McSorley’s Ale House – no Tin Lizzie

McSorley’s Old Ale House is one of the most chronicled American taverns in modern memory anyway. Apart from Joseph Mitchell’s landmark 1940 essay in the New Yorker, there are:

  • many shorter journalistic treatments
  • a recent, full-length history by Rafe Bartholomew, Two and Two: McSorley’s, My Dad, and Me
  • a solid Wikipedia essay that cites the key sources.

Many beer writers have written about McSorley’s although more in the early days of micro/craft beer. I’ve referred to the place numerous times, usually in connection with 19th century hand pumps not in use since Prohibition.

In recent years, craft brewing has, or so is my impression, largely ignored McSorley’s. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the decor, if we can use that term, is old school to the max and does not attract a beer aware, hip crowd. Second, but related to the first point, McSorley’s has not gotten on the craft beer bus. It still offers, AFAIK, the old binary of “light” and “dark”, decent enough but mass market-type more or less. So apart from the history and louche atmosphere there is no reason to go, or write about it, although I suspect most beer scribes have made the pilgrimage when in striking distance.

That said, is there anything about McSorley’s that hasn’t been reduced to print? I think there is, in particular viz. news accounts from the 1920s and earlier that seem to have escaped notice. The onset of newspaper digitization makes it easier to find them. I’ll deal with a couple of these. I’ll start with a later one although an 1890s gem shows (I’ll get to it) that tavern hagiography, nay myth, had already embraced McSorley’s before 1900.

A sketch from 1922 is unusually well-written for the always-harried Fourth Estate, perhaps contributed by an associate of the Smart Set. Don Marquis, who wrote well on beer and New York ale houses, is a candidate surely. The writer was decorous to state that the place retained its old allure even though near beer was now served. Mitchell wrote that real beer was brewed by an ex-brewery worker in the basement, sometimes mixed with near beer, and served upstairs until Repeal. It may simply be the writer didn’t want to tattle on McSorley’s since it was early days after Volstead. Lawbreakers faced real risks. So there may have been some (rather literal) tongue in cheek here, but the mystery remains.

A Jazz Era piece, it makes a point applicable today if we substitute the beer hipsters of 2019 for the “Young Intellectuals”. By the way the term degenerate as used here is a period expression, it didn’t mean what many readers may think. It was a reference to changing mores in the form of the Flappers and jazzers. As ever, the old guard looks askance at new ways to have fun and design clothes, watering holes, cars, whatever it be. McSorley’s was the post-chaise of its day, let’s put it that way – no Tin Lizzie.

The story appeared in the New York Evening Post on March 21, 1922.

… we dropped in at McSorley’s, that gallant old saloon on Seventh Street. Alas, we have been untrue to our higher aesthetics; we have not been to McSorley’s nearly enough in recent years.  We know of no other place in New York with such genuine tavern atmosphere; with a pleasing whiff of the fine old-time saloon manners and self-respecting relaxation. In that dark, sawdusted, picture-lined taproom they serve the thin legal potations of Volstead with a dignity and manly courtesy that make them seem as rich and heavenly as tawny port or golden moselle. The Young Intellectuals never heard of McSorley’s; but to us it is the shrine of Literature and Art. It is a great happiness to us to see “The Old House at Home” go on quietly and legally flourishing in this degenerate era; and if this paragraph should even lure thither any of the younger set who know how to behave themselves in front of a glass of near-beer and a raw onion, we shall not have lived in vain.



2 thoughts on “McSorley’s Ale House – no Tin Lizzie”

  1. A friend, who I met on the west coast in 1970, had frequented McSorley’s in the late ’60s when he was an undergrad at Seton Hall. At that time, McSorley’s Ale was brewed by Rheingold. The “dark” was known to be Stegmaier Porter. He brought bottled samples of each west for me and some other friends to sample, and both brews were impressive. Both Rheingold and Stegmaier went out of business in the middle 70’s. McSorley’s was a fine brew all through the 70s, even when Ortlieb brewed it (I heard they had hired the Rheingold brewmaster). These days, the regular and dark brews are, to me, not very exciting, and haven’t been for years.
    I have another McSorley’s anecdote that is not really classifiable. McSorley’s allowed women after 1970, but didn’t add a women’s rest room until much later. One afternoon in 1986 I was home, almost immobilized with back spasms. The mid-day news on the New York City TV station (probably Ch. 9 or 11) had a remote feature documenting live, the opening of the women’s room at McSorleys!

    • Excellent, Arnold, many thanks. Stegmaier porter was good. It makes sense now that you mention it that the place would serve porter as John McSorley was Irish-born after all. That makes more sense than a vague dark ale although amber and pale ales were known in the northeast in the 1800s. In the 30s after Prohibition Fidelio made the beers I believe, as before, and I’m sure they had much more character than now. Stay tuned for more soon on McSorley’s.

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