Many of the drinks on today’s cocktail menus owe a debt to history: specifically, the power-player bars of the last decade or so. From barrel-aged Negronis to mezcal-spiked libations to a simple dram of bourbon chilled by a tremendous hunk of ice, here are 13 craft cocktail bars that helped shape what and how we drink today.
1. Milk & Honey
Why It Matters: The upscale London import overseen by Sasha Petraske has moved from the Lower East Side to the Flatiron District and may change location yet again. But wherever it lands, this unmarked bar was the progenitor of Little Branch, Middle Branch and Attaboy, among others famous New York City bars. Milk & Honey is also the birthplace of the new-classic Scotch cocktail The Penicillin.
2. Employees Only
Why It Matters: As one of the first neo-speakeasies on the block, EO (as it’s often called) became the model for profitable craft cocktail bars—serious, high-octane cocktails and bartending “apprenticeships.” Yet the bar always partied harder than any dive bar down the block, keeping speakeasy-influenced cocktail culture immune to a too-stuffy image. EO is still the late-night de facto industry clubhouse.
3. Pegu Club
Why It Matters: Although owner and self-described “cocktail mom” Audrey Saunders has decamped from New York to the west coast, this is still the bar where countless well-known bartenders (and barflies) cut their teeth. It’s with good reason Pegu is sometimes called the “Harvard of Mixology.” Pegu, named for a storied, late-19th century British officers’ club in Burma, is also noted for helping re-popularize gin and for bringing forth such cocktails as the Gin-Gin Mule and Earl Grey MarTEAni.
4. Death & Co.
Why It Matters: If it seems like a cocktail world cliché now, you probably spotted it first at Death & Co. That includes—but is not limited to—unmarked entrances, dim mood lighting, bartenders sporting vests and elaborately groomed facial hair, “ice programs” and pre-Prohibition era cocktails. But when Death & Co. arrived on the scene, these were fresh ideas and your drink experience today is better because of it.
5. Clyde Common
Why It Matters: Those barrel-aged cocktails and bottled force-carbonated libations now swilled at bars nationwide owe a debt to Clyde’s bar manager, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who has perfected and popularized the techniques. We’re also keeping an eye on the newly-opened “subterranean speakeasy” Pépé Le Moko, where Morgenthaler is revamping the much-maligned Long Island Iced Tea.
Why It Matters: Although “Please Don’t Tell” now seems like the world’s worst-kept secret, for years this was the buzziest bar around. The secret entrance through a faux phone booth within Crif Dogs, the passwords whispered by those in the know all added to the mystique. But if you remember the years when Jim Meehan and Don Lee manned the bar, serving up the Bacon-Infused Old Fashioned that launched the fat-washing craze, you understand what all the fuss was about.
7. Anvil Bar & Refuge
Why It Matters: The Houston bar doesn’t carry vodka, yet it’s still managed to make Texas care about craft cocktails. Much of that is credited to head honcho Bobby Heugel, an outspoken advocate who has dedicated himself to the protection of traditional tequila/mezcal production techniques in Mexico, as well as newer projects such as the mezcaleria The Pastry War.
8. The Varnish
Why It Matters: In addition to helping popularize the devil-may-care “bartender’s choice” into the mixology lexicon, this dimly-lit, stylish Los Angeles speakeasy located within Cole’s French Dip focuses on precise, polished classic cocktails with historical backstory under the guidance of mixologist/proprietor Eric Alperin.
9. Smuggler’s Cove
Why It Matters: This San Francisco tiki bar continues to stoke enthusiasm for tiki and tropical drinks, long after many other once-beloved tiki bars have gone on to the big Kahuna in the sky. Helmed by owner (and rum collector) Martin Cate and manager Justin Oliver, this is one of the best places in the country to sip a Mai Tai.
Why It Matters: Because without this bar or its proprietor, Phil Ward, the Margarita might still be the sole tequila drink on cocktail menus everywhere. Since opening this East Village outpost, Ward has become the curmudgeonly poster boy for all things agave. He’s one of the reasons you can now find mezcal and wider varieties of tequila on back bars everywhere.
11. The Aviary
Why It Matters: Located within chef Grant Achatz’s Chicago restaurant Next, this forward-thinking bar celebrates his mad-scientist molecular experiments, and brought the words “molecular mixology” to drinkers’ vocabularies. It’s the first bar with an ice chef on staff to create 20-plus different styles of ice, and continues to challenge perceptions by serving cocktails in futuristic vessels: most notably, the bespoke “porthole” carafe that showcases the ingredients infusing the drink within.
12. The Broken Shaker
Born: 2012 (as a pop-up)
Why It Matters: If you’re drinking something crazy—Cocoa Puff–infused whiskey, or gin funkified with a blue cheese reduction—tip your hat to this Miami-based bar, formerly a pop-up but now permanently located within the Freehand Miami Hostel. Whimsical and super-seasonal, these are risk-taking drinks full of color, kitsch and verve, served in what has to be one of the coolest backyard patios in the country.
13. The Dead Rabbit
Why It Matters: In addition to revitalizing Irish whiskey, this Manhattan saloon in the Financial District may have one of the most ambitious cocktail menus around. It’s not just that it’s expansive, but the extra-long list of reimagined classics, such as punch served in tea cups, and reputation for attention to detail keeps other mixologists eyeing this atypical Irish pub. It also ensures the bar keeps racking up awards, too.
- Word of the Day
Definition: Mark with spots or blotches of different color or shades of color as if stained. Synonyms: blotch, streak