When one thinks about eating a meal at a deli, brains tend to conjure up images of corned beef piled high on rye bread or bagels with cream cheese, lox and thinly sliced onion. Sitting at a formica table, maybe there’s a plate of dill pickles in the middle, slung down with extra gusto by a server who has been hard at work balancing steaming bowls of matzah ball soup. For beverages, perhaps you imagine heavy mugs of coffee, tall glasses of iced tea and celery soda, or a frosty egg cream.
Most bubbies aren’t heading to their local deli for a cocktail, but a growing number of deli dishes and restaurants that feature traditional Jewish food are adding craft cocktail menus to their offerings. From iconic Russ & Daughters (actually considered in an “appetizing shop and restaurant,” not a deli) in New York City’s Lower East Side to Mamaleh’s in Cambridge and Freedman’s in Los Angeles’ Echo Park, these drinks satisfy the wish for a boozy beverage that tastes great with traditional Jewish foods. From rye liqueur that pumps up the rye wheat flavor in a Manhattan to pickle juice twisting a martini with tartness, these cocktails celebrate deli traditions and flavors.
The Fershnikit Egg Cream at Russ & Daughters, NYC
Russ & Daughters straddles the heritage of NYC’s Lower East Side neighborhood with a role in the burgeoning culinary community. Their pristinely smoked fish has become legendary over the years. At first thought, for many, it’s a brunch destination but at night the cozy, comfortable dining room—which alludes to their substantial history—offers up a delicious roster of fine foods. For example, they add dry cured angus beef brisket with mashed potatoes to the menu. The cocktail list appeals to both brunch and evening crowds. The Bloody Mary’s can be ordered one of three ways including a version with caraway infused vodka, rye croutons and pickled vegetable. Their Smoked Martini pairs Perry’s Tot Gin, Belvedere, Lillet, and Cocchi Americano with a smokey Laphroaig rinse. The Lower East Side is their version of a gimlet with cucumber and mint. And our personal favorite, The Fershnikit Egg Cream, has Kings County Distillery Chocolate Whiskey, with Fox’s U-Bet, milk, and seltzer.
There’s a lot at Russ & Daughters we associate with deli foods but, as we mentioned above, it’s actually considered an appetizing store—which, in American Jewish cuisine, specifically regarding New Yorkers and the New York area, means a place to get the foods one eats with bagels. Traditionally, a deli—or delicatessen—means a place for foods like meats and cheeses or fine foods. The distinction is quite important to Russ & Daughters, who’ve been family-owned and operated since 1914. It’s about preserving history, in a neighborhood that, at one time, had 30 appetizing shops.
The Fershnikit Egg Cream
2 oz. Kings County Distillery Chocolate Whiskey (chilled)
1 large spoonful of Fox’s U-Bet Syrup
4 oz. Milk
Top with cold seltzer and gently stir.
The Full Sour at Freedman’s, LA
When Freedman’s debuted in Los Angeles last year, locals and Jewish food enthusiasts from around the city showed up for innovative takes on traditional food. There, latkes are shaped like waffles and topped with smoked ocean trout. Whitefish is toasted into crispy cigar shapes. All of this is served in a wallpapered room reminiscent of a grandmother’s apartment in the Upper West Side of New York. And behind the vintage bar made from antique living room cabinets and a fireplace mantle with a custom built counter, a bartender stands ready to make classic cocktails including the Pink Lady with gin, apple brandy, grenadine, and egg white. Their new “Cel-Ray” Sour is made from gin, lemon juice, cucumber, Tio Pepe and egg whites with fresh ground pepper.
Since opening, they’ve had their Full Sour Martini on the cocktail menu—based on a 50/50 martini with aquavit, dry vermouth, pickle juice and Regan’s bitters. We watched as owner Jonah Freedman stood behind the bar building a Full Sour Martini. He stirred the drink and strained it into a chilled glass. When asked about special dishes for the holidays, he replied, “Every day is a Jewish holiday here.” This martini was created to go well with all of the braised meats and smoked fish on the menu. For the ultimate pickle experience it can be paired with the Half Sour salad, a mix of lightly fermented Kirby cucumbers with creamy avocado, green goddess dressing and loads of fresh herbs.
Full Sour Martini
1.25 oz. Krogstad Aquavit
1.25 oz. Dolin Dry Vermouth
.75 oz. pickle juice
1 dash Regan’s Orange Bitters
Combine in a mixing glass over ice. Stir.
Strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a pickle slice.
The Seeded Rye Manhattan at Mamaleh’s, Cambridge
Mamaleh’s in Cambridge offers all day dining and a take-out marketplace for smoked fish and meats, matzah ball soup, potato pancakes, and more dishes inspired by Jewish lineage around the world. The cocktail menu, developed by co-owner Evan Harrison and his bartending team, grew out of a few pop-up dinners with deli-inspired ingredients. For example, to pair with a beef tongue Rueben, Harrison had made a Manhattan with Kümmel, a caraway flavored liqueur. So when it came time to create an entire cocktail menu inspired by Jewish food and deli culture, Harrison came up with a set of guidelines to structure their offerings.
“We have come up with a three-tier definition of what makes a drink deli,” explains Harrison. “The first one being place of origin. If it comes from egg creams or soda fountain culture, from the soda jerk aspect of deli culture. Second, if it has an ingredient that comes from a drinking tradition that is part of the Jewish diaspora. That would be Manischewitz, Slivovitz, or another alcoholic beverage that you would associate with Jewish culture. The last one is to pull flavors from deli food, rye bread or even the Sephardic ingredients like sumac or plums.”
The 866 features grapefruit, a favorite deli item for grandmas and anyone who feels nostalgic for nibbling on segments scooped out of a half grapefruit. The Pushcart Spritz has celery bitters. The Bourbon and Cherry Phosphate is made with Four Roses bourbon and house-made cherry phosphate. “We try to make drinks that have cool stories,” says Harrison. “One of the bartenders was reading an article about taco trucks in LA. There was an aside about pastrami tacos in Boyle Heights. So we made a pink peppercorn pastrami spiced rim mescal margarita with Aperol.”
Mamaleh’s also boast the largest collection of traditional Eastern European plum brandy, Slivovitz, in Massachusetts. They make a cocktail called the Meier & Frank with Clear Creek Slivovitz, Amontillado Sherry, Averna, and smoked beer syrup. It’s the Seeded Rye Manhattan that may be the most deli-inspired version of a classic cocktail, utilizing rye whiskey, Vermont Montenegro and the Kümmel caraway liqueur. The name, explains Harrison, is a play on deli food and New York cocktail history with seeded rye bread being an ingredient at every deli. It tastes like a Manhattan infused with rye bread. Order it with a Ruben or their customer favorite 50/50 sandwich with hot corned beef and pastrami on marbled rye.
Seeded Rye Manhattan recipe
2 oz. Rittenhouse Rye
.5 oz. Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
.5 oz. Amaro Montenegro
4 dashes Combier Kummel
1 dash Regan’s Orange Bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Stir to dilute.
Strain into a chilled old-fashioned glass.
Garnish with lemon oil, float lemon swath on top of drink.