There was a time when drinking felt deliciously illicit: an inconspicuous tavern, a door with strange markings, windows of diamond-paned glass. Inside, the light was low, the crowd conspiratorial. Bartenders clutched silver shakers, arms pumping like rods on a steam locomotive, pausing to pour. No televisions, no darts, no soda guns spraying Sprite. It was last Saturday night.
There’s nothing short of a contemporary cocktail revolution going on right across from the Senate House State Historic Site. The Stockade Tavern, located at 313 Fair Street in Kingston, is bringing old-school cool back to Uptown. Paul Maloney and Giovanna “Jenny” Vis, a married couple, are the owners and tenders of this classy, classic American watering hole set in a former Singer sewing machine factory.
Their aim is simple and sweet: “Happiness for the masses – and knowledge!” said Maloney, in between pours on a busy night. The tavern is modeled on Drink, a Massachusetts throwback bar where he learned the craft of the cocktail and the subtleties of topnotch service. So when you sit down at the Stockade Tavern’s thick, curved black walnut bar, you’re soon handed a short glass of chilled water and a menu divided into sections: whiskey, gin, rum, tequila, vodka, brandy, absinthe and “house” (specialties).
Place your order and the magic begins. Behind the bar is a flurry: arms driving like pistons, with motion as swift and precise as a symphony conductor’s. “You’ve got to shake it to wake it up,” said Maloney, as the spirits slosh. Perfect cubes of ice jangle against the metal. Some tenders are two-fisting those shakers. Some wear pinstriped aprons tied at the waist; all have notable hair. Vis dashes between behind-the-scenes and bar, hair updone with a scarf à la Lucille Ball. It is hard to resist calling this a spirited scene.
On a busy night, four to five mix and serve drinks to those clustered at the bar and clumped in banquettes beside the heavy, hinged leaded-glass windows up front. A generous gangway to the side of the bar allows for fluid movement to the back, where there are tables. Everything is generously spaced; the room feels cozy but not crowded. Light fixtures from the Governor Clinton Hotel hang beneath the painted tin ceiling, gently illuminating the scene.
And the drinks themselves? Nonpareil. As of mid-May there’s a new menu, and my favorite is the Ramos Gin Fizz, with Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, fresh lemon and lime, cream, orange flower water and soda for $10. The motion for the potion is especially important for drinks containing cream, which was actually whipped by the time the drink was set in front of me. Same goes for egg whites, as in the Whiskey Sour, made with Old Overholt Rye, fresh lemon, simple syrup and egg white for $8: an excellent, airy choice for a hot summer day.
Simple syrup is, of course, house-made, along with flavored syrups like ginger. Fresh citrus is pulled from a big glass trifle dish set on the bar. These two – Gin Fizz and Sour – were served in highball glasses. Someone told me that the name “highball” came from the time of day you were supposed to consume such drink: afternoon, when the sun is a high ball in the sky. I bet that Maloney would know for sure.
Drinks span the spectrum from fizzy and fruity to those serious drinks for practiced adults. One such is the Boulevardier, made with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Campari and Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth for $8. It’s poured into a cocktail glass with a thick chill on it, so that when the alcohol hits it, the bowl warms up first, leaving frost on the stem and a ring of it around the lip. In taste it resembles a Negroni, my favorite cocktail, which swaps the bourbon for gin. Both iterations smell and taste kind of like old-lady perfume, and may be enjoyed by old Italian men and people like me. If you’re willing to open your mind to a new flavor sensation, it’s herbal and bitter and complex.
Softer-but-still-serious cocktails are Barnum Was Right, made with Plymouth Gin, Marie Brizard Apry, fresh lemon juice and Angostura Bitters for $9, and Cocktail à la Louisiane, made with Willet Single Barrel Rye, Peychaud Bitters, Benedictine, Carpano Antica Vermouth and Vieux Pontarlier Absinthe for $11. Absinthe, if you’ve never had it, tastes like anise – but curiouser, worth a try. Also recommended is the Frostbite, made with Siete Leguas Blanco, cream, mint and crème de cacao for $9, in a cocktail glass adorned with a split mint leaf.
No hard stuff? No problem. There are 20 types of bottled beer and four on tap, along with a selection of wines and non-alcoholic choices like Boylan’s Cane Cola.
After sampling four or five of their intoxicating concoctions, I will admit to feeling a little “squiffy,” “jingled,” “piffed.” Truth told, I was closer to “half-screwed,” or “zozzled,” or maybe even “lit up like the Commonwealth” – synonyms from Edmund Wilson’s The Lexicon of Prohibition. I recommend a designated driver.
There is a limited menu of snacks to assist in the reclamation of sobriety. The best of these is the Bavarian pretzel, available Fridays and Saturdays only, baked by Deising’s. Pretzels are displayed on three tiers of metal hooks behind the bar and, upon ordering, are foisted into a hot-as-hell contraption below the bar that grills them back to life. So soft the white middle, so thick the dark brown crust! Served with grain mustard, I can honestly say that it’s the best bar treat that I’ve ever had, and not just because I was “fried to the hat.” Other nibbles include a can of sardines with cheddar cheese, pickled onions and slices of hearty bread, charcuterie platters, olives and popcorn. Whether it be food or drink, be sure to ask your bartender for suggestions.
The Stockade Tavern is open from 4 p.m. to 12 midnight Wednesday through Thursday, from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday – and they just started opening up on Tuesday nights. For more information, visit www.stockadetavern.com or call (845) 514-2649.