Drinking Brooklyn: The Red Hook Criterium Cocktail at Fort Defiance

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Photo by Jane Bruce

Sorry to burst your bubble, but the inventor of the Brooklyn cocktail was a guy who lived in Hoboken and worked in Manhattan, and it never took off after he published the recipe in 1908. The Brooklyn, similar to a Manhattan but with dry vermouth instead of sweet (plus amaro and maraschino), was only recently accepted as a classic when the borough-of-the-moment became a popular place to open cocktail bars. But what about all those other drinks named after our fair borough? Don’t they deserve their own write-up? Well, maybe not all of them do, but there are some solid, and solidly named, drinks out there that deserve a shout-out. In this series, we explore drinks named after Brooklyn and its many neighborhoods, expanding the cocktail canon of boozy Brooklynites everywhere. Next up: The Red Hook Criterium cocktail at Fort Defiance.

St. John Frizell says he doesn’t know everyone in Red Hook, but as we sit on a bench outside his restaurant, Fort Defiance, he greets almost every person who passes by. With limited bus routes and no subway stations, Red Hook is arguably the most isolated Brooklyn neighborhood. For locals, it’s like living the island life inside New York City limits.

When Frizell moved here in 2002, he says, the neighborhood had more grit than it does now, and it still retains some of that characteristic edge. The isolated grittiness is a source of pride in Red Hook, as is the common practice of new businesses integrating into the community rather than moving in on top of it, as is happening in other neighborhoods. Frizell lived in the neighborhood for seven years before he opened Fort Defiance. Though there were great bars in the area, he says, “there was nowhere you could take your mom for a nice glass of wine.” Few bars had cocktail programs at the time, and there wasn’t much great coffee in the neighborhood, either. So Frizell took it upon himself to tackle all three, serving “nice drinks, where you can drop in anytime of day to get something nice to eat and something nice to drink.”

For such a simple philosophy, Fort Defiance has a wilder feel to it. With oilcloth tablecloths, leather chairs, and a handful of historical and kitschy decor, such as the cocktail shaker kept behind glass like it’s a museum piece (which it is, as it once belonged to Charles H. Baker, Jr., author of a 1939 book on cocktails, food, and travel and the subject of Frizell’s endless fascination), the restaurant feels more like a cross between a Cuban cigar lounge and casual coffee cafe, with a tiki twist. Even from a short meeting, it seemed that the place is an embodiment of Frizell himself–influenced by history, relaxed but intentional, and amiable, with an understated humor that immediately puts you at ease.

When he first opened the place, Frizell decided that, “If you’re making fancy drinks in South Brooklyn, you should have a tough name.” Fort Defiance was named for the Revolutionary War fort on Red Hook Point that allegedly saved General Washington’s life. “The short story is that Washington and the Colonial Army were outnumbered and outmanned and outgunned, and they got their asses kicked,” tells Frizell. But the fort, equipped with only four cannons, stymied the British warships from entering the East River, giving General Washington’s troops enough time to escape to Manhattan in the middle of the night. “I like to play up the fact that [the fort] possibly saved the whole goddamn thing,” says Frizell. “It’s weird to think about, that world events can turn on very small things like that. On individual people making decisions at the right time.”

The Red Hook Criterium, a brunch drink on the Fort Defiance menu, was a decision Frizell made at the right time. It was named after a Red Hook bike race that happens every spring. As Frizell remembers: “In the early days of the Criterium, it was a completely unsanctioned, unapproved race. These guys would run on the cobblestone streets before the Ikea was built, around Lillie’s bar and that whole neck of the woods over there. In those races, they would wreck a lot because they were racing these tiny tired bikes on cobblestones.” Now, the race brings thousands of people into Red Hook from all over the world. The race has even expanded to Europe — there’s a Red Hook Criterium in Milan, London, and Barcelona. “It’s the most exciting event in Red Hook since Sir Thomas Lipton docked the Shamrock II in the Erie Basin in 1899. For 100 years, we didn’t see many sporting events here, except maybe some dockside fights, you know? So I think it’s great that we are home to a very exciting sporting event now.”

When Frizell came up with the namesake drink, it was the first year the race was in Milan. The same year, Rabarbaro Zucca, a Milanese amaro similar to Campari, was released in the U.S. Sweeter and spicier than Campari, Rabarbaro Zucca has more of a citrus-zest bitterness that pairs well with light juices and soda water. Frizell mixes it with grapefruit juice, a little sugar, lemon, and gin, a combination that balances the amaro’s spice with the grapefruit’s tart in a bittersweet, lightly alcoholic fizz. Frizell created this drink to connect the international element of the race to his own neighborhood. “As it’s grown I feel like there’s an affinity between the race and Italian biking culture,” he says. “Really, I was just excited that this very local thing had grown into something international, which was a big jump. Of course, it has its own gritty Red Hook, Brooklyn spin to it, which makes it even better.”

Fort Defiance, 365 Van Brunt Street; Red Hook

Previously: The Barrel-Aged Bushwick Cocktail
The Brooklyn Bloody Knuckles Cocktail

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