Investigative reports: Uptown Phenomenon part 8

The saga of the Mighty Nutcracker continues. Now the NY Times takes notice.   I guess they had the story sitting on ice for a while then some editor who got caught up in the Boardwalk Empire frenzy finally decided to run it.

Thanks to Tenz Dym for the link.

Part 7 is here.

In Harlem, a Hint of a Previous Era as Peddlers Stealthily Quench a Thirst

Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times

A man known as Kool-Aid mixing multiple alcohols and juice at his home in Harlem to make a drink called nutcracker. He said he could make $700 in profit on every $200 to $300 in supplies.

Published: September 20, 2010

In Prohibition-era Harlem, bootleggers sold cheap and sometimes toxic liquor and moonshine at rent parties and speakeasies for as little as 25 cents a pop.

Some semblance of those days are back in Harlem, where potent sweet liquor drinks are being mixed at home and sold illegally off stoops, in apartment hallways and in bodegas and barbershops.

The drinks, a blend of various hard liquors and fruit juices, are called nutcracker, and they are being sold in sealed plastic bottles or Styrofoam cups for $5 throughout Harlem.

Sales of the drink have been part of the underground economy for years, but with this summer’s heat and the economic slump they have become more visible. Visitors to any block party or outdoor event in Harlem this summer could not have missed the chant of “Nutcrackers! Nutcrackers!”

Sellers include young and older women, blue-collar workers, street hustlers and the underemployed. To give themselves an edge, some sellers even make home deliveries.

Their customers are teenagers, men and women arriving home after a day at work, and young adults who have made it a staple of the party scene. The drinks can also be found in neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens but have been ubiquitous this summer in Harlem and Washington Heights.

“It’s definitely a summer drink, and I try to serve them as cold as possible,” said a regular nutcracker seller, a man in his early 30s who goes by the name of Kool-Aid and asked that his full name not be published. “It’s a fruity drink, so you don’t have to sip it with your face all scrunched up; you feel really nice without getting totally bombed out.”

The juice and liquor typically cost him about $300, he said. He also spends about $85 on plastic bottles and sealable caps.

For each $200 or $300 he spends, he said, he makes about $700 in profit.

For some the drink’s presence in Harlem conjures up an era 80 years in its past, when selling and consuming home-concocted alcohol was an illegal, dangerous pastime.

“As a phenomenon it evokes both the romantic and repugnant concoctions of Jazz Age Harlem, the illicit elixir of bathtub gin on the one hand, the toxic tonic of wood-alcohol-based wild whiskey on the other,” said Eric K. Washington, a Harlem historian and author of “Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem.”



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