The Best Cocktail Bars in America
Here on the cusp of 2020, the standard for the best cocktail bars in the nation has risen significantly higher than in past years. This is because since the craft cocktail revolution of the early aughts, they are everywhere in America, and it no longer means that much that you are wearing a cool vest and tie and have a mustache and strong opinions on dry shaking. The world has moved on, and – in talking to 10 drink writers, bartenders, and other industry folks for this piece – it’s become clear to me that the rubrics we use to judge the cocktail world are changing. If craft cocktails are now ubiquitous, we need to look for other ways to define what makes a top cocktail bar.
So, in creating this list, I value balanced, well-executed cocktails as a standard prerequisite. But I’m also looking for something extra. That might mean a cocktail bar that feels absolutely perfect for that particular city, or one that has created a new template for the industry moving forward, or a classic place that has new life thanks to a new upstart manager. Sometimes it’s just a lovely place I really freaking love to get a drink in.
To say at the end of 2019 that this is the definitive list of top cocktail bars in America is silly. There are many others that could easily be a part of this list, and that includes some of the foundational bars that built the industry as it stands today. But every one of the bars included here is worth being part of the conversation about where the cocktail world is at this moment, and where it will go from here.
I have one other thing to note before we get into it. Often, folks will read these lists and say, “Oh no, we need something else in the midwest.” Or, “What about throwing on a bar in New Mexico?” And thus begins the Great Google Search, in which national writers scour local alt-weeklies and city mags for some sort of crumb that might verify inclusion of a place they’d never been. I was determined not to do this. I personally visited the majority of bars on this list, and if I didn’t, it was recommended to me by someone or several other trustworthy folks in the industry.
But enough about process, let’s get to the drinking.
Perhaps in 2019 we shouldn't be surprised about the appearance of a cocktail joint in the increasingly ubiquitous food hall model, but for one to be this damn good with both a tight list of innovative cocktails and a sort of in-joke vibe (reading their menu is a delight) is a pleasant shock to the system.
Co-owner Greg Best is a cocktail legend, known for doing as much as Bobby Heugel in Houston to help usher in the southern version of the cocktail revolution, starting back when he would wow customers at Restaurant Eugene with his Friday Night Flights of experimental cocktails, and then, of course, when he opened Holeman & Finch with Regan Smith and Linton Hopkins and the national culinary and cocktail worlds simultaneously swooned so hard they passed out. Add in Paul Calvert, a former English teacher who cut his teeth working at the quietly influential Boston bar Deep Ellum (a personal favorite of mine) before moving back to ATL and opening and running the highly esteemed Paper Plane.
The mustard yellow website says "Cold Beer. Mixed Drinks. Etc, Etc." And perhaps the etceteras is where Nickel City gets you. The Detroit and Buffalo expats behind the space strive to pen a love letter to the divey neighborhood bars they'd grown up around. But then you look at the whiskey and sherry list (over 300 strong), and the house-made shrubs for the criminally underrated cocktails, and the East Austin-necessity-food-trailer in the back slinging Detroit style Coneys and buffalo wings, and you realize this neighborhood bar is not just a neighborhood bar, but possibly the best neighborhood bar in the whole damn country.
Proprietors Brandon and Zane Hunt created Via 313, the Detroit style pizza truck that arguably kicked off that national trend, while drinks specialist Travis Tober is originally from The City of Hot Wings.
Combine delicious Latin cocktails, a serious South American focused spirit list, and one of the great standalone holiday pop-up bars (Sleyenda, great name) in the world, and you've easily reached great cocktail bar status.
The alchemy is strong with this one. Ivy Mix is a former Best American Bartender at Tales of the Cocktail, and a leading voice in the current cocktail world (Mix's cocktail book, Spirits of Latin America, comes out in May 2020, by the way). Legendary bartender and owner Julie Reiner opened three of the most influential cocktail bars in America, Flatiron Lounge, Pegu Club, and Clover Club. The fact that Leyenda is women-owned in a space where that is conspicuously lacking should not go unnoticed.
Opened in 1951, and taken over and restored by Toby Cecchini and Joel Tompkins in 2013, Long Island Bar somehow manages to be old, new, and old again all at the same time. Cecchini, who opened the quietly incredibly influential cocktail bar Passerby, has basically made this into the perfect neighborhood cocktail bar. The bartenders, most of them legends in their own right, don't turn over. The tight drink list doesn't change. And so, when you know the drinks as well as they do (Joaquin Simo described them as knowing the recipes as well as "their home phone number when they were a kid") and you've made them thousands of times, you get close to creating easy drinking perfection in comfortable form. And that is what the Long Island Bar is. It is a legendary haunt, reconstituted just enough for modern times, but pared down to its most perfect parts. In many ways, it is exactly where the entire cocktail world could be in 2020, if everyone had the skill, confidence, and history behind them to pull it off. Plus, Long Island Bar has a damn good cheeseburger.
