The Immigrant's Jason Corey on Groundhogs and Bootlegging
For many years, Jason Corey tended bar in Times Square, where the most popular drinks were Jager Bombs for vacationing bros or Manhattans for elderly diners. Sick of the noise and anonymity, he opened The Immigrant in 2010 (341 East 9th Street). Corey recently explained why he's happy to live like a groundhog and spilled some family booze secrets.
How did you go from bartender to wine-bar owner?
I bartended basically since I came to New York. I was at Molyvos for 11 years. We had an extensive wine list, and there were two sommeliers there, so I learned a lot about wine. Then, I just saved up my money, and I built a bar.
Why a wine bar?
Well, I worked in Times Square a lot, there were always people doing Jager Bombs and shots. It was wild. And I had lived in the Village for so long that I wanted to have a space where people could come and chill out. So I thought that a wine bar would be a good place to start -- a place to get some light appetizers, cheese plates, a place to just hang out and have a nice bottle of wine.
So how did you go about choosing the selections?
I wanted to have grapes from the regions where they're from -- so I wanted to have Tempranillo from Rioja; I wanted to have Syrah from the Rhone valley, Riesling from Germany, things like that. I wanted to have some core grapes and make sure those slots were filled with wines that were approachable and from their original region.
Do you think this originality makes for better wines?
That's a slippery slope. That can anger a lot of people, especially fans of California wines. I do have a California Cabernet here. I guess my belief was that I wanted people to experience wines and the regions where they're from, not necessarily that this always makes them better.
So you own and operate the Immigrant. Is that a lot of work?
I tell everybody that my life is like Groundhog Day -- every day is the same for me. I get up late. I go to the gym. I come to the bar. I take deliveries. I take a break. I come back. I close. I do that seven days a week, but I like it. I'm living the dream.
Any plans on expanding into Brooklyn or Queens?
No. I'm happy and content. This is what I want to do. It took me a long time to get here, and I want to enjoy it for a while.
Did you always know that you wanted to do this? Any family ties to the industry?
My great-grandfather had a speakeasy in my hometown, Cortland, during Prohibition. He and his brothers came to the U.S. from Italy. They had an apartment, and they turned it into a bar and they were selling liquor out of olive-oil cans. They were just wild. He got in a lot of trouble for it, and had to become a barber. My grandfather, who ran a restaurant, actually had trouble getting his liquor license because of his dad. But to answer your question, I guess it's kind of in my blood to have a bar.
Did you hear stories about this as a kid?
My family is kind of embarrassed about it, actually. We saw family photos. We knew he had a speakeasy. We knew he had to become a barber, but we didn't really talk about it.