/On the Trail of New York’s Nutcracker Kings

On the Trail of New York’s Nutcracker Kings

Candy-colored nutcrackers are a staple of summer in the city.
Photo: Christian Rodriguez

New York is a nutcracker town: On Rockaway Beach, sunbathing young professionals flag down glistening men hauling cooler bags. Middle-aged Dominicans crowd pushcarts during all-night parties in the park. Distinctively squat plastic bottles litter the streets after the Puerto Rican Day Parade in June, the West Indian Day Parade in September, and every festival in between. On trains, salesmen pull suitcases full of ice and work the commuters.

“Wednesday night, get your head right,” they shout. “Why settle for a beer when the nutcracker’s here?”

The candy-colored drinks are such a staple of summer in the city that “nutcracker” has become an umbrella term for any sweet, boozy drink that’s sold illegally on the street, out of barber shops or bodegas, and, increasingly, online. Instagram teems with dozens of sellers, with handles like thenutcracker_jacker, nutcrackers_nemos, and kerbyscups, each offering free delivery and video testimonials: “This shit is fire!” says a devotee of brooklyn_nutcrackers. He takes a swig as the cameraman makes the rat-a-tat noise of a machine gun.

While police and community organizers once went to war with nutcrackers, the drinks remain largely unregulated. Now, John Cori, president of the Rockaway Civic Association, watches helplessly as sellers work in teams and reload from cars parked on side streets. “They’re definitely a menace,” Cori says, bemoaning lost alcohol sales suffered by concessionaires on the boardwalk. Cops admit they tend to turn a blind eye to nutcrackers, as a spokesperson wrote in a terse email: “This is not something that is tracked by the NYPD.”

Across the city, nutcrackers and $10 bills change hands openly and freely, and it can make you wonder: Where did nutcrackers come from, and who earns the real money? If the cops and the prohibitionists have lost, who won?

The answers lie uptown, in Washington Heights, at Manhattan’s northern tip. Freddy Tejada rubs shoulders with hip-hop royalty and is locally known as Freddy Imperial. He’s 48 year-old Dominican-American entrepreneur who leveled up, a convicted armed robber working in a barbershop that saw an obscure drink and made it a viral sensation.

“Freddy Imperial was able to take it and run with it,” says Leo Fuentes, a writer and Washington Heights native who goes by Led Black. He made the unreleased documentary, Nutcracker Inc., and is the drink’s unofficial historian. “Uptown,” Black says, “for those in the know, he’s the king of nutcrackers.”

Nobody remembers the exact year nutcrackers got their start, but it was either 1993 or 1994. “When the Knicks were still good,” says José Chu, a restaurant manager who helped invent them. It happened at Flor de Mayo, a popular Chino-Latino restaurant on 101st St. and Broadway. Young menu gathered there to watch basketball games at the bar, and one night, a drug dealer named Juice suggested they make a new cocktail. Chu and Juice raided the rack and started pouring. Eventually, Chu took a sip of what they’d put together.

The original “Nut Cracker,” as it’s styled on the menu, is a multi-layered sensation, with the tart, tooth-dissolving sweetness of Jolly Ranchers and the deep, viscous finish of cough syrup. “It gets you,” Chu says. “You get high on that.” He got the name when an ad for the New York City ballet popped up on TV.

Several years later, in 1999, a young woman, Fatyuil, sat in the restaurant, asking herself, “What is in that drink, that everyone wants one?” She had arrived from the Dominican Republic two years earlier. At the time, she was cutting hair, but she wanted more. She didn’t know about nutcracker’s origins or the drink’s mythic potency, but she knew the recipe was something of a secret. “What do we need?” she asked her girlfriend. “What are the ingredients?”

So, Fatyuil sent her girlfriend to flirt with the bartender. When she returned, she had the keys to the kingdom: Bacardi 151, Southern Comfort, Amaretto, pineapple juice, grenadine, and Rose’s Sour Lime.

