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Visit Prohibition-Era Havana at Blacktail in NYC

blacktail bar nyc

The bar at Blacktail. Photo by Dan Schweber.

To step into Blacktail is to step into a freeze frame of a bygone era. With its rich wood paneling, rotating brass fans, and oversize leather couches, Blacktail channels an early 20th century Havana, where Americans flocked when their rums, brandies and other alcoholic diversions were outlawed during Prohibition. From New York harbor, these imbibers fled to Havana aboard “blacktails”–luxury seaplanes with black painted tail fins–when travel by air was afforded to only the wealthiest of revelers. And just steps away from where the moneyed drinkers of yesteryear took flight, the award-winning team behind Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog recently opened the doors to Blacktail at Pier A in downtown Manhattan.

Upon arrival, you are greeted by the sound of a musician gently tapping away on the keys of a piano. A hostess leads you to your table, for there is no standing room at Blacktail. Waiting for you is a small frozen daiquiri, inviting you to forget the complexities of modern day life and begin your tippling journey to Prohibition-era Havana.

As the sweetness of the daiquiri begins to fade, you are presented with a small book disguised as a menu. The team behind Blacktail has put a lot of thought into the spirits served, and each drink on the menu belongs to one of five categories and its respective glass: Highball, Punch, Sour, Old Fashioned, and Cocktail. Selecting a drink will take time, as each category contains eight cocktails, making the daiquiri aperitif both appropriate and necessary while you contemplate your selection.

Given the old Havana feel, rum plays a starring role in many of the 40 cocktails on the menu. Since Cuban rum itself is not readily available in the U.S. today, Blacktail has created a house blend of four rums used in its more common drinks such as the Daiquiri and the Southside.

nacional cocktail at blacktail

The Nacional with rum, French bitters, apricot, banana, pineapple, lime and yuzu. Photo by Dan Schweber.

In addition to these are modern twists on classics–such as the Rum & Cola, which also includes amaro, champagne and bitters–and the Nacional, a drink popularized at Havana’s famed hotel and doctored here with the addition of banana and yuzu. While it does rum drinks a real service, Blacktail pours with equal opportunity, featuring drinks with gin, whiskey, brandy, tequila and mezcal. One such drink is the harrowing-sounding Euthanasia, which contains apple brandy, whiskey, apricot, amaro and Bénédictine, and tastes more friendly than the name implies.

A journey to Blacktail is not complete without a journey throughout the space itself. There are many remnants of the old blacktails–placards and menus from the planes as well as pictures from that golden age of travel. Stained glass and ivy cover the ceiling, and globes, maps, books, and photographs of Cuba envelop the wood-paneled walls. The focal point of it all is the massive painting behind the bar, which depicts Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the Caribbean in 1492.

Just as New Yorkers escaped Prohibition by seaplane for the free-flowing spirits and sun of the Caribbean, they can escape to Havana via the confines of Blacktail, even if only for a night.

Author Dan Schweber is a New York City-based cocktail connoisseur on a mission to try 50 drinks around the world. Follow his journey drinking through the U.S. and beyond on his site dschweber.com or on Instagram.

Written by Dan Schweber