Greg Boehm Talks Japanese Barware, Prohibition Style Overload & New York’s Illicit Booze Underground


Fork in the Road’s weekly Behind the Bar interview usually features a bartender, sommelier or self-professed (eye roll) mixologiste. But many a craft bartender in the city would be hard pressed to do their job without the services of one Greg Boehm. As the founder of Cocktail Kingdom, he peddles rare and antique barware online, and through his other company, Mud Puddle Books, publishes and reprints new and very old cocktail tomes. His office is a working library for serious bartenders and cocktail geeks. And, for those seeking out potables that are unavailable or (gasp!) illegal, he is the gatekeeper to the city’s booze underground.

Tell me about your two businesses.

Mud Puddle is one of the largest publishers of books about cocktails. We do reproductions of antique cocktail books and we publish modern cocktail books. At Cocktail Kingdom, we sell high-end barware, much of it from Japan, Europe, and the U.K. And we sell bitters.

I’ve heard you also provide people with certain illicit spirits and liqueurs.

It’s certainly not on our website. But there are ways to get ahold of certain things that are unavailable here. In more the friends-getting-together-and-sharing-what-they-found way.

How did you get started?

My family started publishing cocktail books about 12 years ago (before this company existed). It was a tiny percentage of what we did and was never the focus of the business. One of the first cocktail books we published was by Salvatore Calabrese. I got to know him quite well and he was was my original entree into the cocktail world.

Who makes up the bulk of your customers?

We sell a lot to cocktail bars, truly globally. And then, of course, cocktail geeks. It’s pretty much 50-50.

Are there many cocktail bars using unavailable or illegal liqueurs in their drinks?

Only at the absolute upper echelon. And there are different levels of “not available.” There’s “not available in your state” and there’s “not available in your country.” Then, there’s “not legal.” Bars shy away from putting the not-legal stuff on the menu. But not-available-in-your-state: Resourceful bartenders will find that stuff. Not-available-in-your-country is cost prohibitive to put on the menu if you’re having it specially brought over.

What are some of the more coveted illicit spirits and liqueurs?

One of the ultimates is Havana Club and other Cuban rums, because they’re not legal here. The forbidden fruit’s always sweeter. Other things, pretty fun things, are only available in other states. So, people from other states will send you stuff and you’ll send them something from here.

People went nuts for the return of Creme de Violette, then once it arrived, it seemed like we stopped hearing about it. What’s up with that?

Some of these specific liqueurs are tasty, but not very versatile. Creme de Violette is a perfect example of one of those things that everybody wanted until they had it, and realized they didn’t need it. Other than the Aviation — which is extremely popular as one of those secret handshake drinks cocktail geeks order to show they know what they’re doing — [it doesn’t go into that many drinks]. Suze and Amer Picon are other ones. This stuff is available here, but you just can’t find it in a liquor store. If you know who to ask, you can get it. There is a booze underground.

I like the sound of that.

Even within the circles of bartenders and cocktail geeks, it’s not that widely known.

What sort of drink trends are you seeing lately?

Tiki is certainly having some influence around the United States, which I think has been pretty interesting. Although, a lot of people hide from the name and try to come with terms like “tropical drinks” when it’s really all tiki.

Are there any trends you’re sick of?

In New York specifically, I’m tiring of the lack of diversity in cocktails and how everything is pre-Prohibition, dark and stirred — which, by the way, is my favorite style of drink. But I still would like to see more diversity.

Where you like to drink?

I go to Death and Company the most, I’d say. Last night, I was at Pio Pio for Pisco cocktails, which I thought was excellent. I go out a lot, so I try different places. I do bar visits all over the world. I was just out drinking in London, going back to Tokyo next month. I do guest lecturing spots on the history of cocktail books and the history of practical barware throughout the world, as well.

What is the barware toy du jour?

The Japanese mixing glasses that we’ve brought in are such a huge step up from just mixing in a pint glass, both aesthetically and they’re more functional. They have a wider base, they’re much more stable, and they have a slightly larger volume. The most popular one is the Yarai at $38. And bar spoons.

Do you think you’re driving the vintage cocktail book market up?

The prices are definitely higher. It’s really a global bartender-cocktail geek dialogue that brings all these books into people’s consciousness. People who didn’t even know they existed got their hands on one or two — that was kind of the starter drug — then the cocktail book buzz is originals. Especially the really attractive books, people want them for information but also as furniture. I’ll mention a specific book — or Dave Wondrich will — in a lecture and all of a sudden it’ll come up on eBay and sell for $2,000. With barware, as well. I collect practical, antique barware that was actually used in commercial bars. Not decorative barware. I’ll mention it and next thing you know, it’s on eBay for hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

Do you ever see those pieces out in bars in New York?

Nobody really has antique barware. I was just at Dram in Brooklyn that just opened and they were using antique glassware, which is really nice. Not for every customer, but some people who have a special interest. And you see some the Japanese barware in the top cocktail bars in New York.

Have you ever wanted to cross over the bar to work behind it?

I think everybody who’s a real cocktail geek thinks about it, dreams about it. And is intimidated by it. My office is a working library of antique cocktail books, so I spend a lot of time with bartenders. So, yeah, I do think about it.