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Ride On: Brooklyn Bartender is Biking Door To Door To Provide Essential ‘Medication’

3:04 PM EDT on March 20, 2020

Very special delivery! Bartender Tom Roughton (right) drops a fresh cocktail off to grateful customer Victoria Rosner (left). Photo: Dave Colon

Man, you really need a drink right now.

Fortunately, Tom Roughton, the biking bartender at Izzy Rose in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn, is answering New York's urgent need for alcohol — the cause of (and solution to) all of life's problems. As the corona crisis forces us to socially distance from one of life's essentials — bars — Roughton is biking cocktails around the city, every day from 3 to 9 p.m.

"I had to do something to liven people's spirits," Roughton said about life in the time of coronavirus. "I didn't want to sit around being idle."

Fortunately for the Durham, N.C. native and regular cyclist, the State Liquor Authority allows bars to sell to-go or delivery alcohol (provided they are also selling food, as Roughton does). No, it's not the same as bellying up to your favorite bar and having "the usual," but Roughton does make small talk with callers and does a good job approximating the cocktail ordering experience, including, recommendations on unique booze combinations and wines.

"The Macabeo is definitely more tart," Roughton told a customer asking about two wine options (the customer eventually settled on a different white wine, plus a brownie and two Staycations, a tequila-based cocktail of Roughton's creation).

Roughton came up a new drink menu, with cocktails such as the Essential Snake Oil and the Boundary Tester, specifically based on Gov. Cuomo's stay-home order, tailoring it to what the bar had in stock and what people like to drink in spring.

Roughton mixes up a Staycation, a custom cocktail of his own making, for delivery. Photo: Dave Colon
Roughton mixes up a Staycation, a custom cocktail of his own making, for delivery. Photo: Dave Colon

The drink order settled, Roughton sanitized his hands, mixed the cocktails, then hopped on his fixed-gear.

"We're headed to Brooklyn Heights!" he said, pedaling off on his latest mission of mercy, with Streetsblog accompanying him.

Roughton has previous delivery experience and it shows ("I can get anywhere south of Central Park without GPS," he brags) as he rides skillfully (but legally) through what traffic remains on the street, squeezing between a bus and an armored truck on Court Street.

The delivery program started on Wednesday afternoon, and Roughton said he did 22 miles that day, showing off a Strava map with blue lines criss-crossing the expansive delivery map that stretches from Brooklyn Heights to Bushwick, and Greenpoint down to Park Slope. The extra riding, between the deliveries and the attempts to stay off public transportation, keeps him in shape, but does have some negative consequences.

"I've been riding so much now," he said as we moved through Fulton Mall. "I got holes in the crotches of three pairs of jeans."

Roughton's work, of course, isn't truly essential in the broader context of the pandemic, but it's one example of how the cycling community is at least trying to serve. Examples include a new delivery service, Corona Couriers, set up by idled librarian Liz Baldwin, plus other random people who are hoping to be put to use.

But Roughton plays a role for a different type of needy individual. At the Brooklyn Heights address, customer Victoria Rosner was indeed eager to receive her prescription. She paid by running her credit card through a mobile card reader (sanitized between each delivery run!), and Roughton and Rosner managed an approximation of the usual bartender/regular conversation: what are you cooking these days (latkes, she said), how's your routine ("I'm waking up really early these days," he said).

"Have you watched Love Is Blind?" Roughton asked.

She had not, but admitted that she did watch Pandemic. (No wonder she needed a drink.)

Rosner, an attorney currently on leave due to court closures, said her drinks that night were for a Skype cocktail party with friends. Drinking a cocktail has a calming quality that just sipping on a beer or a glass of wine doesn't have, she added (this is very good advice in trying times).

"It's good knowing that even though you're alone, you're not just opening a bottle by yourself," Rosner said. "It makes you feel less isolated. You don't drink cocktails alone. You drink them together with friends."

Roughton riding along Court Street, where traffic has motor vehicle traffic has thinned out but still exists. Photo: Dave Colon
Roughton riding along Court Street, where traffic has motor vehicle traffic has thinned out but still exists. Photo: Dave Colon

From there, it was back to the bar, to sanitize and wait for another order with the bar's cook Ciaran Bohan, who pre-makes batches of vegan grilled cheese, curry, and funfetti cake for customers to order with their drinks (that pesky state law!). Roughton said that he's been burning through sci-fi books, and between reading and just doing normal drink preparation and keeping the bar area clean, he has enough to do on his shift.

"I thought of bringing a yoga mat in, but no. I am trying out some of our new red wines," he said, giving himself a sommelier crash course.

In addition to the bike deliveries, Roughton spends some time dealing with curious passersby who stop to look at the takeout menu tacked to Izzy Rose's front door. He's like a boardwalk barkers trying to draw people into a game of ring toss: Roughton opens the door and tries to draw them in with the sight of growlers full of beer and pieces of cake to take home (much more of a guaranteed winner than the ring toss, by the way). The new reality, involving outreach on Instagram and to strangers in the world just to let people know you exist, is a lot like opening a bar from scratch, Roughton said.

The personal touch, he added, sure beats a delivery app, adding that he hopes the state will allow bars to do booze delivery even after the world is finally back to socializing. For now though, he said he's happy to provide whatever solace he can.

"I love bartending so much, and I love bringing people joy," Roughton said. "Everyone is surrounded by so much bad news right now, so the contrast in happiness I can provide by bringing them a drink is so much greater."

To place an order, call (929) 314-4431 or DM on Instagram @izzyrosebk. Minimum order is $40.

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