Across the Hudson Valley, Catskills, and Finger Lakes regions, small-batch cider makers are keeping an old tradition alive, turning beautiful heirloom apples into palatable hard ciders. An American beverage once so popular it could be found on every 19th century dinner table, cider fell by the wayside after Prohibition and Industrialization, leaving many orchards and breweries destroyed. Today, showcasing this historic drink and celebrating its revival is Wassail, New York’s first restaurant and bar entirely dedicated to pouring high-quality cider, and on the Lower East Side’s Orchard Street, no less.
“I think the rediscovering of something that was lost and the story behind that is kind of enticing — it’s old and new at the same time,” says Jennifer Lim, who co-owns the 74-seat bar and restaurant with her husband Ben Sandler and their business partner, Sabine Hrechdakian. “I think it’s really easy to connect to something when it’s been right in front of us for so long, just not really available.”
Curating a thoughtful list of over 100 varieties sourced from upstate and around the world, Cider Director and Delhi native, Dan Pucci, is passionate when it comes to discovering new ciders. He has formed relationships with some of the best upstate producers around — apple farmers like Wayside Cider, Farnum Hill, Hudson Valley Farmhouse, and Eve’s Cidery, to name a few. Served by the bottle, on tap or by the glass, the drinks at Wassail are unexampled in taste and as unique as the apples from which they came. Diners pair their sips with whimsical vegetable dishes that range from tasty bar snacks like curried fried sunchokes with lemon aioli to larger dinner plates like farro risotto with a poached egg and oyster mushrooms.
Designed and reimagined by New York’s Berman Horn Studio, the team worked with architects Maria Berman and Bradley Horn to create an elegant and contemporary space that also beared in mind the neighborhood’s rock scene roots. “We wanted to bring in a modern-rustic feel that honored the old and the new, kind of like how cider in the United States used to be this very traditional beverage, got lost, and is now being rediscovered by people who are remaking it in their own ways,” says Jennifer. “We didn’t want some fancy, unapproachable thing — we wanted it to feel like it belonged on the Lower East Side.”
The name “Wassail” refers to the Old English tree blessing ritual that occurs at wintertime to ensure a good harvest in the coming year; the street is named for the orchard that used to grow there in the mid-1700s as part of the 300-acre farm owned by former New York governor James DeLancey. “It wasn’t an apple orchard, we’re pretty sure of that,” says Ben, quickly recalling the glass mosaic tiles of green trees and cherries in the Delancey & Essex subway station a few blocks away.
Wassail’s co-owner Sabine is a lead producer of Cider Week, a ten-day promotional event that takes place every year in an effort to build appreciation and demand for regional ciders. The three met at an event upstate that gathered together American cider makers and French producers from Le Perche in a beautiful barn to taste and celebrate their fermented fruits of labor. “It was the first time Ben and I had ever had that many ciders that were not your typical Angry Orchard, sweet stuff like Magners that you’d find in beer bars, and it really opened our eyes to what the beverage is and could be,” Jennifer says. “If you drink an American cider next to a French cider, it is really stark and incredible the difference between the two styles.”
As much as the nuanced flavors of cider inspired the opening of Wassail, so did the heritage of apple growing and the importance of orchard preservation. “We’ve become friends with so many cider makers and we believe in what they do and think it’s a little bit undervalued what they do,” says Jennifer. “It’s a very new industry and we want to do what we can to promote it because we think it’s really special.”
“There’s an incredible depth of flavor that you can bring to the table that matches the huge variety of flavors you get from cider,” says Jennifer. “Vegetables — crazy enough, in the context of a restaurant — we feel like it’s kind of new, and really worthy of exploration in the possibilities and its pairing potential.”
Pastry chef Rebecca Eichenbaum is a master at creating flavor combinations that complement the restaurant’s cider-focused cuisine. Her chocolate pot de creme boasts coffee ice cream over a coffee caraway soil that’s made with espresso, cocoa powder, and crushed caraway seeds.
Jennifer and Ben are also the restaurateurs behind The Queens Kickshaw in Astoria, a neighborhood coffee spot serving beer and comfort food that opened up five years ago with just three ciders on tap. “Kickshaw was kind of an experiment for us in terms of curating a list,” says Jennifer. “And somewhere around that time, Portland opened Bushwhacker, the country’s first cider bar, and that’s when a lightbulb went off. There are wine bars and craft beer bars, so why not a cider bar?”
Dan Pucci, the bar’s resident pommelier, is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to cider, sharing and speaking freely with customers about the bar’s extensive offerings. “I think cider is a fascinating beverage and it’s been a really fun thing to explore. Also, here in New York, it’s something that’s close to home. Talking to people tableside about cider, you’re able to say ‘Oh, it’s from this place, it’s in the Finger Lakes, the Catskills, California, outside Boston,” he says. “You can create these really amazing connections with people.”
The space is dimly lit and divided into three consecutive rooms with nooks to make its long stretch feel more cozy. Black wood trim starkly contrasts with venetian plaster walls to abstractly resemble the crooked tree lines of an orchard, while the wood behind the bar was designed to look like stables. “The idea for this space was that as you look through the rooms, you’re supposed to feel like you’re in a winter orchard looking towards the future, thinking about spring,” explains Ben, “which is why the back dining room has this kind of sun-drenched glow.”
Wassail has become the Lower East Side landing place and academic hub for all things cider. Monthly meetups, special tastings, and informative talks with cider producers and industry experts happen frequently in the restaurant’s private back dining room. “We don’t really know what’s next for cider. It’s a very unexplored frontier,” says Dan. “But we’re all about figuring things out and making things better, and building a market for it. I love the energy people have and how inspired they are to do new things. A lot of pushing and creativity is involved in moving this industry forward.”
Executive Chef Vinicius Campos and his team stand proudly outside of the bar.
Wassail will be releasing some new and special ciders tonight in honor of their one-year anniversary celebration, while next month is the long-awaited release of the Urban Cider Project, the first New York City-sourced cider that saw Dan and Wayside Cider’s Alex Wilson foraging for apples in the gardens and parks of New York City.