Meet the bartender behind New York’s new Hanukkah cocktail bar

(Jewish week in New York) – During the so-called “winter holiday season,” the Christmas cheer takes center stage while Hanukkah is relegated to tied-up end caps in grocery stores (if any).

This has long angered Naomi Levy, a 36-year-old Jewish bartender who lives in Boston. There, as in New York, Christmas-themed pop-up bars are popping up all over the city – Levy felt like a “tourist”, she said in her hometown.

But rather than whitewash the situation, Levy took action: In 2018, she opened Maccabee Bar, a Hanukkah pop-up in Boston. Now in its fifth year, the cocktail bar, open only in December, serves drinks like the latke sour (apple brandy, potato, lemon, egg white, bitters) and an Everything Bagel martini (“everything” spiced gin, tomato water, dill, vermouth), as well as Jewish and Hanukkah-related small bites like latkes, sufganiyot, and bamba.

And now, for the first time, Maccabee Bar is expanding to New York, where it’s hosted by Ollie, a West Village bar. from December 13th to 31st.

Levy had hoped to bring Maccabee Bar to New York in 2020, but that was delayed. “I honestly can’t believe no one has done this before me in New York,” Levy told New York Jewish Week.

To become the Maccabee Bar, Ollie will be covered in blue and white Hanukkah lights and decorations. “This is going crazy,” Levy said. “I prepared myself mentally. I definitely encourage reservations.”

Ahead of the Manhattan Maccabee Bar opening, New York Jewish Week caught up with Levy to talk about what inspired her, how she expanded, and what exactly it means to create a Hanukkah cocktail.

This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Levy was named “Best Bartender” by Boston Magazine in 2019. (Ezra Pollard)

New York Jewish Week: What Was the Inspiration for Starting a Hanukkah-Themed Bar?

Naomi Levy: I really love the holiday season and have run a bar in Boston called the Eastern Standard for many, many years. We were open all the time, so I worked every Christmas. I’ve always loved the Christmas spirit and started seeing a lot more of these Christmas themed bars popping up. But as much as I love all the celebrations this time of year, I also feel a lot like a tourist for not celebrating Christmas. I wondered what would happen if I created a pop-up bar dedicated entirely to Hanukkah. Luckily I had just opened in a new bar and the owner was open to trying things. We tried it and it was absolutely amazing. The turnout was amazing. People were so excited – I’ve never been called a “human” for making a cocktail. I realized, “Oh my god, this year I wasn’t the only one who had that feeling.” There’s a group of people who are underrepresented and would like to feel like they’re just as immersed in this festive time of the year as everyone else. It’s been really exciting to see it growing and just being able to bring my culture and some fun to the community.

After four years in Boston, how was the process of opening a pop-up in New York and how did you make the leap?

I had reached out to a couple of friends in New York. What really got me excited about Ollie is that I have a former employee from Boston who moved to New York and now works at Ollie. He’s worked at a few Maccabee bars in Boston. It’s good to have someone working there who’s been through it and understands what they’re getting into and things like that. He put me through to the owner and they really loved it. It’s just so much more helpful that I have someone there who knows what’s going to happen.

What are you most excited about bringing the energy of Maccabee Bar to New York?

I’m just really hoping to provide a place for people to party and not in the same way that they already have access to.

We’re starting with one location in New York, but we have two locations in Boston because the demand was just so great. We now have Maccabee regulars [in Boston]. Last year I had a client who said, “My mom told me to come over there!” I just thought, how cool is it that we’re a bar that your mom tells you to go to?

Tell me a little bit about the cocktails and how you make them with the Hanukkah theme.

My cocktail style is generally quite culinary. I tend to get inspiration from foods and food flavors, which is perfect for a Hanukkah meal as there are so many delicious foods we eat. The Latke Sour is obviously inspired by latkes. Then we have the Hebrew hammer inspired by sufganiyot. We make a soured sugar that’s basically a simple yeast syrup to give you the yeasty feel of a donut, but it’s actually a really nice dry sour cocktail.

It is also very important to me to also present flavors from different aspects of the Jewish diaspora. I’m Ashkenazi but it’s really important to me to showcase Sephardic flavors as well. So we have a drink, that is Ocho Candelika, that’s actually the name of a song in Ladino that’s all about the celebration of oil. So we make an olive oil infused gin with some honey, almond, apricot and lemon for some of those more classic Spanish and Sephardic flavors. This year there is a drink inspired by the Ethiopian Sanbat Wat [a spicy chicken stew typically made on Shabbat] with berbere spice in it.

Then there’s all sorts of fun stuff, from a hot drink with a syrup somehow inspired by Zimmes to a flip inspired by Rugelach. So there will be both very, very Hanukkah-related things, but also just some broader Jewish flavors.

The Maccabee Bar will be located at Ollie, 64 Downing Street from Tuesday 13th December to Saturday 31st December. See below for details and reservations Maccabee Bar website.