a visit to the original miracle on ninth christmas bar

Where is the best place for a sophisticated artisanal cocktail that incorporates the flavors and scents of the season? One that also exudes a laid-back, remember-when-we-were-kids, holiday-TV-special kind of vibe? Does such an establishment actually exist? Yes, Virginia. It’s a Christmas miracle. Literally. It’s Miracle on Ninth Street at Mace in New York City. And also over 50 other “Miracle” bars in the US, Canada, Europe, Central America and Asia. We paid a visit to the original Miracle on Ninth Christmas bar and interviewed the founder. We also did a taste test, and basically got our Santa on. So. Much. Fun!

what is “miracle on . . . “

We first learned of this magical place when researching a post about holiday activities. We kept stumbling across mentions of “Miracle on . . . ” bars in various cities around the world.

The concept is a pop-up Christmas bar, serving holiday-themed cocktails in local bars. The decor is nostalgic, the drinks are strong, and the vibe is merry.

Our Food Editor Nicole Douillet persuaded us to pop over for a visit to the original Miracle on Ninth Christmas bar. Luckily, we were also able to talk directly with the man who started it all, bar owner Greg Boehm.

the look of the original miracle on ninth christmas bar

The cocktail bar Mace is in the East Village (on Ninth Street, natch). Stepping inside at any point between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve will cause you to immediately feel jollier.

It’s a long, narrow space with a few cocktail tables at the window, several stools lining the length of the bar, and a small seating area with more tables in the back. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every square inch of it is currently decorated with Christmas items reminiscent of the 1950’s.

There’s a plastic Santa by the door, bunting in bright red, green and white strung along the wall, and Mason jars filled with peppermint sticks. Colored lights twinkle in the window, and there are red stockings, Christmas cards, and red cushions on the bar stools and chairs.

Gift-wrapped boxes hang from the ceiling, and everyone who works there is wearing a red Santa hat. The exposed brick walls and the brightly-colored bottles behind the bar add a bit of urban edge. Otherwise, it could be your grandmother’s house — or a suburban basement — circa 1959.

how did this all get started?

Where did this concept come from? Greg tells us the origin story. “It was actually my mother’s idea. I had just bought the bar and we were planning to do construction in December 2014 for a January 2015 opening. And she said, ‘No, do the construction in January — you should have a Christmas pop-up bar in December.’ So we did. After we started, she couldn’t believe we were actually doing it.  I remember her saying at one point ‘You never listen to me! This time you did?'”

He continues, “That first year, we decorated with whatever we could find, and we used staple guns to get the walls covered. Now the decor is more ‘sophisticated,’ but we try to keep that feeling.” There’s now a professional eye on the overall interior decor scheme. And also an explicit set of vignettes for the inevitable Instagram and selfie demand. “People definitely want that photo, so we have to think through where that can happen without disrupting the flow and the experience of the other guests.”

what’s on the menu?

As we settle in, we’re surprised and amused by the number of the cocktails on offer, and their names. There are almost 15 specialty drinks, all with Christmas themes. They include the Christmopolitan (vodka, elderflower, cry vermouth, spiced cranberry sauce, rosemary, lime and absinthe mist). And the Muletide (mezcal, amontillado sherry, allspice dram, ginger and lemon). And How the Gimlet Stole Christmas (gin, pine-caraway sage cordial). They ALL sound really good.

The folded paper menu sports a happy retro Santa on its cover. Look closely, and like a plumber, he’s showing a bit too much skin in the back. But hey, he looks like he’s having a fine time, and so are we.

After much back and forth, our Food Editor settles on a Snowball Old Fashioned (gingerbread bourbon, wormwood bitters, and lemon zest). We opt for the Jingle Ball Nog (cognac, amontillado sherry, peanut butter, almond milk, pandan, cream, nougat syrup, egg and nutmeg). After all of that deliberation, we later learn that we have chosen the two most popular drinks on the menu.

what’s the crowd like?

We chat while we wait for our drinks, and survey our fellow barflies. There’s a slightly older couple at the bar, and a group of friends standing and laughing near the front window. A young couple clearly on a date is tucked away in the back at the quietest table.

We didn’t wear an ugly Christmas sweater — but we really wish that we had. We learned later that it’s quite common to see a parade of them at the bar, and that there’s a clear fashion hierarchy. Greg notes: “There are truly ugly ones. And then there are ugly Christmas sweaters that are cool and ironic — like one with a pirate flag where the crossbones are candy canes.” Duly noted for next time.

how about the tunes?

