Lady Bourbon Leaves Brooklyn

By Robert Simonson

Published on February 19, 2009

In these lean economic times, store closings are hardly news. But in the past five years, LeNell's liquor shop in Red Hook, Brooklyn has been much more than just a store. Almost immediately after opening, on September 13, 2003—the birthday of its owner Tonya "LeNell" Smothers—it became Valhalla for New York City's spirits obsessed. And when its doors close for the last time, this Friday, February 21, drink aficionados around the metropolis will mourn the loss of one of their favorite clubhouses and canteens.

What made LeNell's such a destination? For starters, no new niche liqueur or spirit had really hit the market until it found a place on one of is shelves. Whereas most booze joints kept six bourbons on hand, Smothers featured dozens. She offered nearly a dozen kinds of bitters instead of the usual Angostura, and stocked a wide variety of regional Italian amari. In time, Smothers herself became a sought after expert on all things intoxicating: she conducted sold-out whiskey seminars and was considered a prime source for journalists tracking down liquor trends. The tattooed, chicken-owning Alabama native even became a distiller, producing the small-batch Red Hook Rye once a year.

All this, however, was lost on her landlord, who in 2007 decided not to renew LeNell's lease. Smothers has waged a long, valiant battle to stay put, but to no avail. She hopes to reopen a shop, as well as an adjoining bar, in a new location. For now, however her days in the wilds of Red Hook are numbered. Smothers spoke with SAVEUR about what she's learned over the past six years and what she has planned next.

When you opened LeNell's, in 2003, did you ever anticipate that the store would become such a destination?

I don't think I ever expected the level of response that we got. I've always believed that if you put your heart and soul into something, people will be drawn to anyone with passion, that we would draw some interest. But I had no clue the store would take off the way it did.

Especially in this location, at the water's edge of formerly industrial Brooklyn.

Well, I had looked in Manhattan for a year before I decided to come to Red Hook. It was still one of those neighborhoods where people raise their eyebrows and say, "Red Hook?" And in my opinion, it still should be that [laughs]. It's not exactly a mecca of small-business development. But there's a sense of community here that I love. I hope to find that wherever I end up.

Has your selection changed much over the years?

If you look at the pictures of when the store first opened, it was pretty threadbare in here. I laugh when I look at what little stuff I started with. Of course, the bourbon was always the focus. But a couple years into the business, I decided to expand our bitters selection, so we did all the amari and went crazy with that. Our biggest seller has always been red wine. People don't expect that. I'm equally passionate about wine and spirits, but we've made more of a name for ourselves with the spirits side, with the whiskey.

Let me put you on the spot: which are your favorite bourbons?

I always answer this question the same way: it's like asking me what my favorite sex position is—you take it however you can get it! [laughs] A lot of times people will get upset with me when I won't answer that question. I'm not trying to be cheeky. It really is how I feel. I don't think there is a bad bourbon out there. There isn't bourbon I wouldn't drink.

So, what bourbon do you think works best in an old-fashioned or a manhattan?

It depends on what you want to do with your whiskey. I don't care if you make an old-fashioned with a $200 bottle of bourbon, if that's what you want to do. I don't believe there's any whiskey that's too sacred for a cocktail. The first thing I did when I opened my first bottle of Red Hook Rye is I made a cocktail with it. It was eyes-rolling-back-in-the-head good.

You're still hoping to find a new space?

Oh, I haven't given up. It's just going to take time, and I'm being very specific about what I want, and I'm a much smarter businesswoman than I was six years ago. When I signed the lease on this space, I didn't have any legal advice. I was pinching pennies so much just to get this business started. I started this business with $75,000.

That sounds like a lot of money.

It's like half of what every retailer friend of mine said I would need. All of them said, "You'll never do this for below $150,000."

What are your immediate plans now?

I'm going to London and Amsterdam. I'm going to London first to judge a whiskey competition with Whiskey magazine and going to the awards dinner. We won Retailer of the Year, U.S., Single Outlet, for the third year in a row, which is kind of ironic. I'm going to this awards dinner, and we decided to shut the store down! I've made arrangements to do some work with [the London bar] Montgomery Place and will do one night at Jake Berger's place, Portobello Star. I may do some kind of seminar at Montgomery Place with some bartenders. We haven't decided what. Then I'm going from there to Amsterdam, where I'm training with Philip Duff [a beverage consultant] for a month.

Training? For what?

He's going to polish up my bar skills and take this '80s bartender into the modern day. My goal with finding a new space is to find a space for the store and a bar. That's how I got started in the business in the first place: bartending.

Anything else?

While I'm in London, I'm going to be working on photography for my egg cocktail book. I've got two book ideas up my sleeve. I'm going to do the history of eggs in drinks first. And then I want to write the next big whiskey book, but that's going to take a lot of time and travel and effort. No one's done a Michael Jackson-type whiskey book in ages.

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