Head down Greenpoint Ave, across Franklin and West, down towards the water, to where the docks and the shipbuilding used to be, and you’ll find Grand Republic Cocktail Club. It looks and feels like a dockside bar—green lights out front guiding travelers in to a low-lit space of heavy wooden beams and quiet, convivial conversation.
Grand Republic opened at the end of 2017, the week of Christmas, dogged by delayed inspections. It found itself frozen out of clientele during the bomb cyclone’s arctic blast, as nobody wanted to stray that close to the water in the cold, said the bar’s owner, Johnny Swet. But they might’ve, had they known just what was waiting for them inside.
The cocktail menu is split into two main categories: Show Some Respect offers variations on the classics—nothing too outrageous, but deft maneuvers built on quality liquors, updated with a practiced hand. Across the page, The New Frontier is where Swet’s years in the business and ceaseless experimentation are let loose, with drinks featuring everything from Peruvian purple corn to black truffle-infused vodka.
There are also sections for lower alcohol offerings, based around liqueurs, and a shot and chaser section that pays homage to a dockside heritage. These high-end boilermakers aren’t your typical shot and a beer combos, but instead bring some levity and a hint of respectability to a classic dive bar combo.
Prices are to be expected for a craft cocktail bar in a cool neighborhood, with drinks going for $13 to $14. That said, the drinks feature generous pours, 2 oz or more, often using high-proof bonded booze. “It’s what people like, it’s what I like,” says Swet, who is just as comfortable in a great dive as he is in an upscale cocktail joint. The Grand Republic seems to be the best of both worlds, an effortless mix of high and low: at once a comfortable spot to lean up on the bar and yet home to world-class cocktail making.
And are the drinks good? Oh, indeed.
“Just a Damn Good Old Fashioned” is exactly that—made with bonded 100-proof Old Grand-Dad bourbon and garnished with carefully cut and elegantly arranged twists of orange and lemon, it’s a delicious take on a classic, a big strong drink that checks all the boxes.
But that’s hardly the most exciting offering, and anyone visiting the Grand Republic would do well to forge ahead to the New Frontier side of the menu, where Swet’s years of experience are in full sail, a three-sheets-to-the-wind world tour of innovative ingredients and great booze assembled with a craftsman’s eye to balance and an artist’s ingenuity.
“The Paulbearer” is a beautiful, sneaky mix of rye, bonded brandy, elderflower liqueur and green Chartreuse, whose name was inspired by the embalming qualities of overproof brandy and the floral liqueurs, reminiscent of funeral home flowers.
It’s a spectacular combination: the sweet bouquet draws you in, like the perfumed embrace of a dotty aunt, while the rye and brandy follow close behind, hitting like a playful slap on the cheek from a drunk uncle. It’s a balanced, boozy cocktail that goes down a bit too easy.
“I could drink those all day,” says the bartender Mark, as he hand-cracks ice at the bar for another customer’s drink. Mark is a veteran of a previous Johnny Swet bar, and his commute from the Rockaways is a quiet testament to the loyalty inspired by the longtime barman.
A Pittsburgh native that took to the sea, Swet spent some time in the Navy before landing in L.A., where he studied Russian literature and pursued painting on an art scholarship. He made his way to New York City in 1994, moving between Manhattan and Brooklyn before settling just mile or so away from the bar. He rides his bike to work, stopping at the Manhattan Avenue fruit stands to check for what’s fresh and in season, what’s exciting. He’s always ready to create a new syrup or infusions, always experimenting—a welcome freedom afforded by a bar after his own heart.
Even now, he’s puttering, constantly rearranging things in the eclectic bar, trying to find the best possible iteration of his craft. “It’s an 1,100 square foot painting,” he says of the interior, which he created just to his liking. Old-school tattoo flash adorns the wall under a leopard print Supreme skateboard deck, a tribute to his early NYC days, when he became friends with the iconic brand’s owners in their scrambling years. Elsewhere, a contemporary black and white photo is juxtaposed with an old-school painting of the bar’s namesake: the Grand Republic, the largest wooden ship built in the states, finished just off the Greenpoint docks.
Sampling the entirety of Grand Republic’s cocktail list is undoubtedly yeoman’s work, a noble and worthwhile pursuit, but in the course of any one evening, only a few from the list would be the responsible move.
Luckily, the best was for last, with the dark and mysterious “Smoke Over Brooklyn.” A mix of mezcal and cinnamon, with smoked chocolate from Brooklyn chocolatiers the Mast Brothers, it was truly a singular cocktail experience. At once sweet and spicy, the smoked cocoa picked up the deep flavor of the mezcal to create a smoldering, bold drink that stands up to the best in the five boroughs.
Even as the winter progresses, Swet knows the bar will find its audience—and with the superlative drinks, it’s easy to share his confidence. Come spring, the grassy backyard will open up, new drinks will find their way into rotation, and the crowds will swell the space to standing room only. A bit of free advice? Brave the cold and get there now, so you can say you knew about ’em back when, at what portends to be all-time great Brooklyn bar.
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