(photo of a home-brewer who makes $700 profit off each batch of Nutcracker, via the NYT)

That highly potent and deceptively sweet alcoholic concoction known around New York City as the Nutcracker has been around for years, but lately, its been getting alot of attention. We all heard N.O.R.E.’s ode, and now even the New York Times have taken notice. The drink is a home brew often made in a Nutcracker peddlers’ kitchen or living room. The recipe varies but generally consists of  the highest proof liquors and fruit juice. “Kool-aid”, the Nutcracker dealer from the NY Times article, makes his with 160-proof Devil’s Springs vodka, 151-proof Bacardi 151 rum, Amaretto and cranberry, mango, pineapple and peach nectar. Fruit and jolly ranchers can also be tossed in the mix for added flavor. The beverage is than packaged in plastic bottles (even quarter water bottles) and peddled from apartments, from car trunks, from bodegas and more, all throughout Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem and the Bronx. A  New  York EZ-Pass to a quick buzz .

Of course, the NYTimes is a bit extreme with their characterization of the drank, but its crazy to see how this ‘hood favorite’ has found its way to the mainstream…

“People in the neighborhood said selling nutcrackers had become more prevalent in the dismal economy, a means some have used to supplement their incomes with quick and easy money. Some who remember the crack boom of the mid-1980s and early 1990s, and the destruction it heaped upon the community, justify the sales, seeing them as akin to marijuana dealing or numbers gambling.” – NYTIMES

Well, we did a little investigative reporting of ourselves and asked a man who has done more than his part to help Nutcracker become a household name….

Full article after the jump…

In Harlem, a Hint of a Previous Era

as Peddlers Stealthily Quench a

Thirst – (New York Times 9/21/10)

“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.

Rotgut whiskey was sold in basement barrooms, drugstores and delicatessens on Lenox Avenue. Mom-and-pop operations doled out home brews from bathtubs and backyard stills.

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!”

People in the neighborhood said selling nutcrackers had become more prevalent in the dismal economy, a means some have used to supplement their incomes with quick and easy money. Some who remember the crack boom of the mid-1980s and early 1990s, and the destruction it heaped upon the community, justify the sales, seeing them as akin to marijuana dealing or numbers gambling.

But others in Harlem, including parents and pastors, say they are worried, particularly because of the drink’s potency, popularity with teenagers and easy availability.

“I think adults and young adults are being very selfish and using greed to raise money,” said the Rev. Vernon Williams, an antiviolence activist who sees a correlation between nutcracker sales and youth violence. “And they are taking this toxic combination of multiple high-level alcohols and selling it indiscriminately to anyone who has the $5.”

Police officials said they were aware of the nutcracker sales and had done what they could to address the issue. They said the department had used both plainclothes and uniformed officers to issue summonses to stores and individuals caught selling it. People found buying the drinks were issued summonses for having an open container of alcohol, the police said.

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 man said he made six gallons at a time in a big plastic water cooler jug, mixing 160-proof Devil’s Springs vodka, 151-proof Bacardi 151 rum, Amaretto, whatever sweet liqueur he had on hand and a variety of juices depending on the desired flavor, including cranberry, mango, pineapple and peach nectar.

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.

To distinguish their drinks from others, some nutcracker sellers use various colored caps and infuse the drink with fruit or Jolly Ranchers. Kool-Aid said he added liquor-soaked fruit salad.

People in the neighborhood said they had no idea how nutcracker caught on. But local legend has it that the original nutcracker was created 10 or so years ago at a Chinese restaurant on the border of the Upper West Side and Harlem, where bartenders hid their hands below the counter as they mixed the drink. When people asked what was in it, the bartenders refused to say. The story goes that at some point the bartenders started allowing customers to leave with their drinks, and soon people started dissecting the recipe and making their own.

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.”

Kool-Aid, who has a couple years of college under his belt and lives in the West 140s, says nutcracker helps him pay the bills. He said he had not been able to find full-time work, only occasional maintenance or data entry work through an agency.

But, he said, business had become more risky lately. After a series of articles in The Daily News that raised alarms about sales to minors, police and community leaders began to rein in the sales. A year ago there were as many as six people selling nutcracker on his block, he said, until the police cracked down, emptying bottles on sidewalks and handing out summonses for $250 to $500 to dealers and customers.

He says he abides by a few self-made rules of self-preservation: Don’t sell to teenagers. Never sell to strangers. And never sell it openly in the street, always by phone call or text message and always delivered in the kind of black plastic bags that bodegas use.

“It comes with risks,” he said. “I don’t have a criminal record, so I don’t want to get one for selling drinks.”

Most sellers are not checking buyers for an ID. But because of its sweetness, it is liquor candy to teenagers.

“Alcohol is unquestionably the drug that is most abused by kids; there’s nothing close,” said Joseph Califano, president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. “We read about marijuana, cocaine, heroin, meth. The reality is that alcohol is the entrance of kids into that world, and to sell that stuff to young kids, I think it’s child abuse.”

Mr. Califano said that studies had shown that 80 percent of the people in prison had substance abuse issues, and that there was scientific evidence that alcohol could stunt the adolescent brain.

Kool-Aid said most nutcracker sellers were not thinking about the impact on their buyers. “Hustlers just think it’s all about the buck,” he said. “They don’t care about the families or the parent who’s looking for their child at 1 in the morning, and they’re passed out drunk on somebody’s stoop from too many nutcrackers.”New York Times, written by Trymaine Lee