Behind the Bar: the Flatiron Room
The Flatiron Room opened a few months ago on West 26th St. in Manhattan, on what has seemingly overnight become the most happening block between 14th and 42nd streets. Only a few steps away are other new destinations such as Maysville(the aristocratic uptown “sister” of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn bourbon bar Char. No. 4) and upscale Korean small plates eatery Hanjan, among others which have joined the pioneer of the block, the fantastic Texas BBQ roadhouse cafeteria, Hill Country.
But one of these things is not like the others. Step inside the Flatiron Room, and you are transported to a sort of Gatsbyan version of old New York that blends style with service and comfort. A tough balance these days, at a time when in certain bars, no matter their pedigree, getting a drink can be just as difficult and impersonal as scoring a rent-controlled apartment from Craigslist. Before entering the bar, there is an actual foyer, where guests are greeted properly and warmly, eye contact made, with of courses and right this ways, coats checked, perhaps one can hear the live jazz being performed at a gentle decibel on the small stage toward the back inside. Almost everything is repurposed antique, from the doors and the chandeliers down to the wood floors themselves, which are 125 years old, from a mill in Maine. Ornate vintage remnant wallpaper and carved black walnut wood fixtures add a final touch of elegance. Guests have a choice of some 700 whiskies, the “active bottles” themselves part of the artwork, kept in long, frosted glass cabinets behind the plush Victorian style seating. There is also a separate private room upstairs for events, private parties and tastings, with a long table and chairs. It manages to feel airy and open, yet completely isolated and quiet from the energy below, with Art Deco designs covering the effective sound-proofing panels, and a drop-down screen for projections.
The staff is well schooled in whiskey and other spirits in order to assist customers in choosing the appropriate drams. Head sommelier is none other than Heather Greene, former Glenfiddich brand ambassador and Scotch Malt Whisky Society panelist. Proprietor Tommy Tardie is a long time whisky enthusiast, who, it seems, has finally opened his dream bar. I sat down with him to discuss his approach to hospitality, and how Flatiron Room sets itself apart from New York City’s ever growing spirits bar scene.
Amanda Schuster: What made you decide to open a whiskey bar?
Tommy Tardie: My roots were in advertising, then I got into hospitality and have owned some nightclubs in the past, but realized I just wasn’t a “nightclub type of guy.” I still enjoyed hospitality, but wanted to do something more suited to my tastes. Then I started researching - if I were going to the ideal place, what would it be like? I happened to love whiskey, it was experiencing a big boom, and wanted a place that meant great service and having a great night out.
AS: What made you decide a sit-down, formal establishment rather than a “divey” whiskey bar?
TT: I think some places use the moniker “whiskey bar” to mean a rough and tumble atmosphere. We didn’t want to call ourselves a whiskey bar, per se, rather a “fine spirits parlor.” We didn’t want to alienate ourselves to people who think they don’t like whiskey.
AS: So if you have a customer who says they don’t like whiskey, or is asking for an introduction to it, where do you start them off?
TT: It happens a lot and I love it when someone says that! My response is usually that the person just hasn’t found the right whiskey yet.
AS: It’s like a cat, it has to come to them.
TT: Exactly. And whiskey is probably the largest flavor profile of any of the spirits, much like wine, with a broad spectrum of flavors. Maybe whiskey even has a broader one. People might only have one experience with one type of whiskey and not realize how broad this experience can be. What I like to do is start people off with what I consider the more approachable whiskies. I start with one end of the spectrum and give them a selection that takes them to the other end. I might start with something soft, like Brenne, a French single malt made in the Cognac region. Or a light Irish whiskey like Knappogue Castle [Single Malt.] Triple distilled Irish whiskies are a great place to start. Sometimes people surprise me. Once they get to the end of the selection, they respond more to something like Lagavulin, and they like the smoky whiskies better.
AS: How do you handle the whole water vs. no water, ice vs. no ice scenario?
TT: The staff is very trained to serve whiskey however the customer wants to drink it. We’re not here to cast judgements. I can tell you how I like to drink it, but how someone else likes to drink it is up to them. If they want Coke on the side, let them have it. We recently had someone order a Balvenie 14 Yr Caribbean Cask with Coke...
AS: That might actually be good! That’s rum and Coke!
TT: Now that I’m saying that, it’s probably why they did it! (laughs.)
AS: Some people don’t understand the purpose of the water or the ice (or the Coke), how do you explain that to them?
TT: We always say they should try it neat, and give pointers on how to nose it, with your mouth open, etc. Then we ask them to try it with a little water to see how that feels. If they allow us to guide them that much, we love to sit down with them and really get them to try it different ways. Whiskey is a hobby and staff knowledge is important. We hope that customers walk away with a little more information than what they came in with.
AS: What trends in whiskey are you excited about?
TT: What gets me the most excited is that people are seeing it more as the diverse spirit that it is, and that’s really cool!
AS: Is there anything that has surprised you in its popularity with customers?
TT: Our Bottle Keep program [where customers buy a whole bottle that is kept in a special cabinet for them to drink from for future visits] and the diversity of whiskey they order. I have a lot of ideas, and well, not all of them are good... I saw this done in Japan, and wasn’t sure this could translate here, but wanted to try it. But they get it and gravitate towards it! The first day it was in practice we sold three bottles! I am also pleasantly surprised by the people who are seeking the bottles specifically because they aren’t as popular or mainstream. What gets me excited is seeing a product mix, and that people are trying different things. I love that! I had a customer come in and ordered a really rare, great dram, I think it was something quite old from Glenrothes, and sit at the bar by herself to drink it. I want to meet these people. I heard about that and thought, “I love her!”
AS: I think I love her too...
TT: Ha! So... and it’s not a perverse or creepy thing... I just want to have a dialogue with a person who orders something like that. I love people who come in by themselves and know how to order a badass drink!
AS: When you’re not here, where do you like to drink?
TT: I like Brandy Library a lot. I live downtown, and I think they do it right. I am really inspired by them... the staff knowledge is key there. I love that I can walk away with new information.
AS: So you like to go to a place that’s almost the same concept!
TT: Well, OK. I mean if I go anywhere else to have a drink, it’s much more relaxing because I’m not there to analyze what’s going on. We opened about six months ago, and frankly I don’t get to go out too much.
AS: Do you have a guilty pleasure drink?
TT: Yeah, and I don’t order it here, but when I was in Islay, I had a rare 30 year old cask of Laphroaig that I loved, and I didn’t buy it at the time, and had been kicking myself about it ever since. When I came back here, I had been trying to find it. I even had a picture I posted on the website to try and find it.
AS: Wow, like a lost kid on a carton of milk...
TT: Ha! Right. And then Robin Robinson from Compass Box got back to me and told me about the Sandy charity whiskey auction he was organizing [to raise money for those affected by the storm, held at Astor Center], asked me to donate something. So I did that, and I found it for sale there and I won that auction! Like angels sounded the alert! So now if I have a guilty pleasure, I take a sip from it, I’m back in Islay, and it’s worth every penny.
AS: That’s amazing! So your guilt is in having something that’s very precious!
AS: You’re not having it with Coke then.
TT: No. No Coke there. I’ll save that for the Balvenie.
The Flatiron Room
37 W. 26th St. 10010
New York, NY