Do you like having a damn good time? Because Best Intentions is a damn good time. The first time I went to this bar, and saw the yellow-tinted cooler with the words "Fancy Cocktail Bar" on it, and tried their famous Wondermint Malted under the neon Wondermint Malted signage (a malted milkshake cocktail with Death's Door Wondermint, Broker's London Dry gin, and Luxardo Angioletto) and had the angostura-based AB Negative, and looked at their crazy list of available booze, which includes a $100 pour of Phillips Sno Shoe "Grog," I felt like something special was happening.
Every time I've been back, the vibe has been slightly different, from an "It's summer so let's kill six hours on this patio talking" thing to an "It's winter so let's have a very weird dance party at midnight" type deal. It is perhaps the most serious cocktail place that refuses to take itself seriously. And to illustrate that, you can order their very good cheeseburgers by the baker's dozen.
This Logan Square bar somehow manages to feel like both a neighborhood joint and an incredibly intimate nautical island tiki party, while serving intensely high-quality drinks paired with a tight, delicious food menu from chef Fred Noinaj. If you’re going to dance with one drink, try Like the Sun in Solution, which is made with three types of rum, coconut-corn milk, fruit, and sherry, and tastes like if someone told you a boozy, tropical secret.
This is not the first proto-tiki bar in Chicago to win a Tales of the Cocktail national best bar award, nor is it the first proto-tiki bar run by Paul McGee in Chicago to win a Tales national bar award (that was the River North bar Three Dots and a Dash). But this 2018 winner and Imbibe Cocktail Bar of the Year of 2015 is more tiki tavern than the immersive Polynesian Trader Vic’s fever dream that is Three Dots. McGee owns Lost Lake with fellow esteemed Chicago bartender (and co-founder of the Chicago Style non-profit and cocktail conference) Shelby Allison.
Much of my list has showcased the casualization of the cocktail world, from its fancy mid-aughts beginnings to the world of great neighborhood cocktail bars. Mr. Coco, however, swings in a different direction. From bartender and educator Francesco Lafranconi (and named after his damn dog), Mr. Coco sits in the Palms, and requires reservations, and is fancy AF.
But going there, and riding the elevator up with an amuse bouche cocktail, and seeing the gorgeous lounge space, and hearing the incredible piano music and singing, and trying ambitious, gorgeous, expensive cocktails, it just feels like a perfect “I’m on-the Vegas Strip, and I’m going to have myself a cocktail experience” type of bar. I'm not saying it's an everyday joint, though if I had the money and the time, I might consider making it mine.
Yes, it is a speakeasy. Yes, you need reservations. Yes, there is a dress code. No, you can't take your phone in. In many ways, Old Lightning seems to act as a contrarian argument against the mass casualization of the craft cocktail world. But Pablo Moix and Steve Livigni's joint also happens to be one of the greatest spots to sample rare, hard-to-find booze in quite possibly the entire world, not just because they spent years sniffing around old liquor stores and estate sales looking for these types of things but also because distillers saw what they were doing and started asking to work with them on custom projects.
So yes, if you want to get a classic cocktail done exquisitely in a space that is refined and secretive, Old Lightning can do that for you. But if you're looking to see what a 1940s gin or a mezcal aged in hundred-year-old clay barrels tastes like, Old Lightning might change your life.
Julio Cabrera is a famously influential bartender known for preserving the Cuban "cantineros" (bartender) traditions and making incredible drinks all over the world. And he's created something truly special of his own with La Trova, a year-old cocktail bar, restaurant, and dance hall in Little Havana that somehow feels like it's been there for a long, long time. The vibe at the front is '60s Cuba, and there Cabrera offers up his choice daiquiris (both classic, and the extremely strong version Hemingway famously stoned himself on) as well as a tight menu of other cantinero classics.
On the weekends the back room turns into an '80s Miami bar, awash in neon with a drink list of cocktails from the era, reworked by other American cocktail legends like Dale DeGroff, Chris Hannah, and Julie Reiner. But no matter where you end up, you will recognize the fact that no other place in America has quite the energy and talent and unique vibe La Trova has right now. And that's either a damn shame or a godsend, depending on your area code.
