On Their Own Terms: A Reflection on The Whiskey Ward

In the Spring of 2014, I was a graduate student at Fordham studying Medieval History. I had shifted my career vision from a biochemistry to history mid-stream in undergrad, and now had dreams of pursuing a Ph.D. and becoming a professor.

Nothing quite goes to plan, and a decade later I’ve found my calling as a nonprofit fundraiser. At that time, though, I had friends throughout multiple overlapping departments; two from Classics invited me down to some place on the Lower East Side called The Whiskey Ward for some drinks.

I wasn’t much of a drinker (hell, I had been told I needed to start if I wanted to make it through grad school; I resisted). I enjoyed wine occasionally and a mixed drink, but nothing more than that. Wild Turkey 101 was too spicy for me. It seemed a preternaturally high tolerance would be going to waste.

Since I had no foundation on which to start my whiskey journey, my friends chose a place with a wide selection of whiskies from all over the world. In goading me on, they said “you can get 1 ounce flights of anything on the boards, from the most basic to the most expensive.” Intrigued, I said yes.

And thus, a whiskey journey was born. Today I’m fortunate to host a podcast, write reviews of whiskies and other spirits, and meet people throughout the industry (and those who are industry adjacent). None of this would have happened but for that first visit to the Ward.

Riding the Metro-North and the subway back and forth between The Bronx (later Queens) and the Lower East Side, I went on to taste upwards of 300 different whiskies over the years. Flight by flight, sometimes glass by glass, I was determined to try everything on their shelves. I went so far as to print out their entire list and mark off what I had tasted already and planning (by set of three, no less) what I would try next.

Bottles come and go, and I never did complete the full list. I do, however, hold the distinction of getting the most samples from the Whiskey Ward during COVID, and I’m perversely proud of that honor. Once COVID restrictions were lowered enough, my first trip to a bar in two years was to the Ward. Over nearly 10 years, it had become more than just one of the only three bars I recommended to people visiting; it was my whiskey home, the place where my journey started, the place where this hobby and passion were ignited and fueled.

Then, On August 10th, 2023, an announcement came across my social media feeds: The Whiskey Ward was closing after 24 years, with a final day of September 15th.

My initial reaction was a gut punch. So many bars and restaurants had closed during COVID and the myriad vicissitudes of a capricious food and beverage scene in NYC. The Whiskey Ward survived all of that, just to close? It’s not an overstatement to say I grieved. I skipped the denial and anger stages and went right to bargaining: how many times could I visit before they closed the doors? Was it possible someone would swoop in to buy it from Joe and Sandee? How many friends could I still bring there, knowing it was likely to be their only visit?

Finally, acceptance came in the form of a text from owner Joe Maritato. I had reached out, bemoaning the impending loss, and asking the same question everyone else did: why?

Unlike so many of those bars and restaurants that didn’t survive, there was no Damoclean rent increase hanging over the mantle, no loss of customers severe enough, and no new player coming in to push them out. It was simply time, Joe said, time to stop worrying about the 4 AM phone calls, dealing with distributors and finding enough product to sell to consumers, worrying that the tenant above them would set the building on fire (fun fact: on the first visit I made post-announcement, there were fire trucks outside the building!). Joe had run bars and pubs for decades, the Whiskey Ward for nearly 25 years.

Joe and the Ward had the chance to do something so rare: to go out on their own terms, beloved for the history, missed by the community, and appreciated for the memories.

Grief gave way to nostalgia. I thought back to that first visit on a cold April night in 2014, trying a flight of Woodford Reserve, Bulleit 10-Year-Old Reserve, and a third pour that has faded with age. I thought about going out the next day to buy a bottle of the Bulleit, my favorite of the three that evening. I thought about where each of us has gone in the intervening years: one moving to Texas and leaving the academic grind, one finishing their Ph.D. while starting a family, and me working for nonprofits by day and indulging in whiskey knowledge by night.

Visiting the Ward, the nostalgia intensified: I looked around at the still equipment above the seats once surrounded by empty-yet-precious bottles, and the tables that once were barrel tops. The pool table that saw a mix of bankers, bikers, and random community members gather around to call their shots. The windows with frosted text that was sometimes so hard to see that I passed by the place multiple times despite knowing exactly where it was.

I thanked Joe profusely upon entering and asked for some last recommendations from a gradually shrinking inventory: a cask strength Signatory Craigellachie, Foursquare Sovereignty, and a Japanese whisky I hadn’t tried yet were among the selections. As he set the Glencairns in front of me with the bottles – a custom so pictures were easy to take – he retreated to the other end of the bar, falling into conversation with another longtime patron. Through the occasional interruption for another beer, another pour, a quick mixed drink, he seemed calm and at ease, his barely-creased face smoothing even more as he worked and only crinkling to smile at the next guest and offer a warm welcome.

My wife saw my eyes misting as we got ready to go, telling me that we could stay as long as I wanted. Joe had already left for the evening, and the small crowd that had gathered outside before opening had largely passed through. I savored the last sip of the evening, the most recent Parker’s Heritage Collection bottling. As the bourbon swirled over my tongue, the sweetness countering a 132-proof burn that would have been unbearable on that first visit, I let myself fall into the experience for a few seconds just as I had done hundreds of times before on that exact seat.

The final drop wrung from the glass, I sat back, took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly, eyes closed and heavy. I returned to the present. The pour – and the night – had become another memory for the scrapbook. I’d be back the following week (and the week after) to bank a few more memories. The acceptance became complete, and the most I could do was plan my own final few visits to my first whiskey home.

Turning to my wife, I said I was ready to leave. Taking one more look around, I pulled my bag overhead and started to the door. We didn’t rush, but I, too, was tired. It was time to go.

David Levine

A born and bred New Yorker, David is a city-lover who has found a place in his heart for bourbon and whiskey country (even if these are sometimes in the city, too). David is never short of a hobby: he plays six instruments, sings, writes music, cooks, plays campaign board games, and reads voraciously. He lives his whiskey life by two rules: drink what you like and drink it how you like it. Whether it's a 6-month-old craft or a 25-year-old Scotch, everything has its place and should be appreciated for what it is, not what someone wants it to be. He hosts the Whiskey Ring Podcast, Under the Influence(r), and whiskeyinmyweddingring.com. David lives in Queens, NY with his wife, two cats, and an ever-expanding collection that he needs help drinking down. .

  1. Mike B says:

    As a long-time whisky lover but a newly-minted resident of New York, I made my first visit to the Whiskey Ward last night (with a friend who is a regular). It only took a handful of minutes into my first dram to realize what a profound loss this will be to the whisky community and how much I’ve missed by not getting there sooner.
    Kudos to the owners, the staff and the regulars thst have made it what it is. It’s so obviously a great place to savor finely crafted whiskies. The tone and the atmosphere is perfect. Like you, I’ll be making what memories I can before the lights go out for the last time. Thanks for a beautifully written piece.

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