Manhattan, New York
Story by Liza Weisstuch
Here are the things you cannot get at Copper & Oak: a Manhattan, a Sazerac, a Boulevardier, or an Old Fashioned. Also, bourbon on the rocks. This is easily the only bar in Manhattan’s Lower East Side—maybe even the entire borough—with hundreds of whiskeys but no shaker, strainer, mixing spoon, or even ice cube in sight. This is a bar for purists, but it’s noticeably free of pretension. This bar is a paradox in the most gleeful, inviting way.
Copper & Oak is a sliver of space between a dry cleaner and a brick apartment building. A few storefronts down is a Latin restaurant. A nail salon is a little further along. You might walk right past the bar if you didn’t know it was there, but if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice from the sidewalk that the space seems to radiate an amber glow; it’s common to see passersby slow their pace and gaze into the broad front window. It’s also common for the individual to linger and attempt to guesstimate the number of bottles on shelves along all four walls of the slender rectangular room. (Spoiler alert: There are 1,300, give or take.)
The bar’s name, of course, is a nod to the keystones of whiskey-making, but it’s also a hint about the décor. A series of wood staves make up the undulating pattern of the lower walls. Nearly any metal accent—the foot rail, the very narrow bar tops, the ladder that moves along a high rail—is copper. There are exactly eight bar stools bolted to the floor. There are tables on the sidewalk made from gargantuan tree trunks that owner Flavien Desoblin and head bartender Tomo Matsushita cut down themselves in upstate New York. These guys are thorough.
Desoblin, who opened the acclaimed Brandy Library in the tony Tribeca neighborhood in 2004, introduced Copper & Oak on the hipper Lower East Side in 2016. (He also launched Spirits Network, an online entertainment, educational, and retail portal, in 2019.) Desoblin had watched for years as the public’s interest in whiskey grew, drawing younger, more diverse drinkers to Brandy Library and its whiskey classes. This second spot reflects that shift. If Brandy Library is the refined, sophisticated matriarch of the family, Copper & Oak is the granddaughter who’s well aware of her fine pedigree but leans into her artsy, indie, and all-around cool vibe.
“Once people discover whiskey, if they learn without pretense, you see their curiosity grow,” Desoblin said. To accommodate that curiosity, he offers one-ounce and two-ounce pours. (Brandy Library has only the two-ounce option.) “Fine spirits, like wine and cocktails, have become integral parts of social life and young people’s journeys of becoming adults in New York City. Just like you need to know how to manage money, you need to know bourbon from rye and Islay from Speyside. Little by little, people are asking; people are discovering.”
At Copper & Oak, that discovery is often credited to Matsushita, a no-nonsense yet warm bartender whose spirits knowledge is encyclopedic. There is a mere 17-inch space between the bar top and the wall of spirits, and he dashes back and forth—and climbs up and down—all night with athletic agility.
If the ceiling-high shelves inspire awe, seeing all the offerings listed on the menu might generate some degree of intimidation even in a seasoned drinker. There are 25 pages dedicated to whiskey alone. Proof, age, wood type, batch number/special-release notes, and vintage are all listed. It’s a lot of text. This is a good moment to note that while whiskey from all corners of the world dominates the shelves, rum, tequila, mezcal, Armagnac, Cognac, and Calvados round out the collection.
Matsushita is an expert guide in all the categories. Tell him where your preferences lie, and he’ll match them. On a recent visit, I watched him work his magic. A young woman told him she likes Boulevardiers, and he reached for Hillrock Sauternes Cask Finished Solera Aged Bourbon to fill that appetite for ruby sweetness. I saw him pour an old Cognac—all leathery and rancio, that enigmatic flavor of musty brightness—for a self-proclaimed “bourbon freak.” Then I watched the customer sip it, pause, and smile, mystified. His adventure was beginning.