The reason I picked Patterson House is because of someone new: General Manager Demi Natoli, considered by many of the cocktail folks I spoke to among the brightest of the rising stars in the cocktail community. Her originality especially when it comes to adding unexpected savory elements to her drinks serves the Patterson House extremely well.
Patterson House is an old hand on national cocktail lists, thanks to its pedigree (Toby Maloney, who opened the bar, was at Milk & Honey, and started The Violet Hour in Chicago) and its place in Nashville, which didn't have many other great cocktail options years ago (though now it’s thick with ex-NYC bartenders). Natoli, a Florida born Cuban-American who came up in the cocktail world opening Kreepy Tiki in Fort Lauderdale with her parents when she was 20, learned from the legendary Broken Shaker and Lost Lake bartenders (as legend and a Punch story has it, "Natoli is still the only bartender, outside the owners, to land a drink on the Lost Lake menu"). When everyone knows her name in two years, A) don't be surprised, and B) please tell them I was an early believer.
New Orleans is lousy with good cocktail joints both old (Napoleon House, Sazerac Bar, Arnaud’s French 75) and new (Jewel of the South, Manolito, other places not opened by Nick Detrich and Chris Hannah), but there is something about this bar, which opened in an old firehouse on Freret Street in 2009, that stands out among the rest.
Maybe it's because they won a 2018 James Beard award for best cocktail bar in America. Maybe it's because they still believe in the apprentice bartending system, in which a bartender in training does not make it to full bartender unless all their peers sign off on them. Maybe it's because of the poetic way Neal Bodenheimer, Ryan Gannon, Matt Young, and their team write up their cocktail menus, less as just a blunt description of the products therewithin, and more as tiny persuasive haikus. Whatever it is, Cure endures. And we're damn lucky for it.
This bar has elevated the art of cocktail science by using things like centrifuges and pressure cookers and their own damn carbonation system to perfect drinks in a way that frankly no one else is doing. But what makes Existing Conditions so grand is that the actual space is without the kind of pretension you might expect from a bar that deploys an ethanol-filled pump. Oh, and also: those fancy science drinks are pretty damn excellent, too.
It makes sense that the most insider-hyped bar opening of 2018 came from three of the OG cocktail geeks. Dave Arnold (who launched the mad scientist cocktail joint Booker and Dax), Don Lee (PDT), and Greg Boehm (Mace, Boilermaker, every holiday Miracle pop-up you see across the world, many other great bars) all built their names and reputations during the early days of cocktail geekery, when folks would argue about daiquiri recipes on E-Gullet, and keep a written list of where the four or five quality bartenders were working on any given day.
Japanese native Masahiro Urushido, formerly head bartender at Saxon & Parole, has infused this bar with a sense of humor and a casual style to go along with the seriously concocted cocktails. The now famous Melon-Lime Soda is a great example, as it plays on the idea of those neon green and horrible Midori Sour drinks popular in the '90s, but does so with a combination that adds lime leaf, sudachi lime, and matcha, and tastes more like the beginning of a complicated narrative rather than a punchline. And that, in essence, is what this bar is: a story built on years of learned cocktail history, both American and Japanese, forging a hybrid that is enjoyable for everyone.
To understand Katana Kitten’s place in the cocktail world it helps to know the history of its antecedents. In the '90s, a small bar called Angel’s Share in NYC’s East Village started offering rigorous and expertly made cocktails in a precise style that had flourished in Japan. A fan of that bar, Sasha Petraske, went on to open his own take, called Milk & Honey. The style of these two bars, a precise mix of serious rigor and ritual, became the shorthand for most Japanese-inflected cocktail bars in the States. Katana Kitten builds on this legacy, writing an exciting new story.
Each year, the menu of this upstairs, East Village place focused on “hospitality and conviviality” covers one overarching theme, split into cold and warm weather menus based on elements of said theme. From an actual cocktail perspective, it is quietly one of the most interesting, ambitious bars in America. But if you just want to go into a cool bar, meet some engaging bartenders, and watch them make you a delicious drink, well, it works for that, too.
Pouring Ribbons co-owner and bar Yoda Joaquin Simo got his start making “shitty brunch cocktails for Lucy Liu and her friends” at early aughts celeb hangout Stanton Social before coming on as part of the original Murderer’s Row of bartenders working at Death & Co. in the latter aughts. Today he is the most dastardly combination of annoyingly intellectual and down-to-Earth. And that is also what Ribbons is, too.
