Drinking The Ale That Never Lets You Grow Old

Feb 14, 2020

McSorley’s Old Ale House opened in the 1850s – it’s one of the oldest bars in New York City.

Its slogan now? “We were here before you were born.” (Its slogan used to be “Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies” – but they let ladies in now.)

Owner Matty Maher passed away last month at the age of 80. His daughter, Teresa de la Haba, is the new owner. She and her husband Gregory carry on the bar’s traditions – which includes throwing sawdust on the floor every morning.

“The sawdust is both form and function,” says Gregory. “It coats the wood floor, protects it, but then it absorbs any of the spillage of the ale. Because we’re a bar that we definitely, to use an old term, sling suds.”

Throwing sawdust on the floor was a common thing to do in bars when Irish immigrant John McSorley opened the place in 1854. He called it the Old House at Home.

“John McSorley didn’t believe in … spirits,” de la Haba says. “He didn’t believe in whiskeys and rums, because he thought that was the root of all evil. He believed if you left a man alone with a good mug of ale, he would cause no trouble. And I tell ya, knock on wood, we haven’t had any trouble at McSorley’s in the 26 years I’ve been here.”

There’s nostalgia on every inch of wall space at McSorley’s. De la Haba points at a clock above us.

“We haven’t touched that clock since the hour of John McSorley’s death in 1910,” he says. “It was a tradition back then that when someone in the family died you would stop the clocks.”

There’s an original Wanted poster from the murder of Abraham Lincoln – authenticated by a lawyer in 1890 – as well as a bell originally from Madison Square Garden. One of the most poignant artifacts is a row of wishbones above the bar.

“Those wishbones were put there by the regulars who drank here during World War I,” de la Haba says. “They were put up for good luck before they went to fight over in Europe. And when they came home they would take a wishbone down.”

The remaining wishbones are from the soldiers who never returned home.

McSorley’s was a “gentlemen’s only club” for more than a century. Even in the 1960s, owners thought admitting women would mean the death of their business.

In 1969, two female attorneys from the National Organization of Women walked in, ordered drinks and were denied service. They sued and won their case.

“The New York law that stipulates no public establishment can bar anybody based on race, sex, creed or gender is actually called the McSorley law because of the court case,” De la Haba says.

It took another 16 years before the bar put in a women’s restroom.

De la Haba says one reason the bar stands today is that the McSorley family bought the building in 1888. Ever since, the bar’s proprietors have owned the building too.

“I know easily a dozen bars in this city that are closing shop in the new year because their rents have doubled and it’s just not worth it,” he says.

De la Haba says McSorley’s is a rare remnant of the “Old East Village” of the days before gentrification.

“New York is a tourist spot, let’s not forget that,” he says. “The neighborhood has changed dramatically over the years. But what hasn’t changed is the inside of this establishment.” 

It’s a place of comfort, he says.

“Any New Yorker who’s ever left this city for greener pastures, whether it’s North Carolina, Florida, the West Coast, Arizona, when they come back to New York to visit, it’s not to see their family. It’s to visit McSorley’s, where their father drank, where their grandfather drank.”

And maybe where their sons – and daughters – will drink someday, too. When they’re old enough.