The playlist for Miracle bars is equally balanced between old standards and contemporary Christmas songs. For the record, we did not hear Maria Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” even once in the hour we spent there. Greg shares with us that this soundtrack took four years to develop, and he’s still tinkering with it. “I’m still taking a song out here and there and adding one or two. It’s really important to get that right.”

We love it, and think it’s just the right mix of holiday spirit — too much of the wrong kind of Christmas music, like too much alcohol, can make you really sick.

do the drinks live up to the hype?

Meanwhile, our charming bartender reappears with our drinks, and they’re fanciful and great fun to look at. But how would they taste? Our Jingle Ball Nog is delicious, and much more refined than it appears to be given its kitschy little plastic cup. Usually we find egg nog too rich and too creamy, but this one was perfect. It’s lighter, more flavorful and more refreshing than any we’ve had before. We definitely recommend it.

Meanwhile, our Food Editor, who has a far more sophisticated palate than we do, was marveling over her Snowball Old Fashioned. When we spoke to Greg later, she complimented him on how good it was. “I thought it would be too sweet based on the menu description, but it was just right.” Greg assented. “On the menu, it reads as if it will be sweet, but it drinks like a proper old-fashioned.”

Snowball Old Fashioned

Therein lies the secret to Miracle: any bar can decorate itself and declare itself a “Christmas” bar (many do, as it’s a pretty easy gimmick to drive traffic). But what cannot be faked is what’s in the glass.

If you know a great cocktail from a bad one, and you’re not just looking for a boozy night out, a Miracle bar is what you seek. There are sophisticated flavors and novel combinations on this menu that any foodie or cocktail connoisseur can actually appreciate. If anything, the level of refinement can sometimes be a problem. Greg notes, “People who don’t drink cocktails very often are sometimes surprised that these are not just full of sugar.”

Some of the offerings are more challenging — in Greg’s parlance, “more booze-forward.” The ones that have chocolate in them seem to be the most confounding. “We did one that had cocoa powder as an ingredient, but the taste was not at all sweet. People were expecting a sweet, chocolaty flavor, and it wasn’t that at all.”

the great service is part of the fun

We noticed that one patron actually asked the bartender to make her drink less strong. That’s a first in our experience. Usually people at bars complain that their drinks are too weak. “We train the bartenders to explain to people what each drink is going to taste like, especially if they seem to be expecting something different.”

how is the menu developed?

Chalk up the refined flavors and inventive combinations to the All-Star team behind the effort. We wondered how the drinks and recipes are developed. “Nico DeSoto [the esteemed bartender at Mace and Danico] is the head of drink development, working closely with partner and bar manager Joann Spiegel. The team does a lot of brainstorming and taste-testing throughout the year.” About half of the current menu items are returning favorites, and the other half are new this year.

how did the idea spread worldwide?

The wild success of the first year of operation and the buzz among bar owners about how to replicate it led to the expansion of the concept in its second year via a franchising model. Partner bars have access to all of the recipes, the menu, barware, decor and training manuals for the staff.

In 2015, there were four locations, and in 2016 the idea went global, with pop-ups in Athens, Montreal and Paris. Each uses the word Miracle in its name, but adds its own location (for example, the one in Chicago is Miracle on Dearborn Street). For a full list of all of the partner bars, click here.

We ask Greg about what has been most surprising or crazy-making as the concept has expanded. “We were nervous the first time we did a warm-weather location. We were also a bit nervous the first time we did a much smaller market. But they’ve all worked out well. The thank-you letters we get from our bar owner partners makes me know that this concept works in a lot of different situations.”

a chance to give back

Another new element added to the mix over time is a philanthropic component. Select locations will have the custom glassware designed specifically for the Miracle bars for sale, and 10% of all proceeds will be donated to Action Against Hunger.

how long is miracle open this holiday?

The original plan was that each Miracle bar would be open for only one month: from November 24 – December 24. Due to popular demand, though, many locations will now remain open through New Year’s Eve.  Miracle on Ninth Street at Mace is one of them. Greg notes:”Some people were bummed that they hadn’t had time to visit yet, so we decided to keep this going this year, since the demand is clearly there.”

The plan is to double the number of Miracle bars globally. It’s a lesson for all you kids at home: listen to Mom, and you’ll be rich and famous. The power of nostalgia combined with a sophisticated, modern cocktail: sounds like a recipe for success.

And speaking of recipes, Greg has shared two of his cocktail recipes with us, and we’re passing them along to you: the Jingle Ball Egg Nog and the Snowball Old Fashioned.

If you’re hosting a holiday party this year, these should definitely be on your menu. And if you’re in a town that has a Miracle on . . . bar, you should definitely stop in. It’s a jolly holiday luxury experience that you won’t want to miss.

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