WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: The Bait and Switch
Sitting on a Haight Street block riddled with fauxhemians offering to sell you not-all-that-great drugs, you might miss the low-key Alembic if you’re not looking. Long a mainstay of the SF cocktail scene, many in the chattering class questioned whether it could maintain its high, innovative standards when Daniel Hyatt left last year, but, thanks in large part to bar manager Ethan Terry and his team, the nouveau Alembic remains just as formidable. Oh, and you absolutely need to check out their new Summer drink menu (rolling out in the next few weeks), featuring hitters like the awesomely named Too Cold, made with frozen vanilla paste ice cubes (literally Vanilla Ice… get it? DO YOU?!?!), Sun Liquors rum, muddled cucumber, and the Italian aperitivo cappelletti, or the Bait and Switch, our favorite hot weather drink so far this year, which features mezcal, strawberry puree, aloe liqueur, and black and pink peppercorn syrup.
Anvil Bar & Refuge
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: Pliny’s Tonic
As one of the torchbearers of the craft cocktail movement in Texas since it opened in 2009, Anvil is a no-brainer on this list. Bobby Heugel, Kevin Floyd, and Steve Flippo do all the things you want in a cocktail bar -- housemade sodas, liqueurs, and infusions using Southern ingredients (uh, okra?) -- with an aesthetic that makes the most of pretty much everything, down to its former meat locker doors that lead to the bathrooms. Though they have a 100-strong cocktail list, we’re currently enamored of their Pliny’s Tonic, with gin, lime, mint, cucumber, and a kick from the habanero tincture.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: Whatever you like (talk to the bartender, he’ll sort it out)
Let’s get something out of the way first. Yes, I did name them to our 33 best new restaurants in 2013. And yes, I still do love their food. But this place -- as you can tell by the name -- is a bar first, and Colin Anderson’s drinks, thoughtfully crafted by bartenders who take the time to ask you about spirits you like/hate or the time in college when you accidentally had fernet and now definitely never want to have fernet again, can compete with any cocktails in fancier towns not made of steel.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: A Seasonal Old Fashioned
Normally hotel bars are the kind of bars you go to when you have no other options left, and you will just about drink anything. The Broken Shaker is not one of those bars. Inside Freehand Miami Hostel, it’s a tiny throwback to the '50s, where Gabriel Orta and Elad Zvi mix up the best cocktails in Florida, so apologize to your grandparents in West Palm, and go sit outside sipping one of their seasonal Old Fashioneds in the heckler chairs by the bocce ball court. And then another. And another. And…
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: A Brandy Old Fashioned
It was started as a beer hall in the mid '30s and served suds, until the owner decided to give it a go as a cocktail bar instead in 1938. It proved to be a good decision, as it's survived countless trend changes and a 1971 fire so destructive it melted the cash register. They rebuilt it beautifully and haven't changed the place much since. You can feel the history when you drink here, but you'll be more interested in the intoxicating darkness and your flawless (and also intoxicating) brandy Old Fashioned.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: Pineapple Julep or a Northeast Kingdom
Celebrating the old Clover Club -- a group of journalists who got together and sipped cocktails while shouting down famous speakers who came to talk to them -- the updated version is thankfully devoid of aggressive Philadelphia journalists, but is full of amazing, curated cocktails that are cheaper than you’d find in Manhattan, but nonetheless delicious and expertly crafted. (Try that simple julep, with bourbon, pineapple syrup, and mint, or any of their “New Takes On Gin”.) Plus -- and this is a huge plus -- the entire operation feels authentic without the pretension: they’re going to make you a mean cocktail, but they’re not going be mean while doing it. Imagine that.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: Dry Martini
An exclusive, 10-seat bar located in the back of another popular saloon called The Passenger, CR pairs craft cocktails and food, both of which have a seasonal/local bent, and all of which are consumed while soaking up the drinkery's calming atmosphere. A recent pairing includes the Waggle Dance cocktail with reposado, Benedictine, Barolo Chinato, and dandelion root "coffee" alongside dandelion green pesto and ricotta on toast, with a fried lemon and honey. For fans of classic cocktails (aka anyone with a taste bud left in their mouth), their dry gin martini with vermouth, lemon peel, and Castelvetrano olives is one of the country's best.
