The New Speakeasy: Cocktails in a Stranger’s Kitchen

The New Speakeasy: Cocktails in a Stranger’s Kitchen

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On a chilly Saturday night in late January, a handful of strangers huddled outside a townhouse on a quiet street in Bushwick. A small neon sign in its window, “Cocktails Here,” was the only indicator that they had come to the right place. Covert Cocktail Club, a modern, speakeasy-like experience, only accommodates 10 people per evening. Bookings, during which customers are given a date and time to show up and a vague address, sell out months in advance.

At 9 p.m., the front door of the townhouse opened and Matt Levy ushered his guests inside.

Mr. Levy, 38, mixes cocktails for strangers in his home, which he shares with his wife, Jennifer MacFarlane, 41, and their two young daughters. Guests sit around the couple’s kitchen table as Mr. Levy mixes cocktails from a rotating menu. A prix fixe of $80 will get you four drinks and some assorted snacks prepared by Ms. MacFarlane. Guests are also encouraged to bring their own booze if they want something specific; once, a guest from North Carolina brought her own bottle of house-infused lavender gin.

A couple in their mid-30s, Chris Donohoe and Wesley Loden, actually live down the street from Mr. Levy and Ms. MacFarlane. “We’ve always been so curious to come here,” Mr. Donohoe said. “We always see that sign and get jealous.” Mr. Loden was actually in the middle of doing “Dry January,” but when a reservation at the club opened up, he decided to shift his priorities.

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Once everyone was settled around the kitchen island, Mr. Levy handed his guests an aperitif — this evening, it was a rum pineapple Pimms punch — and introduced himself as the bartender and host. He looked the part in a gray short-sleeved button-up shirt, maroon chinos with a tropical palm tree print and a dark brown belt with an oversize Statue of Liberty buckle. His mustache even curled a little at the ends.

Mr. Levy has never bartended professionally. He has honed his technique by reading a lot of books. “I just really enjoy the performative aspect of all this,” Mr. Levy said. His official interest in cocktails was piqued when he observed a bartender in Tokyo cutting a giant ice cube. “I was mesmerized, and suddenly, I thought: I want to try this too!”

He became a “cocktail fanboy” and began experimenting at home. He spent years learning bartending techniques, memorizing recipes, figuring out how to hand-cut ice (he owns two ice saws from Japan) as well as how to set drinks on fire.

Mr. Levy designs all the cocktails, and sometimes take inspiration from local current events. In December, he created the “Astoria Borealis” after the power plant explosion in Queens turned the skies an eerie blue. The rum-based cocktail has blue Curaçao (for color) and banana liqueur (because, as Mr. Levy put it, the whole thing was “bananas”). Shaken and strained over crushed ice, the final flourish is a splash of Rum Fire, which Mr. Levy briefly sets on fire.

“It is so delicious,” Mr. Donohoe said after taking a sip. Mr. Levy will occasionally allow himself a drink with his guests but keeps it limited to two or three. “Otherwise I’ll get blind drunk and won’t be able to make cocktails,” he said.

The idea for a cocktail club in his kitchen came to him after the 2016 presidential election, when he thought people might appreciate a distraction. So he started an Instagram account and waited for cocktail enthusiasts to discover it. They did, but business was slow at first, with only about half a dozen bookings in three months. Mr. Levy was undaunted. He continued posting photos. Then Punch, the online food and drink magazine, posted an article about the club. It was booked solid for the entire summer.

Both Mr. Levy and Ms. MacFarlane regard the venture as their creative outlet. Mr. Levy, who has studied performance art and poetry, runs a company with his father, The Levy’s Unique New York!, which creates personalized tours for individuals and small groups. Ms. MacFarlane is a wedding photographer. “We are both very outgoing and social — we just love to host and entertain,” she said. “But we’re also New York hustlers, you know. We always need to be doing something different.”

That said, the couple prioritizes the social aspects of what they do over turning a profit, emphasizing that they are not running a business. “It is an informal intimate social gathering of friends, strangers, and friends of friends via word of mouth,” they wrote in an email. “We do no advertising whatsoever. And we do not have “open or closed times” — people just shoot us an email and we set it up.”

It almost seems as if the couple were destined to do something like this. Ms. MacFarlane’s great-grandparents were bootleggers in Prohibition-era New York. Her grandfather was a singing waiter in the West Village, who hung out with burlesque dancers. “I just remember our house always being full of these strange and wonderful people when I was growing up,” she said. “It feels nice to carry on that tradition. Sometimes my oldest daughter asks me, ‘Who are all those people downstairs?’”

Instagram and word-of-mouth from a community of “boozehounds,” as Mr. Levy calls them, keep the club hopping. Mr. Levy said that even professional bartenders have come calling. One bartender visiting from Ottawa had such a great time that he sent Mr. Levy a bottle of his homemade jerk-spiced bitters and a handwritten recipe book.

Mr. Levy originally wanted to curate the conversation between his guests to ease the awkwardness. He was adamant that they stay away from five topics in particular: work, real estate, children, the weather, and commuting horror stories. “But then I realized I can’t really tell people that they can’t talk about something,” he said. “That’s not exactly in the spirit of this whole thing.”

The couple decided to let the alcohol do most of the work.

Although a few ladies nights have gotten “a bit messy” at the club, it mostly plays host to first, second, or third dates. One couple visited on their third date; they returned six months later, and again a year and a half later. They’re now married. Mr. Levy estimates around 40 percent of the visitors are returning guests. For the most part, everyone is respectful. “Their expectations are managed by the experience — they know it’s our home, and that we have kids. We’re open about that. Sometimes if we’re too loud, I’ll shush everyone.”

Mr. Levy has no aspiration to own a bar. If anything, the club has turned him off the idea. “I’d definitely feel out of place behind a bar. This is much more fun,” he said, patting the kitchen bench. “I like putting strangers in a strange space together and seeing what happens.”

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