That same night, Fatyuil hit a liquor store, and mixed a small batch. She got her barber shop clients hooked on free samples, and was soon selling ruby-red nutcrackers for $10 a pop. Fatyuil says that in the earliest days, new customers would underestimate the drink’s power. “This is nothing,” someone once complained. “This is juice.” The next day, he returned, missing his wedding ring, which was either pawned, lost, or confiscated by an angry wife. He couldn’t remember.

In addition to the sheer strength, the illegality was part of the initial allure. “It’s underground,” the rapper Sacario told Led Black for his documentary. “If you could get a nutcracker at a liquor store and shit, I don’t think it’d have that same,” he pauses to find the right word. “It’s low.”

Customers were soon knocking on Fatyuil’s apartment door at 3 a.m. looking to buy. She rented a separate apartment and eventually hired four “pretty girls with tight clothes” to ferry drinks down to waiting customers on the sidewalk. “We was the kings,” Fatyuil says. Around the neighborhood, she earned the nickname “La Patrona”: the boss. By 2001, she says she would net thousands of dollars a week. She bought her own barbershop and sent money back with friends to the Dominican Republic to purchase land.

But the growth was difficult to manage. “I was scared,” Fatyuil admits. Cars backed up down the block, and men lingered with their drinks to chat with the salesgirls. When a neighbor complained, Fatyuil hired him as a deliveryman to buy his silence. Local dealers demanded that she give referrals for their weed.

With the 34th Precinct just a few blocks away, Fatyuil became paranoid. She rented a second apartment for girls to drop off cash after sales, and paired girls who didn’t like each other, so they would rat if the other stole. Fatyuil was also the only person who mixed the drinks, afraid the recipe would get out, which of course it did anyway.

On March 28, 1995, Freddy Tejada walked out of Queensboro Correctional Facility in Long Island City. He’d been locked up for more than two years after being arrested, at 19 years old, on six counts of armed robbery and criminal use of a firearm. The details of what transpired in the early morning hours of May 2, 1990 are lost — a fire at the state court administration warehouse several years ago destroyed the case files — but a third-degree weapons charge, which could indicate the possession of a silencer, automatic weapon, or “any explosive or incendiary bomb,” suggests that Tejada did not think small, even before he adopted his “Imperial” street name.

How Freddy Imperial obtained the nutcracker code is unclear (he did not respond to more than a dozen interview requests), but he got the recipe sometime around 2000, and soon sold his own drinks out of a barbershop.

For a time, Fatyuil and Freddy coexisted. She was on St. Nicholas Avenue, and he was a few blocks away, on Audubon Avenue. In a neighborhood where each block can have its own subculture and rhythm, they might as well have been on different continents, or so she thought. In 2003, Fatyuil was cutting hair when one of her deliverymen sprinted inside, panicked. Yellow cabs full of undercovers had just converged on her apartment building. Narcotics officers broke down the nutcracker den’s door with a battering ram.

Officers arrested Fatyuil’s girls and led them outside one by one, making them look up at an apartment window across the street, where Fatyuil believes an informant was hiding. Officers tested her drinks for drugs, she says, because the thinking went: Why else would traffic pile up to buy her contraband? But it was just liquor.

Rumor spread that Freddy himself had tipped off the police, but Fatyuil doubts Freddy did it. She blames nosy neighbors. Yet however it was that Fatyuil came to be under police scrutiny, her immigration status was dicey, and she decided to walk away, leaving Freddy free of his biggest competitor.

Dominican USA aired on public access television at 1 a.m. “Welcome to the wild world of Freddy Imperial,” the show’s tagline promised, “where you will see wild parties, spring break, New York neighborhoods, Dominican culture and much more.”

Jeannette Santiago, the programming director at Manhattan Neighborhood Network, remembers the show in starker terms. “It was just a program with strippers in it,” she says. “It was him going to parties and showing strippers all over the place.” But to Freddy, the show was no joke; when he dropped off cassette tapes at the network’s 59th Street headquarters, he was quiet, respectful, and all business.