WHAT YOU’RE DRINKING: Mexican Bus Ride
Cure rolled into Uptown’s Freret Street corridor in 2009, simultaneously kicking off the revitalization of an area still recovering from Katrina two years after the storm and bringing the new-school mixology movement to a city that has never lacked in quality ‘tails. The minds behind this brick-walled spot now have a mini-empire, but the OG is still a winner thanks to a spacious patio that’s walled in by vines of jasmine, a subtly sexy indoor vibe, and creative combinations like their mezcal, tequila, Benedectine, and Cocchi Americano Rosa-filled Mexican Bus Ride, a South of the border take on the Manhattan.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: The Bobby Burns
If we can only pick one OG New York cocktail bar to include on our “best” list, it has to be Death & Company. The storied speakeasy that accelerated the city’s re-emerging cocktail scene in the mid-2000s is still inspiring drink-makers around the country, and countless D&C alums have gone on to launch future-OG cocktaileries of their own (see: Pouring Ribbons, Mayahuel, and so many more). The moody decor, Prohibition feel, and epic wait times haven’t changed much over the years, and neither has the joint’s high standard for perfectly layered drinks that are heavy on the spirits. You’ll never go wrong with any brown booze here -- or with the truffled mac ‘n cheese.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: Something based on what you tell the bartender
Back in 2008 when Drink opened in Fort Point Channel, it was a risk for several reasons. One, other than Lucky’s, there just wasn’t really anything in Fort Point. Two, they wanted to do a bar where mixology was the focus, and THERE WERE NO COCKTAIL MENUS. But -- as everyone in Boston now knows -- you’d be a fool to bet against anything Barbara Lynch ever does. Working with the insanely talented bartender/cocktail historian John Gertsen (who created No. 9 Park’s impressive bar program), Drink opened to much fanfare, lived up to the hype, and is now a destination bar, the anchor of a scene that has grown like a fitful teenager over the last six years. Our suggestion is to go early on a weekday, find a seat at the bar, tell them you like something with gin and citrus, then sit back and watch the show.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: The Kentucky Maid
The final piece in a trifecta of restaurants that includes Beasley’s Chicken and Honey & Chuck’s burger spot, Fox Liquor is an ultra-chill basement lounge populated with couches and inspired by the owner’s extensive research of Manhattan’s top spots. The 30+ custom cocktails on the menu run the gamut from a classic Vieux Carre to tropical fare like the Hemingway Daiquiri and a Bitter Mai Tai spiked with rum, Campari, and orgeat. The menu’s essentially a souped-up history lesson on the history of the cocktail. Learning is seldom this rewarding.
Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: The Whizz Bang
Named for a Prohibition-era business that secretly moved enough illegal hooch to make Al Capone look like a cheapskate sneaking a flask into a concert, Franklin keeps its old-timey aesthetic while moving the cocktail program into a modern obsessive’s realm. That means the dapper cocktailians at this Death & Co. collaboration whip up classics and modernist fare from a rotating list of 20+ punches and cocktails ranging from easy-sipping refreshers to drinks that might double as Molotov cocktails. While you’re there, purchase the legal hooch-filled Whizz Bang, served-up and loaded with Scotch, absinthe, grenadine, and orange bitters.
WHAT YOU’RE DRINKING: A French 75, naturally
Contrasting the neon lights of its neighbors around the corner on Bourbon Street, this historic bar is all tile, wood, and lighting appropriate for covert heavy petting (unlike the more blatant happenings on Bourbon). As the cigar lounge and cocktail home of the historic Arnaud’s Restaurant -- one of the grandes dames of New Orleans’ dining scene -- famed bartender Chris Hannah maintains a drink menu worthy of an older, more sophisticated cocktail era. Each of his classics, like an expertly layered Sazerac are worth a night’s sampling, but opt for the house namesake first, a fluted glass of Champagne, Courvoisier VS, sugar, lemon, and quite possibly magic.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: Brass Knuckle
I am a gin fan. I celebrate gin and all its piney glory, because it reminds me of Christmas and trees and getting particularly hard-to-find G.I. Joe guys. And this is part of why I love GJ and their formidable selection of cocktails featuring my spirit of choice. If you like spice, opt for the Hot Head using red chili gin, Luxardo Maraschino, Campari, and Cherry Heering, or, if you want my two favorite liquors (gin and mezcal) combined in a Voltron-esque move, pick the Brass Knuckle, which also adds lemon, pineapple, yellow chartreuse, plus celery and Angostura bitters to the mix.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: A Radish Walks into a Bar
