Food & Drink

The Best Cocktail Bars in Boston

Published On 12/05/2013 Published On 12/05/2013

Does Boston have a truly first-class cocktail scene? It might not be our national reputation -- even if we’re home to the country’s first distillery -- but we’re much more than our beer-and-bar-pretzel rep. So ignore the outsiders’ criticisms and instead, drink deep from the well of these superlative spots.

JM Curley

JM Curley

Downtown Crossing

The much-adored Downtown barroom is home to a thoughtful variety of creative cocktails and a small-but-stellar selection of brews, if that's your thing. But you really should put a serious dent in the cocktail list; there’s even one of the best burgers in town on the menu to soak up all your liquid debauchery. Plus, free bubble hockey machine in the back! Bourbon lovers, be on the lookout for one of the best whiskey smashes in town.

Brick & Mortar

Brick & Mortar

Central Square

Old-timers remember this place as the Enormous Room, a perfectly acceptable nighttime hangout that became far more alluring in its current incarnation. The upstairs speakeasy (no signage; just follow the waxed-mustache crowds) celebrates locally made spirits, seasonal ingredients, and a relaxed approach to imbibing: you’re here to savor, not quaff. Don’t be surprised if you miss your dinner reservation because you have to order just one more.

The Gallows

South End

Aptly named for its proximity to Hanging Hill, Gallows executes some clever cocktails. Take in the creatively lit reclaimed wood walls that line the dining room while sipping the very fitting Skin and Bones #2 -- Thai basil-infused tequila, watermelon, mezcal, and lime. The cocktail list is heavy on infused liquors and a massive and surprising variety of bitters -- this is Boston, after all.

Drink

Drink

Fort Point

If you’re someone who struggles with too many choices, Drink is your dream. The subterranean, open-space bar -- named 2013 "World's Best Cocktail Bar" at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, among other accolades -- has no cocktail menu. Instead, your mixologist inquires as to your preferred spirits and flavors, enabling them to concoct a delightfully bespoke drink for you. Given the labor involved -- even the ice-chipping process is protracted -- you’ll savor every last sip while you mull over your next order.

The Hawthorne

The Hawthorne

Kenmore Square

Jackson Cannon’s second act. With Eastern Standard’s program well-established, Cannon moved down the street to a clubby, homey, living-room space devoted almost entirely to master’s-level imbibing. The massive leather-bound menu (23 pages!) breaks cocktails down by spirit so that vermouth or gin aficionados can narrow down their selection rather than sitting there frozen by too much choice. For those who need their evening plans assured, The Hawthorne accepts reservations earlier in the evening.

Eastern Standard

Kenmore Square

Jackson Cannon should get a gold medal for transforming the city’s cocktail scene (and share the podium with Brother Cleve, a freelancing bartending legend). When ES opened in 2005, Cannon introduced local folks to the full canon of cocktail making: quality spirits, freshly made mixers, proper glassware. Reams of Sox fans have been ordering Jack Roses and Sazeracs ever since, and subsequent bar managers have played with more inventive ingredients to deepen the massive bar’s drinking experience.

Catherine Owens

Backbar

Union Square

Want to prove our cocktail bona fides to visitors? Lead them down a back alley and an unmarked hallway to libation nirvana, then watch them grudgingly embrace Boston as a legit drinking city. Backbar solidified Union Square’s hipster rep, but don’t let that dissuade you: the drinks menu is all about quality, not hype, and the plaid-clad bartenders legitimately know their business. Return by yourself during the weekday "Genius Hour" (4-5:30pm), when the cubicle just becomes too much to bear and you prefer to wrap up your day with a stiff one in hand.

Raul Zelaya

The Baldwin Bar

Woburn

So... one of the city’s best cocktail bars scenes exists in a nondescript suburb 30 minutes outside the city. Thank Ran Duan for your astronomical Uber bill, but we promise you, a visit here is so worth it. Duan took over the bar program at his parents’ suburban Chinese restaurant in 2009 and made Baldwin a must-visit for anyone in search of old-school cocktail revivals, such as pisco punches with pineapple vinegar and the award-winning Father’s Advice (rum, amaro, vermouth, sherry, creme de banana). Things get even more creative in the Baldwin & Sons Trading Company, a second lounge where it’s all kitschy glassware and dry-ice effects. For those who have exceeded their travel budgets, rest easy: Duan will shortly be bringing his mixology magic to Sichuan Garden, his parent’s second restaurant in Brookline Village.

