Best Whiskey Bars in America
Mark Twain once observed, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough”—a philosophy Americans are increasingly taking to heart. In 2013, sales of the heavenly brown liquid outpaced all other spirits, and specialty bars are popping up at an overwhelming rate.
“Five years ago, you could count the good whiskey bars on two hands,” says Lew Bryson, managing editor of Whisky Advocate. “Now it’s impossible to keep up.”
So what makes a whiskey bar stand out from the crowd? A solid selection (at least 50 bottles) is imperative, according to Bryson, as is staff knowledge and enthusiasm. “I want servers who actually drink the stuff,” he says. It’s also promising if a bar hosts a whiskey tasting club, as does L.A.’s Seven Grand.
Some whiskey fans seek out bars stocking an encyclopedic variety, from American small-batch rarities to Japanese single malts. At Seattle’s whiskey emporium Canon, you’re spoiled for choice between a menu that runs more than 100 pages, a selection of tasting flights, and craft cocktails like the Skull and Blackberries (Canon select double rye, dark rum, Rossbacher, blackberry, blueberry smoke).
For others, bourbon is king. And the seat of that kingdom is Kentucky, where the Bluegrass Tavern serves bourbon from nine regional distilleries, including every variety imaginable from companies like Bulleit and Four Roses.
Bourbon, rye, Scotch—all these types of whiskey are distilled from fermented grain. Yet the flavor can be infinitely affected by variables like type of grain (bourbon legally has to be 51 percent corn, for instance) and the barrel in which it’s aged.
To get the most out of each whiskey’s flavor, Moiz Ali—cofounder of Caskers, a crafts spirits club with hundreds of thousands of members—recommends tasting it neat first. “For high-proof whiskey, I might add a few drops of water or a cube of ice,” he adds. “This helps open up the whiskey’s aromas and flavors, which can be masked behind the high alcohol content.”
As a first pour, we’ve rounded up 16 notable whiskey bars across the nation. While fans will have their own favorites, we can all get behind the meaning of the word whiskey: “water of life” in Gaelic.
The 404 Kitchen, Nashville
Nashville has recently attracted national attention for its food and drink scene. Credit goes to innovators like the 404 Kitchen, located within a 40-foot former shipping container adjacent to the 404 Hotel. Here, whiskey aficionados will find more than 150 varieties, including super-rare spirits from Ireland to Utah—and a sizable collection of Japanese “juice.” Hungry? You’ve come to the right place: 404 is a James Beard Award semifinalist, known for locally sourced Italian-style dishes like delicata squash soup and cornmeal-crusted fluke.
Jack Rose Dining Saloon, Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., is our nation’s capital, and a visit to Jack Rose may convince you it’s also the center of the whiskey universe. The Adams Morgan saloon serves whiskey on tap and stocks an incredible 1,800 bottles of the golden stuff. Consider a spirit like the 15-year-old Jefferson’s Reserve from the Rare Bottlings collection. You can savor it in the cozy, wood-paneled whiskey cellar, on the open-air terrace, or in the dining saloon itself, where cigars are also on the menu.
Bluegrass Tavern, Lexington, KY
Since 2009, 2.5 million tourists have traveled the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to tour its nine historic distilleries, including Bulleit and Woodford Reserve. So a Lexington bar better be legit: patrons are guaranteed to know their stuff and expect to be impressed. Bluegrass Tavern comes through with 230 kinds of bourbon, including scarce vintages like Four Roses Limited Single Barrel.
Seattle may be famous for its coffee, but not to the detriment of other vices. Canon, the rainy city’s very own whiskey library, offers the largest selection of American whiskey in the Western Hemisphere. Stacks upon stacks of bottles are piled high to the pressed-tin ceiling, and Canon’s booze book dedicates nine to rare batches alone. Guests can browse old-school bartending books while they wait for a craft cocktail and helping of Angostura-bourbon nuts from the ever-changing menu.
Flatiron Room, New York City
Manhattan’s premiere whiskey destination charms patrons with nearly 500 varieties—some accessible only by ladder—as well as highly informed whiskey guides, live jazz music, a swanky setting (plush banquettes, cabaret-style tables, chandeliers), and A-list people-watching. You can even get schooled during one-day classes in its private upstairs room. Just be sure to make your reservation ahead of time. As Flatiron’s website states: “We love our guests. So much so that we are willing to turn some away so the ones inside can best enjoy their experience.”