With a Beard Award and an Iron Chef title under his belt, Portland chef Vitaly Paley could have coasted on his food rep alone. But with Imperial, he’s now made his reputation with bars, too, enlisting a former Bartenders Guild president to design a menu of spirits-forward nectar. Get the Vieux Carre on tap (for a mere $5 at happy hour), or anything from their inventive cocktail list that employs ingredients like radish gastrique, chamomile-infused vermouth, rose liqueur (it is the Rose City), and other carefully selected ingredients poured over gigantic ice cubes sawed into various shapes on the bar top.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: The Jaws
You know a bar is good when they offer a $2 discount on Dark 'n Stormy's “when raining”. Leon’s, which makes its home in a former gas station, has been a legend on the scene since it arrived five years ago, and it continues to shine with Shanna Mayo now in charge of the bar program. Known for their legendary bar snacks (why yes, they do have bacon in a glass), they’ve also got some of the most inventive, creative cocktails anywhere, as evidenced by new moves like The Jaws, which is a play on a Tiki drink, with rum, almond milk, absinthe, mango, a fin-like lime, and bitters floating above the rest like blood in the water
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: Bartender’s Choice (ask for the cards)
Imagine Beast’s library in Beauty & the Beast. Now, add in a full bar serving up boozy deliciousness and snacks and subtract that pompous candlestick. Sound like a nerdy-but-sexy dream? Welcome to the NoMad Library. Hidden off the lobby of the swank NoMad Hotel, this glowy, real-book-lined drinking den offers seasonal drinks from Eleven Madison Park’s acclaimed Leo Robitschek. Divided into “light-spirited” and “dark-spirited”, the cocktails -- such as the bourbon, rum, and sherry-fueled Wheeler & Wilson -- are hefty, yes, but balanced. Choose from the menu, or play it fast and loose with a round of the house cocktail cards, which let you select from a deck of cultural touchstones for the bartender to interpret. A hand of Tin Pan Alley (“local”), Indiana Jones (“adventurous”), and Batman (“dark”) returns a smokey Scotch and sherry combo -- just strong enough to make you feel like a beast yourself.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: The Gatsby with Benedictine, Scotch, salt, and apricot
Hidden in the basement of the warehouse district’s baller Bachelor Farmer, Marvel has the vibe of a classic speakeasy, including minimal signage, massive punchbowls, and a quasi-rustic lounge vibe. And while the place has all the trappings of a stuffy cocktail-snob magnet – elaborate cocktails made like science projects with fancy equipment and the incorporation of crazy infusion ingredients served by mustachioed men who take drinks very seriously – it takes great pains to stymie pretensions, thanks to Cheetos, the bar’s go-to snack offering. That’s how you do Midwest mixology.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: If you're three to four people, a punchbowl
When the tenure of the unlicensed “massage parlor” in the unassuming shotgun space between two college bars came to an unhappy ending, the folks behind the Alamo Drafthouse took over and renovated the former brothel into a reservation-only cocktail den. There's no sign, but look for a red light above a doorway, buzz your way in by hitting the button for Harry Craddock, and make your way to one of the plush leather booths or private rooms to enjoy a cocktail program marked by hand-smashed ice, tableside cart service, and specialties like the AC Milano punchbowl, loaded with rhum, rum, Campari, Pimm's No. 1, pineapple syrup, grapefruit, lime, Angostura, and Chinotto soda.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: Dealer’s Choice (ask for gin)
Despite the fact that Prohibition, on a whole, was anything but a Noble Experiment, this bar -- the standard-bearer in the San Diego cocktail scene -- is. Sure, it does offer up the, at this point well-worn, move of hiding itself behind something else (in this case, a wall of beer kegs in the restaurant Neighborhood) and you have to make a reservation, but once you get past those barriers to entry, it still maintains one of the best bar programs in SoCal, and the fact that so many alums go on to spread the cocktail word around the city (and Noble’s own team opened up our other favorite, Polite Provisions) is a testament to that power.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: The Jennings, and then something fancier
In a town well known for honky-tonks, Jack and Cokes, and OHMYGODCOACHTAYLOR'SWIFEJUSTWALKEDBY, The Patterson House started as an outlier in 2009 when the Goldberg brothers (of Pinewood Social, The Catbird Seat, and so many other cool things) opened it up after checking out Violet Hour in Chicago and deciding that sort of thing needed to happen in Nashville. And thanks to its sophisticated decor (cozy, 30-seat bar, vintage chandeliers), and even more sophisticated drinks (get the hickory-smoked cola and whiskey Jennings first and then move on), it remains one of the leaders in a town where new, interesting things seem to be happening every minute. Just try and play it cool when that dude who was the QB on Nashville and almost married the young, kind of slutty singer walks by.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: The Bad Habit or the Classic Gin Martini
