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Sugar, spice and ice: Greenport’s Brix & Rye turns 10 years old

Photos by David Benthal

It’s a neat trick for any hospitality haunt to feel both freshly innovative and classically timeless. But Greenport’s Brix and Rye isn’t any old bar. 

Late in the summer of 2014, word began to spread about a promising new subterranean spot in the heart of Greenport, where classic cocktails, cheekily innovative libations and great pizza were the order the day. Brix and Rye quickly became the standard by which other East End drink programs would be measured and it has maintained its place at the top of the local bar scene for 10 years. 

As you step through the glass front door and descend a few steps beneath a sign reading, “Sunset Room,” you’re immediately immersed in the hum of conversation, clinking glassware and the rhythmic rattling of ice in a tin. On the left, a row of candlelit tables await beneath a carved, antique wooden board that reads “General Wayne” (a former inn in Southold). A turn to the right reveals a tattooed, top-knotted, Viking-like figure behind a long, L-shaped bar, smiling a big, earnest grin as if he’s known you your whole life and has been saving you a bar stool. That bartender is co-owner and bar director, Evan Bucholz — the heart and shaker-wielding soul of Brix and Rye and the stalwart secret to its sippable staying power.

taking a leap in life and love

Evan Bucholz of Brix & Rye in Greenport. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

For many, Brix and Rye has become that “third place” where locals, weekenders and visitors take a break from work and home life and engage with strangers they might never have encountered otherwise. The combination neighborhood bar, pizza parlor and classic cocktail den is as approachable as a local pub.

For the cocktail curious, there are modern classics like the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned (reposado tequila, mezcal, agave, bitters, an orange twist) or one of the bar’s crushable originals like the popular Backsliding Presbyterian (bourbon, Campari, ginger syrup, fresh lime juice, soda). For those coming in for a beer or glass of wine and a pizza, Brix and Rye features local names like Macari, Anthony Nappa, Paumanok and Greenport Harbor Brewing. As a local from South Jamesport himself, Evan says he finds it important to feature local spirits, wines and beers to provide, he says, “somewhere locals felt welcome and excited about.”

Growing up in the area, over the years Evan enjoyed small stints with local caterers and bars. But he never took the idea of bartending very seriously and was instead pursuing a master’s degree in American literature at City College in Harlem in the early 2000s. While in graduate school, his interest was piqued by the now legendary cocktail bars just beginning to sprout up around the city, such as Milk & Honey, Pegu Club, Flatiron Lounge and Employees Only. But it wasn’t until he met his future wife after moving back to the North Fork that he reached a personal and professional crossroads and a new path began to take shape.

In 2006, Evan took a job tending bar at the Jedediah Hawkins Inn. While learning the ropes from owner and restaurateur Tom Schaudel, he met Matthew Michel and Kyla Primiano (now Bucholz), who had recently relocated from Portland, Maine. Evan and Kyla quickly fell in love, then slowly began planning a future together. With her degree in marketing and keen eye for food and drink culture, Kyla eventually suggested she and Evan pursue a life in hospitality. The couple was excited to create a life on the North Fork, but they knew they had some research to do first. 

In 2010, they set their plan in motion. Evan abandoned the fleeting idea of teaching college and the couple decamped to Red Hook, Brooklyn. Kyla devised a plan to “get jobs in the best places and to spend as much time in cocktail bars as we could to figure out a vision to eventually bring back to the North Fork,” she says. 

In New York City, Evan bartended for star chef, restaurateur and part-time North Fork resident Tom Collichio at Collichio and Sons. He was getting an education in hospitality, but his plan was always to find work at a proper cocktail bar where he could further hone his craft. “I had a list of places I wanted to work and at the top was Fort Defiance,” Evan says. 

Through a connection, Evan got his wish, and started working for St. John Frizell, who had worked at some of the top drink spots in the city before opening the now-shuttered Fort Defiance in Brooklyn — a bar that had the kind of DNA that would come to define Evan and Kyla’s future business: a comfortable local haunt with elevated cocktails and food. The experience with Frizell did not disappoint. “I tried to absorb everything I could,” Evan says. “Classics and fundamental techniques were embedded in the culture there, but equally important was the sense of the bar as a shared space.”