The few clips that remain on YouTube also reveal something else: plastic quart containers filled with nutcrackers. Before podcasts, Instagram accounts, and YouTube channels became marketing tools, Freddy distributed his own content, and filled it with product placement.

The move was, as one of Freddy’s former employees put it, “genius.” Sales of Imperial Nutcracker boomed. Freddy sold it out of his barbershop year-round, and the show’s success ginned up demand for the drink beyond his fiefdom on Audubon Avenue. Copycat versions, each one a bit further from the original, began to circulate, and nutcracker aspirants followed established sellers into PJ Wine, the bustling Inwood liquor store, to watch which bottles they put in their shopping carts, hoping to poach the recipe. Others merely tinkered with the formula, adding cheap corn liquor and different juices.

In 2003, Sour Indyka was a weed-dealing poet looking to reduce her legal exposure when Fatyuil, still retired, bequeathed to her the original nutcracker recipe. Sour packed liquor bottles into shopping carts, working street corners and late-night parties in Riverside Park. Around this time, a frozen nutcracker slushie spinoff — called Nemo because the striped presentation resembled the Pixar fish — had started to boom. To keep up, Sour bought cheap blenders, peeled back the plates on light pole bases, plugged surge protectors into the revealed AC outlets and spun frozen drinks. She says she pocketed $1,000 a day at the height of summer.

Customers followed Sour around, even into restaurants, begging her to sell them nutcrackers. “Alcoholics, they were worse than weed heads,” she explains, in between drags off a blunt.

Sour Indyka’s nutcracker, based on the original recipe.
Photo: Scott Heins

Nutcrackers enjoyed a peculiar niche: illicit enough to generate big profits, but too innocuous to garner much police attention. Officers from the 34th Precinct did make occasional busts — in July, 2008, cops cited Freddy for selling nutcrackers out of his barbershop; a month later, officers seized a vehicle at a gas station on Ninth Avenue filled with five-gallon coolers of nutcrackers and 1,000 Styrofoam cups — but mostly, the cops didn’t bother with illegal drink sales, which usually resulted in a summons.

With little enforcement, some blocks soon boasted half-a-dozen sellers. Customers didn’t need to show IDs, so, summer after summer, underage kids drank, stumbled around, passed out on stoops, and got in fistfights.

“SELLING BOOZE TO KIDS,” screamed the Daily News headline on January 3, 2010. (“What the hell is a nutcracker,” managing editor Stuart Marques had asked when he first heard the story pitch. “Like the ballet?”)

“Just drink one,” a 16-year-old girl told reporter Simone Weichselbaum, at Freddy’s shop. “Two will get you twisted.”

A city-wide moral panic ensued. The governor, mayor, and city councilmen issued statements condemning nutcrackers. Reverend Al Sharpton threatened to organize “parent squads” to harass sellers if police didn’t intervene.

In the crackdown that followed, beat cops dumped alcohol on sidewalks and issued summonses to dealers and customers that ranged from $250 to $500. NYPD auxiliary officers who were under 21 infiltrated bodegas for buy-bust raids. The State Liquor Authority announced that it would task 20 percent of its investigators to the case, even though the agency’s enforcement staff was just 11 people. State legislators jockeyed to introduce nutcracker legislation. And Governor Cuomo eventually signed the so-called “nutcracker bill,” which stripped barbers of their licenses for selling alcohol to minors.

It didn’t matter. By that time, nutcracker fever had taken hold: In the summer of 2010, N.O.R.E., the rapper, released the song “Nutcracker.” Sour Indyka says she could earn $3,500 on Latin parade days, shouting “stand the fuck back!” as she rushed to mix drinks and stab straw holes into containers. Meanwhile, Freddy rode the wave. The Times reported that nutcracker “sellers include young and older women, blue-collar workers, street hustlers and the underemployed,” comparing the drink to Prohibition-era moonshine and “rotgut whiskey.”