Up a flight of stairs, past the easy-to-miss entrance on a lonely block of Avenue B lies PR, a low-key space, heavy on group-friendly seating and bare wood (no cutesy Prohibition decor here). The menu -- crafted by Death & Co. legend Joaquín Simó -- is fun, from the drink names (a mezcal-laced Border Patrol; a plummy Zwack Morris) to the Cartesian grid that advises where each cocktail falls on a scale from “refreshing” to “spirituous” and “comforting” to “adventurous”. But don’t be fooled by the names, these are serious drinks: inventive, boozy, and perfectly balanced, with complex flavors (rum, gin, marmalade, and BBQ bitters in one) layered seamlessly. And yes, if you want s’mores, they’ll give you s’mores.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: The Oaxacan Standoff, or a Temescal
The first time I went to Prizefighter, it was with a distiller from St. George Spirits, who first directed us to grab pizzas from a shop around the corner, then went inside and came back with the Oaxacan Standoff: a can of Tecate, a small shot of mezcal, and a tropical-green, housemade sangrita made with pineapple, mint, and jalapeño that might've been the most lovely way to ever follow up a shot. And since then it continues to be one of the most underrated, most relaxed, and most brilliant bars in the Bay Area. But what elevates it to our Top 33 status is both its subtle brilliance with cocktails and punches (hard to go wrong with Mutiny on the Bounty) and the formidable mezcal list (they’ve got 20) that they built before formidable mezcal lists were a thing.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: The Grog
One of the first new-school speakeasies in the country when they opened eight years ago, PX still retains its aura of secrecy with an unmarked entrance and a simple blue light next to a red door. Once inside, the chandelier-lit room with low-slung couches and chairs might feel like "someone's apartment in the '20s", but that guy's apartment didn't have a world champion of the 42Below cocktail competition working there, or a 'tail menu that's refreshed weekly. Probably because the depression was happening at the time, or whatever. We love the Grog, a Captain Morgan's rum concoction, mixed with lemon verbena tea, lime juice, and housemade lemon bitters.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: Something with gin in it
In two short years, Scofflaw has won many a convert among previously gin-phobic imbibers with their impeccable, seasonally changing, gin-centric cocktail menu. Affordability doesn't hurt either -- you'll regularly enjoy an $8 cocktail whose quality easily trumps higher priced offerings elsewhere, though the Louis XV settee you're lounging in will make you feel like you paid more.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: A Long Tall Sally
A pioneering institution, which would be difficult to find if not for the perpetual line outside its windowless, mural-covered facade, The Violet Hour has remained steadfastly confident in its own cocktail artistry as countless imitators have come and (sometimes) gone. Once you've secured a spot in the dark, chandelier-lit lounge, you're best off making it worth your while and sampling at least a couple of offerings (it's hard to make a bad call), like the Long Tall Sally, made with pineapple-infused gin, Dolin Blanc, Luxardo Maraschino, and chipotle bitters.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: The Mint Julep with Four Roses Single Barrel
Heralded as one of the best whiskey bars in the country, the Dollar’s housed in an old firehouse -- the beat-up exposed brick on the walls remains -- and pays tribute to old-school juke joints and the Okies that populated them, serving up whiskey shots to a Merle Haggard soundtrack. But just because the honky-tonk isn’t fancy doesn’t mean the cocktails can’t be. Thanks to Susie Hoyt, they’ve got next-level drinks like the Rebel Rouser that combines bourbon with vanilla bean and cherry bark tincture, Wild Turkey punched up with curacao in the One Horse Cowboy, and the classic Moscow Mule comes with a purchasable copper mug you should maybe buy because you need one. After all, a sturdy mug is a plus when you start swinging it back and forth while listening to “Okie from Muskogee” for the third time.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: The Cooper's Julep
The deer head staring at you from the wall and the bartenders who're dressed much better than you instantly let you know that this Motor City joint is serious about its libations, an impression the lengthy menu backs up. Looking for something classic? They have 100 in their repertoire. Punch service for groups/really thirsty individuals? Check. But you'd be remiss not to test out their seasonal creations, like The Cooper's Julep, made of Courvoisier VS, balsamic-pineapple shrub, demerara, and mint, and laced with a touch of Smith & Cross rum.