Many a great bartender passed through Fort Defiance at a time when cocktail culture was experiencing a revival in New York City and around the country. “Evan was so much a part of that special time,” says award-winning bartender Abigail Gullo, who left Fort Defiance in 2012 and quickly became one of the most beloved bartenders in New Orleans. “He had such love for creating warm and memorable experiences for everyone who stepped foot in Fort Defiance. His personality is genuine and infectious. His cocktails, fantastic. He is one of those guys who is just effortlessly wonderful at whatever he decides to do.”

Frizell’s initial mentorship to Evan has transitioned to a lasting friendship. “In Evan, you find the rare combination of an intelligent mind, a generous heart, a disarming and humble demeanor,” he says. “The continued success of Brix & Rye is exactly what he deserves.”

During this time, Evan also took the intensive and prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource 5-Day Program, during which he studied at the feet of legendary drink historians and bartenders. Meanwhile, Kyla found inspiration and knowledge working for groundbreaking chef and writer Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune in Manhattan. “I learned so much about service, execution and creating a sense of place,” she says. After less than four years in New York City, the duo — now married — was ready to follow their dream of opening a bar the North Fork.

making it happen 

Pizza at Brix & Rye. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

Evan and Kyla moved back to the North Fork in 2013 with the intent of opening their own place, but she was pregnant with their first child, Ruby. They both began working at Greenport’s Frisky Oyster, where they reunited on that job with Michel, who was preparing to launch his first brick-and-mortar spot after the success of his pizza truck, Rolling in the Dough. “Matt suggested we partner up,” Evan says. “He had the space in the basement and was getting 1943 Pizza Bar open.” 

Though it had never served as a bar, the space ticked all the boxes — it was the right size, had a unique layout and had reportedly been part of a bootlegging operation during Prohibition that sent alcohol as far as Manhattan and utilized secret tunnels stretching to a speakeasy inside Claudio’s restaurant. 

“It has the novelty of being mysterious and slightly hidden without having to lean heavily on the secret door speakeasy cliché,” Kyla says. “The food aspect was something we hadn’t much considered, so to be partnered with 1943 Pizza Bar was an amazing stroke of good fortune.” 

With Evan serving as the face of the business, Kyla put her degree to work handling social media, marketing, events and live music bookings. And the name? The term, “brix” alludes to the measure of dissolved sugar content in liquids and, “rye” is a style of American whiskey popular in classic cocktails. The extra bit of garnish: the name could also be abbreviated to spell “BAR.”

shakes like team spirit

Rob Howie of Brix & Rye. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

Rob Howie came aboard as a barback right after that first summer in 2014 when a friend who was leaving Brix and Rye introduced him to Evan. His role quickly evolved. “When I started I had no idea I’d ever be bartending,” he says. “I was very content barbacking. I could be a fly on the wall while Evan answered patrons’ questions.”

But Howie became increasingly curious about cocktails and Evan quickly recognized his potential. When circumstance created an opportunity, Evan handed Howie the shaker and strainer. “When I took a couple of weeks off for the birth of my daughter, Ruby, he accelerated his education and took real ownership of the space,” Evan says.

Howie was soon an invaluable presence behind the bar, slinging drinks with confidence and contributing to the menu. “Evan really put a battery in my back and instilled a love for the culture,” he says.

Spending nearly 10 years in the trenches together has brought the two very close. Evan even became ordained to perform the ceremony at Howie’s wedding to Bianca Munguia, owner of the online vintage clothing and jewelry company All Hours NY. And though he’s not an owner, the bar is perhaps just as important to Howie as it is to Evan and Kyla. “It’s Rob’s home as much as it’s mine,” Evan says.

Many of the employees at Brix and Rye have stayed for years. One consistent presence has been Dave Camarada, a “utility man” known for his dedication to the tradition of wearing tiki shirts behind the bar. “I don’t know who started wearing them first, but Dave really took it to the next level,” Howie says. “He was devouring books on the origins of them and owned over 350 Hawaiian [shirts] at one point.” 