Barrel Proof, New Orleans
If Barrel Proof were a whiskey, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy it until 2016. Yet the bar itself is already a New Orleans classic, founded by Liam Deegan—head cocktail maker at the popular French Quarter restaurant Sylvain—as an ode to whiskey in its purest form. Only a few classic cocktails are available. To encourage customers to try something new, all the whiskeys can be ordered as a full shot or a single-ounce taste. Barrel Proof breaks its varieties into thirds: American, Scottish, and wild cards from all over the world.
Seven Grand and the Bar Jackalope, Los Angeles
Seven Grand attracts local “whiskeyheads” to its twice-monthly tastings with master distillers. But anyone who drops by can dabble among the bar’s 400-variety selection. And there’s more: in early 2014, the owners took things up a notch, opening the Bar Jackalope in Seven Grand’s back room. Keep an eye out for the separate entrance; to get in, press the light switch button to beckon someone to open the door for you. Inside await more than 120 Japanese and American varieties, including Pappy Van Winkle—and seats for only 18 guests at a time.
Saloon, Somerville, MA
There’s a 1920s speakeasy vibe at Saloon, the kind of bar that’s serious about its whiskey and will also make you feel like you’ve stepped into a scene from The Great Gatsby. This Davis Square staple has more than 150 expertly curated whiskeys, as well as craft cocktails with names like It Might Get Loud and, uh, Deathwish.
Delilah’s is a whiskey nerd’s paradise disguised as a dive bar. Different nights of the week are assigned corresponding rock-and-roll themes, and it’s so dark the bartenders hand customers flashlights to examine the menu. The Lincoln Park institution offers hundreds of whiskey bottles, and for its 20th anniversary the owners launched a one-of-a-kind whisky in collaboration with London’s Compass Box Whisky Company. Yelp reviewer Kevin D. nicely sums up the spirit of Delilah’s: “This place is a good test of the friends you should keep and the people you should date.”
Century Bar, Dayton, OH
Century Bar’s website declares: “Bourbon is our passion and we want to make it yours as well.” To that end, the bar offers something for every palette—87 bourbons, including the Jesse James Outlaw Bourbon. It gets extra credit for being located inside former Kette & Sons Rye Whiskey Distillery, a two-hour drive from bourbon hotbed Lexington, KY. Stop by for a blind tasting.
Piper’s Pub, Pittsburgh, PA
Pittsburgh has some Scottish roots—for one, steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie made his fortune here—so it’s only fitting that local favorite Piper’s Pub has a seriously staggering collection of Scotch. Here, you can follow European football while sampling a 12-year-old Glen Ord from Scotland’s Highlands or a Talisker Storm from the Isle of Skye. On Sunday, make it an Irish coffee (infused with Jameson and Baileys) over brunch.
Hard Water, San Francisco
Hard Water is a treasure trove of “grade A” vintage American whiskeys—more than 100 of which are now out of production. (For starters, ask about the secret 12-year-old Old Rip Van Winkle private barrel selection.) Bartenders scale the shelf on ladders akin to the ones housepainters use. The space has a warm glow yet a more contemporary look than your traditional library-like whiskey bar.
Haymarket Whiskey Bar, Louisville, KY
Part dive bar and part whimsical throwback—with vintage movie posters and Dr. Who pinball—Haymarket Whiskey Bar is above all a haven for bourbon lovers. It’s located at the east end of Louisville’s famous whiskey row. Show up for live rock bands four nights a week and whiskey history classes with owner Matthew Landan.
East Side Showroom, Austin, TX
East Side Showroom is famous within Austin city limits for executive bar manager Julianna Fry's twist on the Old Fashioned (rye, orange oil, sugar, and bitters) and bartender Matt White's Southern Belle (bourbon, honey, lemon, and elderflower). Fry's philosophy here is simple: whiskey plus seasonal ingredients plus mad mixology skills. If you want to keep things even simpler, forgo cocktails for a pour from the Pappy Van Winkle collection; East Side Showroom has the entire collection.
Sycamore, Brooklyn, NY
With its low-key vibe and Victorian houses, Ditmas Park isn’t the first Brooklyn neighborhood that comes to mind for a night out. But Sycamore is worth the subway trip, a one-of-a-kind whiskey destination that doubles as a flower shop. Visitors are greeted by a gleaming shelf stocked high with bourbon—and potted plants. You can also expect knowledgeable, enthusiastic bartenders, an ivy-covered backyard, and whiskeys of the week. Cyrus Noble Small Batch Bourbon was a recent pick.