goes for the “scene” and those who go for Attaboy-quality cocktails.
Yet that was the intention from the start. Samantha Casuga, Temple Bar’s head bartender (previously of The Dead Rabbit), points out the “50-50 split” between the owners: half nightlife gurus, half serious cocktail folks. “They’re vastly different; they own different venues; they’re totally different styles,” she says. “But the whole idea was that we would bridge that gap of craft-cocktail bar and sexy, cool New York nightlife to create a cool place where you feel like you’re indulging in something and you’re really out on the town, and it’s a very New York experience, but you’re still able to get quality drinks. The idea was to do cocktails that relate to the Attaboy and Milk & Honey style, but to take cocktails familiar to New York nightlife, like Martinis, and make them ‘cool’ by industry standards.”
It’s another thing altogether, though, to create a drink menu that would please both types of guests. Casuga thinks the influences of Ross and McIlroy are suited perfectly to the task. “The concept emphasizes bridging the two and creating a menu that not only fits the room and environment but also fits all of the dynamics and influences that have gone into this new concept of Temple Bar,” says Casuga. “I think the advantage of bringing in the Attaboy or Milk & Honey style is that the drinks are built on classics, on very tried-and-true formulas that work. I think when you have a nice solid foundation, you can add the little flourishes like we do here.”
The result of all this thoughtful effort is that the bar still draws the nightlife-heavy crowd it did in years past (those who can get past the famous doorman from Bungalow 8) while also providing a cocktail program that has made fans out of major drinks-industry players.
In such an elegant room, “It’s okay if the drinks are a little over-the-top; it’s okay if they’re a little extravagant,” says Casuga. “I firmly believe that our strengths lie in the simplicity and the never-overcomplicated approach to drinks. But there still has to be something special about it; they still have to live up to where they’re being served.”
These are the three drinks Casuga feels best represent Temple Bar.
1. Temple Bar House Gibson Martini
Gin, manzanilla sherry, sherry vinegar, onion brine, onion
One of several drinks in the Martini section of Temple Bar’s menu, this is by no means a normal Gibson. It comes with the requisite pickled onion, sure, but everything else about it is decidedly different from the standard Gibson recipe. It starts with 50-50 Martini proportions—only here, it’s not dry vermouth opposite the gin, it’s manzanilla sherry, the bright, savory, saline qualities of which perfectly complement the onion. It also gets a dash of sherry vinegar and a bit of the brine in which the onions were pickled.
“In my mind, it’s probably one of our fanciest cocktails,” says Casuga. Not just because of the preparation that goes into it, but also because of how creatively the drink’s usual ingredients and proportions have been twisted. “It’s probably the geekiest one we have,” she says. “But at the same time, it’s also so simple; it’s really only four ingredients.”
Casuga loves it not only because it’s a fantastic Gibson rendition but also because it appeals to both types of guests the bar draws: serious cocktail aficionados who want something more interesting than a standard Gibson as well as less-intrepid drinkers who may be open to trying it because it’s not too far a leap from their usual dirty vodka Martini. “Most of the time, when they’re adventurous, it works,” she says.
2. Blue Negroni
Gin, Blue Kampari™, blanc vermouth
Casuga can hardly talk about this drink without laughing. “The Blue Negroni is one of my favorite drinks, just because it’s so silly,” she says. However, there’s not a lot to be said here about the actual drink itself. The way the team makes the Blue Kampari is a proprietary secret, which we’ve sworn not to divulge. But as you might imagine, its development involved a great deal of tinkering and a great many complicated processes.
And yes, it’s pretty much a standard Negroni, and tastes just like one, but…it’s blue. Eye-catchingly blue. Cartoonishly blue. Why? Well, why the hell not?
“I think it’s fun to do things like that in a bar like this, where someone might think it’s super-serious,” says Casuga. “Especially if you come here on a Friday night, and there’s a process of getting past the doorman, and then through the host, and actually getting a seat, and it seems like a super-serious bar. And then you open up the menu, and there’s a Blue Negroni, with Blue Kampari with a K, and it’s actually the most ridiculous, silly cocktail.”
It’s emblematic of the approach the drinks team applies to the bar as a whole. “Like, yes, we take our cocktails seriously, but we’re going to get there in a really fun way that we enjoy,” says Casuga. “It’s going to be a quality drink. However, we’re not taking ourselves too seriously. We’re having fun with it. And it doesn’t have to be this crazy-elaborate thing in order to be enjoyed.”
3. Pear & Ginger Shandy (non-alcoholic)
Lemon and pear juices, ginger syrup, honey, Athletic Brewing Run Wild N/A IPA
“I’m a huge advocate for non-alcoholic cocktails still being indulgent and still a treat,” says Casuga. Whether or not a guest is drinking alcohol, they should still feel just as welcome and enjoy the same level of experience at the bar, she believes. “I think we’re moving into an age, especially in the industry, where we need to create more of a welcoming environment for everyone.”
The non-alcoholic drinks on Temple Bar’s menu intentionally all have names that sound like cocktails, and they’re all made with ingredients that are also in other drinks on the menu, providing a through-line and making it clear they’re created with the same sort of care. This one, with its autumnal and wintery flavors, features both a familiar-sounding name as well as a concept familiar to most drinkers: a shandy—albeit one employing a non-alcoholic beer from Athletic Brewing.
“All three of these drinks, together, represent what this bar is,” says Casuga. “You’ve got the Martinis that are on the really indulgent, extravagant side. The Blue Negroni, a really fun classic cocktail concept, but also silly and whimsical. And with this one, the idea of respecting everyone here and making it as inclusive as we can be.”
That desire for inclusivity spans all aspects of the bar and comes top-down from its management. “One of the things our owners said during training, when we were first opening, is, If we look around the room and everyone looks exactly the same and is the exact same type of person, we’re doing something wrong,” says Casuga. “We want to make sure we’re curating a crowd that is super-diverse and cool and eclectic. Which I think needs to also be reflected in the drink program we’re offering too, right?”