My preoccupation with experiencing all things craft beer takes a measurable amount of time from my life, but that time is incomparable to the time spent as a Father of two incredible girls as my first and most important occupation above all others. My wife and I have spent a great chunk of our adult lives attending soccer games, dance recitals, plays, concerts and track meets. Not to mention, we provide taxi service to all those practices, as well as: gymnastic classes, girl scout meetings, dances, birthday parties and miscellaneous school functions. Family vacations have not been immune to child-centric activities either; until recently our trips have revolved around water slides, roller coasters, princesses and a giant mouse.
Now that both girls are in the double digits, we finally decided to take a family vacation that would be fun for both kids and parents, the kind that would make hall of fame dad, Clark Griswold, proud. The destination: New York City. After plans were set for seeing the traditional attractions, it was time to turn my thoughts to an attraction for Dad – translation: something involving beer.
What I really wanted to do was go HAM, like I would on a beercation sans kids: start at the top of the RateBeer ranked brewery list, try all the best beers, move on to the next ranked brewery, repeat. Realistically, however, having the fam watch Dad pound craft beer for half of the trip probably wouldn’t give the girls the most appropriate content for their “What I did this Summer” essays. Besides, New York is not your average big city. Its rich history is a bit more grand, and the stories – well, there are too many to tell. The one I will tell is as quintessentially New York as they come, one laden with that rich history I mentioned. It’s a story about McSorley’s Old Ale House in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where there just happened to be beer.
Sorry if I disappoint, but this story does not begin with me dragging my family through NYC, us wandering the streets trying to find our destination, while meeting characters both endearing and unsavory, unknowingly toting around a valuable artifact, and then conclude with someone chasing us through dangerous alleyways and abandoned warehouses until we randomly pop up in the doorway of Dad’s beer mecca. But for Dad, in the context of this family vacation, McSorley’s had that final-scene-of-a-movie-location lore. Hell, when an establishment endures in New York City for 162 years, it develops an epic reputation, part of which involves serving up good damn beer.
When you find McSorley’s, on East 7th St. just north of The Bowery, it looks like you are about to enter a portal into the mid-19th century – and once you walk through the door it feels like you just have. I can honestly say without exaggeration, McSorley’s looks like it belongs on the set of Gangs Of New York.
Other than the clothes and hairstyles of the staff and patrons, everything in the pub is either original or has been there for decades. The walls are packed with pictures and artifacts collected from what seems to be from the time of the original opening. Everything is made of wood, including the floors, which are covered in sawdust for keeping the floor clean. The original stove pipe stands among the beer-mug-filled tables across from the bar. The smoke stack juts out on the ceiling between the original gas-lights, and amazingly is still used on cold New York days. The original wooden ice box, with McSorley’s motto “Be Good Or Be Gone” carved above it, is also still in use, although it has been converted into a refrigerator.
Then, there is the drink menu: McSorley’s beer on tap, light or dark. That’s it. No wine, no liquor, no other beer of any kind.
McSorley’s Beer was brewed in the pub’s basement during America’s greatest embarrassment, commonly known as prohibition. Throughout that period, McSorley’s operated as a successful speakeasy. That is until prohibition ended and the doors were reopened, legally, as a pub, serving McSorley’s beer.
The beer, now brewed by Pabst Brewing Co. and available in bottles, is tapped and poured into small glass mugs. You may choose either the light, cream ale or the dark lager, which you can order one at a time, but most people order them in pairs. You save a buck ordering two simultaneously, and considering their large sizes, it’s a short time before you’re ready for another.
The two men working the bar room were Pepe, the bartender pouring the beer, and Sean, the one slinging them. Sean was very busy delivering mugs to the tables, sometimes carrying three to four in each hand. That made me somewhat hesitant to ask him questions about the Pub. When he finally was free I asked the stud for a few seconds of his time; he was more than happy to talk. I did have to toss my questions to him as he passed by, at first. Eventually, he started approaching me with additional anecdotes. Before long, the local patrons began to chime in, as well.
The number of years McSorley’s has been in business alone tells you the Pub has seen many American and World events come and go. Naturally, when a pub has been around as long as this one, the stories tend to get embellished, made up or just told wrong. As I asked Sean about some of the stories I have read or heard about prior to my visit, there was almost always at least a small part of it that was wrong. Firsthand information is always the best. Stories of Abraham Lincoln’s visit to McSorley’s have taken on many forms, mainly centered on Honest Abe bellying up to the bar for a cold one. We’d all love to boast we had a drink at the same place as one of our nation’s greatest presidents, but unfortunately the story plays a little different. Lincoln did visit McSorley’s but did not have a beer. Lincoln was campaigning and was still a bit of an unknown when he entered the pub. A local politician who frequented McSorley’s recognized him and immediately gave up his seat to Lincoln, which instantly grabbed the attention of the patrons. Lincoln stood on the chair and gave a short speech right there in the pub. The very chair is still there perched above the bar along with the pub’s many other historical artifacts, including one of the four remaining original John Wilkes Booth wanted posters.
The famed wishbones hanging from one of the converted gas lights were put there by American Soldiers being shipped out to fight in World War I, signifying a wish to return home to their loved ones. The remaining wishbones still hanging there today belong to the men who never returned. They went untouched from the time they were hung there by our soldiers, decades ago, until the health department forced McSorley’s to remove 2 inches of dust from the bones and fixture. That was about 12 years ago, and they haven’t been touched since.
The famous story of Harry Houdini’s handcuffs, left behind by Houdini himself, attached to the bar’s foot-rail was revealed to be a hoax, put there as a distraction on busy nights from the real Houdini handcuffs, looking much more like turn of the century era cuffs, hanging from the ceiling behind the bar.
Above the original brass taps, not in use but perfectly preserved, hangs a picture of Babe Ruth from behind giving his number retirement speech. This photo was developed from the original roll of film by an unknown freelance photographer who was a regular at McSorley’s and was forced to take pictures from behind The Babe by the mainstream newspaper’s photographers who did not take him seriously. Karma’s a bitch. As it turns out the little known photographer’s photo of Ruth became iconic because it was the only picture that captured Ruth’s number on the back of his jersey, there were no numbers on the front back then, and since it was The Babe’s number retirement ceremony, this became the picture that best capture the moment. As a gift, the patron photographer developed a copy for McSorley’s.
An original invitation personally inviting the proprietors of McSorely’s to the Brooklyn Bridge dedication, years of badges donated by numerous New York emergency personnel, 100 year old newspaper clippings and endless pictures of famous writers, politicians and athletes cram the walls each with a story attached.
There seems to be endless – and I mean endless – stories inside and on the walls of McSorley’s Old Ale House, and the fact they only serve two kinds of beer only adds to the authenticity of this ancient pub. It would be easy to sit there for hours sipping on beer, listening to stories and taking it all in. But hours was something this Dad didn’t have. One hour was all I was allotted, and the questions of “Can we go now?” began well before that hour was up. As it turns out, Dad’s hand-picked destination ended up predating any of the landmarks we visited, other than New York City itself, with just as much historical significance and intrigue as the others.
While Father’s Day has always been reserved as the day to treat Dad to a ball game or cold tasty brew, it’s perfectly appropriate for Dad to carve out a little time just for himself the other 364 days of the year, too. More importantly, no matter where you go, no matter what the reason, if you love good damn beer seek it out. You never know what else you’ll find. It can be more than a quest to find the best beer on earth; it can be a taste of the past…or future.