Green Street Grill

Central Square

Did you know that Green Street owns the area’s oldest liquor license, dating back to the Great Depression? This might explain why the space has earned true "institution" status. Don’t let the Budweiser sign fool you: the tucked-away Central Square spot is where aficionados go when they tire of cocktail newbies crowding the bar of the moment. Drinks are well-considered and well-priced (under 10 bucks, by and large); stay for dinner to justify a few more.

Silvertone Bar & Grill

Downtown Crossing

Joshua Childs (formerly of Trina’s Starlite Lounge) is another local cocktail legend. Though he recently hung up his jigger, he spent years transforming the innocuous Silvertone into a cocktail destination. It’s easy to take a load off in the subterranean space, whether with a well-balanced cocktail like the Shaddock (gin, St. Elder, Aperol, lemon juice) or one of their "Happy Meals" (a Miller High Life and a shot of any of several higher-end spirits, from Chartreuse to Fernet).

Phase One Photography

Cafe ArtScience

Kendall Square

Bartender Todd Maul (Clio) is a cocktail mercenary, a longtime pioneer who has found his home behind the futuristic Cafe ArtScience bar. It’s like 2001 meets The Jetsons: lots of smoke, but certainly no mirrors. Maul and his team play with oversized, flavored ice cubes; vapor garnishes; and candied flowers, and sling drinks you’d expect to find in a science lab (hey, MIT is nearby). It might sound like quirk over quality, but the opposite is true: these are drinks you’ll be returning to, with friends in tow.

Courtesy of Tavern Road

Tavern Road

Fort Point

Diners might not realize just how terrific this bar is, given that this spot is arguably more committed to the porchetta than the pisco. But many of the city’s finest slingers have done time behind the TR bar, and many of the city’s most serious drinkers have become regulars. Tenzin Samdo currently heads up the bar program and runs the gamut. You can keep it simple with a perfect Negroni, or go nuts with a multi-person concoction like the potent Wun Wun the Showstopper (it actually glows). When you’re enjoying last call with restaurant-industry regulars, you know you’ve found a truly solid spot.

The GrandTen Bar

South Boston

The newest kid on the block just might coin a new phrase: distillery-to-glass. Drinks are slung mere feet away from the place where many of their ingredients are created, including vodka and flavored liqueurs (almond, cranberry). Bar manager Steve Schnelwar, late of Tavern Road, is heading up the brand-new venture, open Thursday to Sunday. Look for shrubs and tinctures to deepen the menu come late fall and winter.

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In times of crisis, Meaghan Agnew always returns to her tried-and-true gin and tonic. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @meaghandeth.

Jacqueline Dole is a Boston-based food writer who launched Parlor Ice Cream. Follow her on Twitter @jacquelinedole.

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1. JM Curley 21 Temple Pl, Boston, MA 02111 (Downtown Crossing)

"Just don't be a douchebag." The etiquette guidelines at this sassy Downtown eatery practically say it all. An all-brick operation reminiscent of a Prohibition speakeasy, JM Curley dishes out chef-driven takes on bar food staples like charcuterie boards, duck poutine, and most notable the house burger featuring homemade "pop's Russian" dressing and a build-it-yourself option at lunch. Prices run cheap for the tourist-heavy part of town it occupies -- that goes for the specialty cocktails and domestic crafts on tap, too.

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2. Brick & Mortar 569 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA 02139 (Central Square)

B&M's a 50-seat cocktail haven in the same space tricked out with a giant oval copper bar and a Tetris-like chain of mahogany high-tops/drink ledges. Drink and be merry on draft/bottled suds (CBC Amber, Notch Pilsner, Pacifico), select shots like the Double Wide, and creative 'tails like a Scotch/ Benedictine/ Nux Alpina "Sentimental Gentlemen".

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3. The Gallows 1395 Washington St, Boston, MA 02118 (South End)

Although its name is morbid, this South End spot is anything but. Rowdy groups flock in numbers for classic and craft cocktails, drafts, and a small sampling of wine. Those who aren't taking advantage of the dinner menu full of poutine plates that are near impossible to finish yourself, smokey bbq ribs, and the best burgers in Boston are at a severe loss, but so long as they aren't summoning spirits with the Ouija board on the back wall, we suppose it's ok.