But Freddy was no mere hooch peddler. He wanted to kick the enterprise up another gear, so he designed a brand logo for Imperial Nutcracker, featuring George Washington sipping from a soup container. He convinced the hip-hop star Pitbull to cut a one-minute promo for his drink. (The clip finishes with a warning: “IF YOU BUYING NUTCRACKERS AND IT DOESN’T HAVE THIS LOGO ITS FAKE!”) Freddy also printed T-shirts with the logo and sold them for $20; they became so coveted that fans still leave social media comments asking where to buy them. In February 2013, Freddy applied for trademarks on the design and the phrases “Freddy Imperial,” “Imperial Nutcracker,” and “Imperial Nutty.”

The final episode of Dominican USA aired on Manhattan Neighborhood Network in September, 2014. If fans still wanted to experience “the wild world of Freddy Imperial,” they could visit Made in Mexico, the restaurant at 211th Street and Tenth Avenue that he helped open two months earlier. (In February 2018, Jay-Z spent $9,000 on drinks at Made in Mexico before he walked to the club next door, Playroom NYC, where Freddy is also rumored to be an investor, and ran up a $91,000 tab.)

At Flor de Mayo, José Chu still slings the genuine product for $14, though he was forced to switch to Don Q 151 in 2016 after Bacardi discontinued its own notorious rum. On a busy night, the bar can sell 80 nutcrackers. After years spent drinking ersatz nutcrackers on the beach, tasting the original at Flor de Mayo can feel like growing up with T.J. Hooker before finally watching The Wire. If it’s a customer’s first time, a waitress will list the ingredients and issue a rote, blunt warning: “It’ll fuck you up.”

Knockoffs still proliferate, too. On a recent Saturday night, I messaged brooklyn_nutcrackers on Instagram. Fifteen minutes later, the 26-year-old stepped out of a sedan carrying a plastic bag heavy with watermelon, strawberry lemonade, and green apple nutcrackers. It costs him $350 to assemble a batch that he divides into 13 flavors and eventually sells for $1,100. He nets up to $400 a day making deliveries and selling nutcrackers at basketball tournaments in the park. He says his cousin gifted him the recipe, which he won’t reveal, but the drink is a saccharine slushie with hints of corn liquor and artificial flavors.

A selection of flavors from brooklyn_nutcrackers.
Photo: Christian Rodriguez

I asked brooklyn_nutcracker if he had ever heard of Freddy Imperial. Nope. “But,” he added, “I support anyone who chooses to do this hustle.”

Freddy Imperial’s legacy may be invisible to his heirs because that’s how he prefers it. For months, he evaded my efforts to get in touch. Freddy ignored messages I sent to Dominican USA’s Instagram account. He dodged business cards and a note that I hand-delivered to his restaurant. (Security searched me thoroughly on multiple occasions.) A message sent through his nightclub’s VIP table booking hotline went unanswered.

“He’s a studied dude, man,” says Frank Billini, who cut hair at Freddy’s barber shop in 2007 and 2008 and remains loyal to the man that, to him, embodies the consummate uptown hustler. “The more the mystery is prolonged, the more valuable it’s gonna be when it’s done, ya know? Creating that hype.”

Fatyuil and Sour Indyka both say they’ve heard rumors that Freddy sometimes sells nutcrackers, and photos of quart containers occasionally pop up on Instagram with the tag #imperialnutcracker. Dominican USA’s own Instagram feed is typically filled with photos of scantily clad women and shocking, gross-out videos, but on the first warm day of spring, a new photo was posted: A man holding the signature 32-ounce soup container, heavy with crimson liquid.

When I ask Billini about the rumors, he denies them … sort of. “It’s been a while,” he says, “since I’ve seen Frank with a nutcracker in his hands.” Then he flashes a small smile.

Street names are used for sources throughout, at their request, due to legal concerns.