On a recent visit to Hunt and Alpine, I drank an impeccable Green Eyes cocktail (gin, lime, green chartreuse, and egg white) and a throwback Bourbon Renewal made just for laughs, ate their popcorn laced with unicorn dust or whatever, watched a rainstorm pass, and looked around to see 30 other folks all doing the same thing, each of us with a blissed out, grateful look on our faces. Rightfully, Hunt and Alpine is now the Portland institution it has always deserved to be.
And to know its owners, Andrew and Briana Volk, is to love them. Andrew, who cut his teeth alongside famous bar person Jeffrey Morgenthaler at Clyde Common in the other Portland, has incredible cocktail creation skills. And Briana, who is also an accomplished, talented writer, is the beating heart of the joint, someone who makes it a priority to champion mental health and other important seldom discussed industry issues. All of this would be great but somewhat insignificant to this list if the bar they owned wasn’t excellent. But thankfully it very much is.
I first visited Palomar in 2018 with Oregonian restaurant critic Michael Russell after a heavy day of eating. It was around happy hour, and the weather in Portland had not yet committed to being a sad emoji. “I think,” he said as we sat down, “you’re going to like this place.” And man, was he right. The brainchild of second-generation Cuban American and New Orleans native Ricky Gomez, Palomar is “Cuban-inspired” in all the right ways: it makes unbelievable daiquiri and daiquiri-adjacent cocktails (try the Hotel Nacional), it has the light and airy feeling of a Latin bar in a place known for helping to launch the urban woodsman aesthetic, and it manages to thread a needle between casual fun and cocktail serious that is shockingly hard to do, even in today’s saturated cocktail world.
All of this is a testament to Gomez (a former USA Bartender of the Year) and his team, who’ve somehow managed to make me think it’s a good idea to bring my large collection of Miami Vice inspired suits to the City of Roses.
Perhaps it's because I worked in malls throughout my teen and college years, but there is something I find delightful about the fact that the best bar currently in San Diego is located in a gosh darn suburban shopping mall. The folks behind Polite Provisions installed Raised by Wolves in the Westfield UTC, a mall I've definitely purchased Reef sandals in, but they didn't just tuck a bar into an old Jamba Juice. This bar, which sits quietly behind an Apple Store, is one of the most beautiful I've seen in awhile. The designers claimed they were aiming for 19th century London, but I might argue it looks more like someone merged an old timey carousel with the dining car on the Trans-Siberian Express in an old Agatha Christie mystery.
The drinks are excellent, but I'm just as excited about the opportunity Raised by Wolves presents, if they continue to be successful. Might RBW be at the forefront of a movement to creatively revitalize otherwise banal suburban spaces like the mall? If that's the next revolution, count me in. I’ve got some revitalized Hot Topic ideas I’d like to discuss with investors.
If there was ever a bar that fits the term “a bartender’s bar,” ABV is the one. From Ryan Fitzgerald (Beretta, Del Maguey), Erik Reichborn-Kjennerud (Dalva and its glorious cocktail nook, The Hideout), and Todd Smith (Bourbon & Branch's opening team), ABV is the place where legendary bartenders either end up working (you may see John Gertsen, the man behind seminal Boston cocktail bar Drink, behind bar) or hanging out.
But despite being an industry haunt, the vibe is definitely not esoteric, though if you're looking for that, they do have an upstairs reservations-only fancy bar-within-a-bar called OverProof. Much of the downstairs menu, however, focuses on highballs, plus a tightly curated lineup of cocktails, most of which contain four ingredients or less. And with a strong food menu, solid beer and wine selection, and the underrated decision to open at 2pm, ABV, unlike their very interesting gin and tangerine oil infused cocktail called Not For Everyone, really is for all.
A few years ago, I was in Savannah doing research and wanted to swing by a cocktail place after dinner. The buzzy southern restaurant Husk had just opened a Savannah outlet, and so I went in there for a drink, and found myself chatting with the bartender. I asked him where he liked to get drinks. He told me, with no hesitation, that the best cocktail bar around was Alley Cat Lounge. "I mean, we're fine," he said. "but you should go over there."
And so I did, and every single industry professional I'd encountered during my eating/drinking adventures in Savannah earlier that day was in this bar. Scott Marshall, the owner, personally delivered the cocktail menu, which looked like a newspaper, and sadly probably had more pages than the average local does these days. The bar had the energy and the vibe of a place that really mattered to its city. Plus the drinks were excellent, and the kicker of the night was that, before I left, I saw the Husk bartender walk in, too.