When people were understandably reluctant to gather in a bar setting during the COVID-19 pandemic, Brix and Rye sold to-go cocktails, enforced distancing restrictions and offered curbside tables. “It was not a fun time to be working at a bar or restaurant,” Kyla says. “The willingness of our staff to roll with whatever challenges arose was hugely inspirational and unforgettable.”

classic cocktails with a north fork twist

Brix & Rye (Photo credit: David Benthal)

You don’t have to drink cocktails to love Brix and Rye — but it doesn’t hurt. Whether you enjoy a classic or something daring, the drinks are like a perfectly chilled hug. Evan sees the cocktail list as a way to connect with customers. “I like to have the drinks illustrate something if possible,” he says. “Like a technique, or place or time period. The list is about one-third standards that stay on, one-third recurring seasonal offerings, and one-third constantly changing.”

Classics include the Sazerac (rye whiskey, bitters, sugar served “down” in an absinthe-rinsed rocks glass with a lemon twist), the famous tiki drink known as the Mai Tai (rums, orgeat syrup, curacao, lime juice), and a pre-Prohibition era shaken number called the New York Sour (rye whiskey, lemon juice, sugar, egg white, red wine float). Perhaps the most popular drink on the menu, though, is Evan’s Northside Collins, an easily quaffed tall drink combining gin, lime, cucumber, mint, grapefruit liqueur and soda. 

Evan and Howie both read cocktail books and articles and visit New York City periodically to keep up with the latest trends. Howie explains that when he visits other cocktail bars, he likes to “comb through the menu; check the décor; the bartender interactions.” 

And when it comes to creating drinks, “we taste a lot,” Evan says. “We’re a tight crew and … have lots of conversations about products, techniques, other places, people.”

The flavors and spirits of the North Fork are integrated into some of their more adventurous cocktails. The “Second Language” uses a spirit made by Greenport’s Matchbook Distilling Company, which specializes in sourcing ingredients from local farms. It’s a margarita riff that pairs Matchbook’s strawberry amaro with tequila, yuzushu (a Japanese yuzu liqueur) and lime juice. 

“There are many hyper-local ingredients that I don’t have the time or technical skill to work with,” says Evan. “The things Matchbook makes enhance the palette we have to choose from and deepens our access to the bounty of the North Fork.” 

Incorporating unorthodox spirits into a new cocktail recipe takes patience. “People approach these bottles like a puzzle to be solved,” Matchbook owner and distiller Leslie Merinoff Kwasnieski says of her idiosyncratic product line. “Evan approaches them like paints on a pallet. He intuitively blends and riffs, churning out drinks that are balanced and delicious and highlight the unique ingredients.” 

what’s next?

Brix & Rye (Photo credit: David Benthal)

No matter how great the drinks, though, a bar is only as good as its regulars, of which Brix and Rye has many. “We have regulars we gladly see four or five nights a week,” Evan says. Many are food and beverage professionals who come in to unwind after a long shift. “There’s so much to say about Evan,” Merinoff Kwasnieski says. “His hospitality and kindness are as unmatched as his drinks.”

Riding on this decade of success, Evan, Kyla and Michel are at the point where new plans are bubbling to the surface: they’re in the planning stages for a new restaurant and bar up the street, at 400 Main St. The timing and concept remain to be determined, but they will continue to operate 1943 Pizza Bar and Brix and Rye in their current locations. 

“Hopefully in the near future we’ll have a more solidified timeline,” says Kyla. “We are also very excited at the prospect of continuing on as Brix and Rye in the current location. We love being in Stirling Square, and American Beech and Black Llama are fantastic neighbors; we look forward to that continued relationship.”

Regardless of whether he’s physically behind a new bar or the old one, Evan’s presence at Brix and Rye will always be palpable. “Even when he’s not behind the bar … that place is so thoroughly infused with his spirit … that you hardly miss him, which is the surest sign of a truly great operator,” Frizell says. “When he moved back to the North Fork, New York City was diminished as a result — but I’m so glad he did.”