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4. Drink 348 Congress St, Boston, MA 02210 (Fort Point Channel)

Don't expect to order off the drink menu here -- it doesn't exist. Drink is manned by barkeeps who craft cocktails based on your flavor preferences (sweet, sour, something on fire, etc), and the custom elixirs, coupled with an industrial, Edison bulb-strung interior, will make you feel as if you're at an exclusive underground party. There is a food menu, however, where bar bites like thick-cut french fries served with malt vinegar aioli pair well with a wagyu beef cheeseburger. The kitchen used to flip just 15 burgers every night, but lucky for you, that's a thing of the past.

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5. The Hawthorne 500A Commonwealth Ave, Boston, MA 02215 (Fenway Kenmore)

You'll want to dress to impress at this refined lounge tucked underneath the Hotel Commonwealth, where nationally acclaimed co-owner and bar director Jackson Cannon has built an experience that revolves around thoughtfully crafted cocktails, similar to his beloved sister establishment, Eastern Standard. Warm and comfortable with low tables and plenty of armchairs, drinking at The Hawthorne is almost like sitting in someone’s living room, except you're sipping on exceptional drinks like the Air Mail (a champagne cocktail with white rum, honey, lime and bitters) and small bites like deviled eggs with crispy prosciutto, pickled anchovy, and chorizo toast.

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6. Eastern Standard 528 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, MA 02215 (Fenway Kenmore)

This big, classy, gourmet American joint specializes in good, strong cocktails and classic fare like salmon and oysters.

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7. Backbar 9 Sanborn Ct, Somerville, MA 02143 (Union Square)

The seasoned 'tailsmiths at Backbar concoct a myriad of alco-creations while the kitchen serves up sumptuous comfort food, in a space that feels like your garage if it was trendy and full of strangers.

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8. The Baldwin Bar 2 Alfred St, Woburn, MA 01801

Brought to you by skilled and inventive bartender Ran Duan, The Baldwin is an old-school cocktail bar tucked inside Duan’s parents’ Chinese restaurant, Sichuan Garden II. He’s reviving classic drinks with creative twists, such as pisco punches with pineapple vinegar, and offering signature ones like the fan-favorite Father’s Advice (rum, amaro, vermouth, sherry, creme de banana), all inside a 17th century mansion. The interior features dark hardwood, black banquettes, and accessories like globes, vintage books, and bankers lamps.

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9. Green Street Grill 280 Green St, Cambridge, MA 02139 (Central Square)

This Prohibition-style bar packs a whollop with their 100-drink libation menu.

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10. Silvertone Bar and Grill 69 Bromfield St, Boston, MA 02108 (Downtown Crossing)

The Silvertone sports quality food and prices, as well as a rich list of housemade cocktails, wines, and variety of beers on tap and in bottles and cans.

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11. Café ArtScience 650 E Kendall St, Cambridge, MA 02142 (East Cambridge)

There isn’t a watered-down vodka cranberry in sight at Café ArtScience, a chic, all-white sensory laboratory-meets-café devoted to creating concepts of scientific, futuristic French and American libations and fare. Innovation glitters in ArtScience’s mixology: you are to inhale the illustrious Whaftiki, a rum concoction served with vaporized rum, before the rest of the clarified lime, burnt cinnamon, and mango liquid is poured. Chef Patrick Campbell’s food program integrates local and seasonal ingredients into meticulous dishes like Hudson Valley foie gras terrine and a salad of native beets and brûléed black mission fig with toasted walnuts and stilton custard.

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12. Tavern Road 343 Congress St, Boston, MA 02210 (Fort Point Channel)

South Boston’s Tavern Road is a frenetic cacophony of diners enjoying New American cuisine in small plates, large plates, and, for larger parties, “Street Feasts,” an option for the indecisive who’d prefer the chef to structure their meal. Though the crowd favorites are the chickpea frites, the menu also encompasses tacos, vegetables, charcuterie, fish, meat, and oysters. The main attraction of the dining room is an accent mural in warm reds and burnt oranges, one that sums up the Tavern Road experience: loud, busy, and, above all, lovely.

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13. GrandTen Bar 383 Dorchester Ave, Boston, MA 02127 (South Boston)

Calling all craft cocktail lovers: some of the best cocktails to ever grace this city can be found at GrandTen Bar in South Boston, where the bartenders are slinging drinks just feet from where the ingredients are crafted. Everything you sip on here, including the vodka and flavored liqueurs (almond, cranberry, etc.), is distilled on-site and poured directly into your glass. This bare-bones spot offers classic cocktails like Bee's Knees and dirty martinis, plus modern riffs like the Blazing Buck made with blood orange juice, chipotle simple, and ginger beer.

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