Mixing It Up

Belle Shoals’ Jim Palumbo on Brooklyn’s Finest Bars and New York Cocktail Culture

Belle Shoals’ Jim Palumbo spills on his winning drink, the “Back That Thing Up ” and the best bars in Brooklyn for bar-hopping with locals.(Photos:courtesy Marriott Hotels)

Making the transition from traveling musician to bartender was an easy one for Jim Palumbo. He sees both as performance art.

Palumbo showed off just what that means when he gave an award-winning performance at the finale for Marriott Hotels’ Bourbon Battle, held at the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge, where he won top honors with a cocktail called “Back That Thing Up.”

The inventive bar manager of Williamsburg’s Belle Shoals spills the details about New York’s progressive bar scene, his favorite places to sip and why the best place the grab a drink is on a Brooklyn rooftop.

What inspired your award-winning “Back That Thing Up” cocktail? What did the judges like about it?

Well, the final round was a secret ingredient round and the curveball in my cocktail was the anise-rosemary syrup. Because this was a bourbon competition, I immediately started thinking about my favorite classic drinks and what I could do to play off them. Right away, the “Seelbach” came to mind. It’s made with bourbon, curacao, bitters and sparkling wine. I felt like after a “Manhattan” and an “Old-Fashioned,” the judges could probably use something a bit lighter.

The cocktail already calls for Peychaud’s Bitters which has almost an anise flavor, so that worked with the syrup. We had Cocchi Rosa, which I used to supplant the curacao, a dash of port wine to bolster and round out the whiskey, and a grapefruit twist for aroma.

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Palumbo’s “Back That Thing Up.”

How did you come up with the name? Is it currently on Belle Shoals’ cocktail menu?

As far as the cocktail’s name goes … I’m just one of those guys whose a sucker for a bad pun and if it’s not cringe-worthy, then it’s not a good. We don’t have the secret ingredient at Belle Shoals, and although it’s not on our menu, it’s stylistically something I’d serve someone if that makes sense.

Back That Thing Up Recipe

  • .5 oz. – Maker’s Mark
  • .5 oz. – Woodford Reserve
  • .5 oz. – Cocchi Americano Rosa
  • .25 oz. – Tawny Port Wine
  • .25 oz. – Anise and Rosemary syrup (secret ingredient)
  • 2 dashes – Peychaud and Angostura Bitters

**top with champagne, garnish with cherry

Are you a native New Yorker?

No, I was born and raised a Tar Heel. Six years ago, I left North Carolina to move to the city. And up until a few months ago, I was a Brooklyn kid all the way, but I just moved into an apartment in the Lower East Side. I don’t know what that does to my street cred, but it’s been nice to walk the (Brooklyn) Bridge everyday to work. I never get tired of that view.

How would you describe the New York City’s cocktail scene?

The cocktail scene in the NYC area is unparalleled. There’s just so many amazingly, talented people working at dozens of superb bars that it can be dizzying. The trends are always changing, but I think because of the high level of competition, it forces all of us to really try to think outside of the box and do things that are different to stand out.

Are there any big trends at the moment?

I don’t think we really focus on trends here. I think the way you end up becoming known as a city that’s a trendsetter is by not paying attention to trends. The real key is to focus on taking care of your guests and believe in your own brand of hospitality and that will define how you serve people.

However, I will say that there has been a gravitational shift towards making cocktails in a less-stuffy manner. I think the biggest trend has been to demystify the cocktail world and focus on making high-quality drinks in a fun, loose, friendly environment. A lot of my favorite bars that are doing great things here have move away from a clandestine, secretive cocktail culture to something that’s more open, causal and fun … the way cocktails should be.

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Palumbo (center) mixing it up with fellow Bourbon Battle competitors.

If you could create an official drink for your New York City, what would it be?

I think we already have a few local cocktails to represent the city, including the “Brooklyn,” “Bronx” and “Manhattan” cocktails. The unifying factors here are definitely strong, whiskey-based drinks for mature palates, which is perfect for a city that can be both rough and refined. Lets face it … this city is a playground for the big kids.

I came up with the “Northside” cocktail – that we serve at Belle Shoals – which is a nod to Williamsburg and the name of the local car service before Uber came along. Its ingredients include Reyka Vodka, Brennivin Aquavit, dry curacao with a cucumber and lime.

Is there a there a popular cocktail everyone should try before leaving Williamsburg or New York City?

I’ve never felt a cocktail was anything more than just part of the overall bar experience. So, there’s not a cocktail that I would say is a “can’t miss,” but there are plenty of bars that one would be foolish to pass on. They include Amor y Amargo, Attaboy, The Dead Rabbit, Death & Co., but my personal favorite is the Up & Up. Get the head bartender, Chaim Dauermann, make you a “Screen Door Slam” and ask him his opinion on Pearl Jam and cheeseburgers. You’ll thank me when you do!

Besides Belle Shoals, what are your favorite places to pick up the perfect bourbon cocktail and mingle with the locals?

Other than Belle, it’s got to be Holiday Cocktail Lounge! You run a very high risk of finding half of the NYC bartender community there at 2 a.m., singing along to the music on the speakers and letting loose the only way bartenders know how. Come to think of it … this is a “can’t miss” bar.

Other than New York City, what cities have impressed you with their bourbon? Why?

Portland’s got the Multnomah Whiskey Library. There’s also Jack Rose down in DC. Brooklyn has Noorman’s Kil. You could literally get lost in their whiskey selections.

But there was just something magical about drinking whiskey straight from the barrel down in Kentucky. I know that’s not a city, but fly into Louisville. Catch a rock show at the Haymarket Whiskey Bar and do the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. You’ve got to go to the source if you want the good stuff.

What cities have impressed you with their bar scene? Why? Are there any bars that you’d recommend?

I love Portland. It’s just a really cool city that has several awesome, award-winning cocktail bars. One second, you’re in a dive bar, the next, you’re staring at walls lined with one of the largest bottle selections in the country (referring to the Multnomah Whiskey Library). One minute, you’re at Pepe Le Moko and the next you’re at Bit House Saloon – a gorgeous, but not pretentious bar that serves amazingly executed cocktails. And if you don’t end your night at Sassy’s, then you’re failing at life.

What advice would you give to a first-time bourbon drinker?

Give it a moment. That was the advice that was given to me when I really sat down and gave bourbon a chance. My friend poured me a glass of Maker’s on the rocks and taught me how to sip on a whiskey, chew it around and really taste all of its flavor. Really sit back and sip it. There’s no finish line at the end of that race.

What is a must-see for first-time visitors to Williamsburg? Where do you have to go?

Williamsburg is all about finding a friend’s rooftop with a grill. Say what you will about Manhattan, but it’s hard to see how amazing it is when you’re there or in it. That skyline view from Williamsburg is “sick”!

Williamsburg is a great neighborhood to walk around. It’s super easy to bar hop and we’ve got some awesome spots. Of course, I’m going to plug my bar. But other than Belle Shoals, there’s Maison Premiere, Extra Fancy, Dram, Donna and so many others that are just killer spots to have a drink and soak up the neighborhood vibe. When you’re done with that … go find that rooftop and watch the sun go down on the city.