America's Best Cocktail Bars
Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
Guy walks into a bar. Asks the bartender for a Manhattan with extra bitters. The bartender says, “You want orange bitters, lavender honey bitters, 19th-century Boker’s bitters, Mexican chocolate bitters, or plain old Angostura bitters?”
Well, okay, maybe it’s not much of a joke. But it points up two things: we’re in a golden age of cocktails. And to order a drink is to navigate a minefield.
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This is both good and bad, of course. The good: bartenders are making some amazing drinks these days. A whole new crop of handcrafted spirits are expanding the palette they paint with, and many craft bartenders are making their own syrups, infusions, and bitters, all of which add an unexpected depth and complexity to familiar drinks. To order a Repeal cocktail made with vanilla cardamom bitters at Green Russell in Denver is to step through a door you didn’t know existed.
The bad: some cocktail lounges and their bartenders seem a bit too pleased with themselves. Big mustaches and sleeve garters and 12 ingredients in a drink do not an excellent bar make. And woe to those who unwittingly order a Cosmopolitan here. Can’t we all just get a drink?
Happily, there’s a growing middle ground—places where you sip an excellent cocktail and still get amiable, top-notch service as well. Like at Drink, in Boston, where the staff is trained to listen and then deliver exactly what you want, even if you weren’t sure what that was in the first place.
What makes a great craft cocktail bar? It starts with quality ingredients—good liquor, fresh-squeezed juices, and (often) house-made bitters and infusions. Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco goes through a lot of lemon, lime, and orange juice, all of it squeezed fresh daily. There’s also a depth of knowledge at a good bar—everyone knows how a balanced drink works and the history of such venerable potions as the Negroni and the mai tai.
But best of all, craft bartenders better understand that you’re out to enjoy yourself, not to take an exam on your tastes in drink.
The modern craft cocktail scene surfaced in New York and San Francisco about a decade ago—today, you could easily list a dozen outstanding cocktail bars in those two cities alone. But ripples are moving outward daily, and today most every large city has at least one great cocktail bar.
Here are our favorites.
The Clover Club, Brooklyn
Owner Julie Reiner helped kick-start the classic cocktail trend nationwide from a Brooklyn bar imbued with wonderfully dated elegance. (Think: Persian carpets and an ornate Victorian backbar.) Order vintage drinks like fizzes or sours, or explore modern adaptations of the past, like the Duke Leto, made with Dubonnet, Old Tom Gin, Chartreuse, and salt tincture.
Check It Out: Clover Club serves up a selection of punches ($46 a bowl, serves several) built on the research of noted barfly and Brooklynite David Wondrich.
Anvil Bar, Houston
Bartender/partner Bobby Heugel built his noted bar in a mid-century tire store, then added a warm burnish with recycled woods and other repurposed materials. But the tastes are bright and fresh, and the bar deftly melds fresh ingredients, bold spirits, and classic proportions to make the drinks sing, whether they’re revivals or a trip into the unknown.
Check It Out: Tuesday nights are tiki nights, when bartenders explore one of America’s more intriguing homegrown drink cultures.
Cure, New Orleans
Located in a reclaimed firehouse, a 15-minute taxi ride from the lurid drinks of Bourbon Street, this classy bar has perfected the delicate act behind the perfectly balanced cocktail. With a tremendous selection of spirits, a variety of house-made bitters, and a talented crew with a freakish bent for creativity, cocktails here never disappoint.
Check It Out: As with food and music, New Orleans follows its own drummer when it comes to cocktails. Ask about twists on invented-here drinks, like the Sazerac or brandy crusta.
Smuggler’s Cove, San Francisco
Smuggler’s Cove is a temple to rum. Walking into this faux tropical oasis amid uninteresting office buildings is like stumbling upon a Polynesian shipwreck. With three tiny floors and a capacity of just 50, the bar features more than 170 rums, which end up in drinks like Prohibition-era Havana classics and California tiki marvels of the 1950s.
Check It Out: Register on the Smuggler’s Cove website, and you can create an online version of a ship’s log, tracking your rummy voyage and noting those rums you favor and those you don’t.
Green Russell, Denver
Green Russell, opened just last year on Denver’s bustling Larimer Square, embraces the speakeasy meme (you walk through a small pizza stand to find this basement bar). The bartenders are all well schooled in the classics and hand-chip ice from a 300-pound block when you place your order.
Check It Out: That big window behind the bar with the bright lights on inside? That’s the bar’s indoor plantation, where Meyer lemons, kumquats, Thai basil, and more are grown to supply fresh drink ingredients.
The first thing you notice when you enter Drink? What’s not there: bottles of booze or a list of specialty cocktails. They hope to coax you out of your rut and get you to try something new at this sleek basement bar with a modern speakeasy vibe. Have a seat, explain what you like and what you don’t…and then sit back and enjoy.
Check It Out: Arrive shortly after opening at 4 p.m., which allows your bartender time to conceive your prescription and compound the right formula.
The Passenger, Washington,D.C.
Derek Brown, a founder and partner at The Passenger, stays a step ahead of the trendy cocktail horde, and his tasty drinks are cutting edge without leaving you wounded. This wood, brick, and green leather lounge off Mount Vernon Square draws lively crowds weekends and after work.
Check It Out: Seriously serious about drink? Head to the reservations-only Columbia Room, a hidden bar within a bar. It’s an intimate 10-seat back room; order the cocktail tasting menu ($64 per person).
Teardrop Lounge, Portland, OR
Racks of blue eyedropper bottles may be the first thing you’ll notice upon entering—it’s like a mad chemist’s laboratory. They’re filled with homemade bitters, the secret behind many of the superb drinks served here. When you leave you’ll understand that bitter isn’t really bitter—it’s a jester who complicates both sweet and sour, and makes the simple more complex.
Check It Out: Try a “bonded old-fashioned,” a twist on an old standard, but made with a historic applejack liquor rather than whiskey.
Zig Zag Café, Seattle
Zig Zag was among the original cocktail revivalist bars, established in part to showcase the remarkable talents of veteran barman Murray Stenson. There’s not much signage, giving it the feel of a hidden redoubt. The cocktail list trends toward variations on the classics. The service? Impeccable.
Check It Out: A drink called Don’t Give Up the Ship is a study in balance, made with gin, Dubonnet, Grand Marnier, and the always-difficult-to-tame Italian amaro called Fernet Branca.
The Violet Hour, Chicago
The first challenge is to find this unmarked place, a first-generation neo-speakeasy. The number of guests allowed inside is capped at the number of stools and seats, ensuring a reasonably sane session of cocktail sampling. Try some of the updated classics, like the Notorious F.L.I.P., made with navy-strength rum, bitter liqueurs, and a whole egg.
Check It Out: The custom ice program here was one of the nation’s first—you’ll get a big ice sphere for bourbon on the rocks, and an ice spike for tall drinks.