Over the past three and a half years, husband-and-wife duo Jennifer Lim and Ben Sandler have built the Queens Kickshaw — their beer bar, restaurant, and coffeeshop in Astoria — into a must-visit for this city’s cider fiends and cider-curious. The list has grown as their obsession has deepened, and it now features dozens of selections, a showcase of some of the most interesting ciders being made in this country in addition to pours from France, Spain, Germany, and the U.K.
As they’ve learned the industry, they’ve become leaders in the cider movement here in NYC, and they’ll cement that position further in the coming months: They’ve landed a Lower East Side liquor license and lease, and they’re planning to use it to open Wassail (162 Orchard Street), the city’s first cider restaurant and bar.
The pair discovered their love for cider via a Hudson Valley Cider Week event early on in their first restaurant’s tenure. “The organizers invited a bunch of French and American cider-makers to pour in this gigantic barn,” says Lim. “We went to taste, and it was eye-opening. We didn’t know that ciders could taste so different. It really drove home the idea of terroir, and putting good fruit on the forefront of good cider.”
Back at the Kickshaw, they began searching for all the cider they could get their hands on, which, at the time, wasn’t much. “The distribution network was not there,” says Sandler. “We wanted to feature more, but it was really difficult to get more cider to New York.”
With New York’s massive apple industry, though, there’s been a boom in cider-making over the past few years, and now, says Sandler, “American cider has an incredible range.” The Kickshaw’s list has grown to 35 selections, fueled in part by an increased demand for the drink. But they’re now tapped out — Lim says they can’t really bring on more cider in Astoria because they simply don’t have the storage; the place is still a beer bar, after all.
At Wassail, the couple will be able to expand. Cider will be the focus of the beverage program, and the list will feature ciders from major cider-growing regions, including Spain, France, the U.K., and, of course, the U.S. The couple will also look for rare bottlings from areas with rich cider traditions — Sandler cites Ireland and Germany as examples — and they’ll focus on turning the tide on the American perception that cider is a sweet, fizzy, mass-produced beverage by serving well-crafted pours from good producers. Cocktails will feature apple- and pear-based spirits, like Calvados, apple brandy, and pear eau de vie, though Lim says they’ll be subtly integrated so as to not hit patrons over the head with the apple theme.
And via this venture, Lim and Sandler hope to bring drinkers on the same journey they made in discovering cider. “We’re really excited about raising public awareness about cider being an agricultural product and a food-friendly product,” says Sandler. “We’ll do food pairings, educational events, and seminars around cider so people can learn.” And they’ll hold some of those classes in the semi-private room they’re building in the back of the space.
“The educational component is something that’s pretty exciting for us,” adds Lim. “There’s a term being thrown around — pommelier. There aren’t a lot of people in New York City who truly know about cider and also work as beverage directors. The Cider Week New York mission is to provide resources to beverage directors to grow and expand cider menus to support the industry. We’ll be able to provide resources on a regular basis to the public and to professionals who can help with the growth of the industry.”
The food menu at Wassail will be designed to match the drinks, and it’ll include dishes cooked with cider, apples, pears, or apple- or pear-based spirits, as well as culinary traditions of cider regions. “Without banging people over the head, we’ll have Spanish food to go with Spanish cider, and French food to go with French cider, but it will be more creatively woven together,” says Sandler.
The duo picked up Lower East Side real estate for their venture because they have a strong connection to the area: Sandler’s great-grandfather landed on Orchard Street one block from Wassail when he first came to New York in the 1880s, and the couple lived in the neighborhood when they moved to the city. And, says Sandler, “The Lower East Side is becoming an incredible culinary scene. It has a really young vibrant energy, and an openness to new things. It feels like the right place for a cider bar.”
Lim and Sandler have set a tentative opening date of January.