Al’s has some 820 different bottles of spirits arrayed on a towering wall of shelves reached via rolling library ladder.
Do I need to write more? Yes? OK, then:
Al’s is on South Clinton Street in downtown Syracuse, part of a row that’s lined with beer and shot joints of the sort that attracts college students like flies to simple syrup. You can get a $1.50 Jack and coke across the street. But Al’s is classier, and has a solid, durable, and masculine feel to it, like an old-time saloon, with high ceilings and a little neon, but without getting all cute about it. You get the feeling Al’s could take a punch then come up smiling.
Al’s has a long and stout bar that makes for a manly place to hang out, and it’s got seating areas fore and aft of the bar with those durable leather couches that look like the distant cousins of catcher’s mitts. They appear as if they could take a punch, too. Up front there’s an 8-foot projection screen, making Al’s a good place to catch a game. A manly game. Note: not soccer. When I left, someone was setting up for a weekly trivia game. I didn’t stick around to find out if the questions were manly questions or if the loser got punched in the face.
About the spirits: there are a lot of them. Did I mention there are about 820 different varieties? That’s what Jim the bartender told me, and a quick scan of the shelves gave me little reason to doubt his claim. This includes 100+ American whiskeys, and about 80+ scotches. It’s a fine selection, and had I the time I would have enjoyed working my way through some very excellent whiskies, including Elmer T. Lee, Basil Hayden, WhistlePig, and Tuthilltown. He reported that he moves a lot of Smooth Ambler Old Scout, which is indeed a fine bourbon. He does this through hand-selling, he said, and I like a place that takes the time to highlight the little-known good stuff. Jim said that if a distiller or distributor stops by with a bottle, and they like the way it tastes, they’ll find room for it on the shelf.
I ordered a Manhattan, part of my long term Manhattan project to assess the current state of this historic cocktail. More on this later. Jim asked for my bourbon preference (they also have a whole lot of ryes) and suggested Redemption High-Rye Bourbon from Indiana. He built it in a rocks glass, without first mixing it in a glass or tin. It was capped with Gary Regan’s Orange Bitters (good), but the first sip tasted mostly of bitters since it hadn’t been subjected to much too-and-fro (bad). And it was served over sloppy crescent ice with a bright red cherry (meh). It was also lighter on vermouth than I’d like. Overall, I’d give it B-.
Food here is strictly college fare — chicken nachos, buffalo chicken wraps, that sort of thing — but reasonably cheap ($5 to $8) and offers ballast where ballast is called for. It’s open until 2am, and you can order eats until 1:45am, which is essentially a public service.
Also, it’s just a few blocks from the freakishly interesting Niagara Mohawk Building (right). Which means that after you’ve had a few drams, you can wander down and repetedly shout “Surrender Dorothy!” and make jokes about flying monkeys. Don’t dismiss this as a stupid frat boy activity until you’ve tried it.
I Googled around to see if there was a fancy cocktail lounge in Syracuse, but didn’t turn anything up. If anyone has suggestions, let me know.
If not, that’s OK. I’d be happy to wander back into Al’s next time I’m in town, and try some more whiskey.
321 South Clinton Street Syracuse, NY 13202; (315) 703-4773; alswineandwhiskey.com