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Williamsburg hardly leaves you wanting for liquid craft of any kind. The neighborhood is awash in bespoke cocktails, local liquors, and microbrews of every conceivable variation. Yet, against all odds, when Bill Baker’s (364 Grand Street, Brooklyn; 718-734-8890) opened earlier this month in the shadows of the BQE, the ambitious new gastropub revealed a niche they intend to fill: beer cocktails.
In addition to a rotating selection of four house-made session ales, their menu is sprinkled with a half-dozen spirits-based drinks, each topped with its own style of suds. Ms. Ellen’s Blackberry Bourbon, a fruit-charged whiskey smash incorporating a Belgian sour into its body, is tasty enough to earn praise as our “beer” of the week. And now for something completely different…
Because of its carbonation, beer must be treated like soda water when introduced into a mixed beverage. That means pouring it over the top to avoid agitating those baby bubbles, preserving a refreshing spritz in every sip. Even more challenging, however, is landing on the right flavors. Craft beer typically avoids blandness — one of the many reasons we cherish it so. But that also makes it trickier to shack up with proper suitors. Beverage director Mark Romano is a beer guy — he lives and breathes every style, old-world and new-. He worked closely with the head bartender to arrive at the optimal brew to float atop each of their $12 cocktails.
Some pairings are obvious: The coriander and orange notes of their house-made wit, for example, are a natural fit for a whiskey-sour send-up. In the case of the Ms. Ellen’s, though, it requires a sophisticated tongue — not to mention a brave bar staff — to support the marriage of muddled mint and bourbon with Cuvée des Jacobins, a dependable Flemish-style red ale. The common ground is found in the blackberry, bridging the caramel sweetness of Bulleit bourbon with the tart notes of the beer. It really ties the whole thing together.
Romano also oversees the balanced house brews offered at Bill Baker’s. The early standout is a light-bodied porter, crafted over a generous allotment of Madagascar vanilla beans. It only hints at sweetness, bringing more of a crisp refreshment than most folks associate with this particular style; a dark beer for light-beer drinkers. Like all of the beers made here, it hovers at around 5.5 percent alcohol.
And while you’re at the bar, don’t forget to snag a few unique pub snacks. The addictive sriracha- and butter-blasted popcorn is served gratis when you order drinks, so you’d be foolish to avoid it. But seek out the house-made chicken liver pâté; it’s savory and unctuous, and it tangoes gracefully with Ms. Ellen’s defining characteristics of sweet and sour. Nothing on the food menu is north of $15, and the sixteen beers on tap average $6 a pint. Beyond the beer cocktails, Bill Baker’s apparently wants to introduce Williamsburg to another forgotten concept: affordability.