WHAT YOU’RE DRINKING: A Jupiter
Sun Liquor Lounge opened in 2006 as a neighborhood cocktailery that peddled fresh juices and housemade syrups as part of their reputable drink program. And while their cocktails are still supremely sippable, since 2011, you can grab the same drinks at their distillery that’s just nine blocks down the road. The 65-seater is one of the only places in the country where you can drink house-distilled boozes (they have two rums, two gins, and even a vodka for the haters). The menu changes with the seasons, but we love the ‘20s go-to Jupiter, in which the dry vermouth and Parfait d’Amour benefit from Sun Liquor’s award-winning and awesomely named Gun Club gin and fresh squeezed OJ.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: Gardenhead
Anyone who knows anything about the St. Louis drink scene knows Ted Kilgore, who was instrumental in launching the craft cocktail movement in the city, and Taste was his perch. Although he left to do his own bar (and we may just be talking about that later in the year), his commitment to cocktail excellence remains there, thanks to Kyle Mathis, who has kept the cocktail torch burning (alcohol is extremely flammable). We love his Gardenhead cocktail, which uses St. George Botanivore gin and their raspberry brandy, fernet, and vermouth. The delicious bacon fat-fried cornbread doesn’t hurt either.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: The, um, Cancer
It burst onto the scene last year as the long-awaited project from the Bon Vivants, a group of cocktail consultants whose names ring out in SF like Omar’s on The Wire, except maybe with different, more positive connotations. And then, despite hype so deafening it required ear plugs, they went ahead and nailed it with delicious, interesting cocktails that continue to evolve, as they regularly throw out their old, precious list in favor of new moves, just to stay on their game. Our favorites on the current list, all on an astrology wheel obviously, include the Virgo (Tanqueray Malacca gin, sherry, kiwi soda), and the Cancer, with Black Grouse Scotch, Ardberg 10, salted pineapple, peanut, and sage.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: The Nice Legs, or Bartender’s Choice
Housed in a former storage room behind LA’s infamous Coles -- a 1908 restaurant that claims it invented the French dip and that underwent a $1.6mill renovation six years ago -- The Varnish may be relatively new, but it looks very much old school. Unmarked except for a drawing of a cocktail on the door, the dark, brick-and-wood-laden place has posted house rules (sandwiches are permitted, but sides are not… for some reason) to follow as you sip Prohibition-era cocktails to a jazz soundtrack and watch obsessive cocktailers hack away at full ice blocks to chill your drink. Do yourself a favor and order the Bartender’s Choice. These are some of the best mixologists in the City of Angels, so your future drinking is in good hands.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: The Tango Manhattan
While many bars try to recreate the whole speakeasy vibe, Cleveland’s Velvet Tango Room has no need for make-believe. In its past life, the old house hosted bootleggers and their customers during Prohibition, and it’s still got the bullet holes in the ceiling to this day. The threat of violence and of encountering Elliott Ness (who, post-prohibition, is rumored to have been a regular at a different Cleveland bar) is gone, but the cocktails remain, and they’re spectacular. Drinks are served to live jazz in the scarlet-hued, lodge-like interior or in the outdoor garden, and they are Cleveland’s finest. Take advantage of the cocktail flights, which offer you a chance to sample three different drinks before finishing off on a full-sized one. Then, grab their twist on the Manhattan, which adds a housemade bitters and red-wine reduction to the bourbon-y classic.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: Sexual Chocolate
A cocktail-themed bookstore is the front for this barely-lit speakeasy co-owned by a guy named the 2014 Bartender of the Year by the Nightclub and Bar Awards. Before you order from their finely curated cocktail menu of classic 'tails (helpfully organized by spirit) and a wealth of specialty cocktails, you first will have to be lead through a bookcase that doubles as a secret entrance. Once inside, don't forget to pair your drink (go for the Sexual Chocolate with rye, vermouth, Cynar, maraschino liqueur, and chocolate mole bitters) with a steak burger that uses beef from a top-notch butcher shop down the street.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: The Royal Oak
London’s recent cocktail scene's second wind has now turned into a hurricane, and the eye around which everything revolves is Tony Conigliaro. About a half decade ago, he opened a slick looking Italy-in-the-fifties-style drink spot at 69 Colebrooke Row and, more importantly, a London-in-the-21st-century-style laboratory a couple doors down. There -- in the very room that Pink Floyd recorded The Wall, no less -- he puts together molecule-perfect quenchers like his deconstructed Bloody Mary (with a spherified “yolk” of clarified tomato juice floating in lab-made horseradish vodka), and the Terroir, made from “distilled clay, flint, and lichen”, and probably best served on the rocks. At the bar, go for the the Royal Oak, a Champagne drink mixed with acorn liqueur and oak bitters.
WHAT YOU'RE DRINKING: Jerky Lab Jack
Proving Montreal isn’t just good at legally titillating 19-year-old American college students, Le Lab is our Canadian friends' pick as the top cocktailery in the country, a place where bartenders basically become scientists (labtenders? SPREAD IT!), creating magical drinks using all sorts of fancy techniques I can’t even pretend to explain. But all that won’t matter once you try their famed Jerky Lab Jack, made with secret BBQ bitters, Jack Daniels No. 7, sugar, and triple sec, and then topped with strips of jerky: it’s like a BBQ in your mouth SO NO ONE ELSE HAS TO COME AND RUIN IT.