Fast forward to the mid-'90s. While everyone is watching Reality Bites and drinking Boku, a small bar in Manhattan's East Village called Angel's Share opens, showcasing exacting Japanese bartending techniques centered around presentation, served in an almost monastic atmosphere. The bar catches the eye of an NYC native named Sasha Petraske, who offers his own take on that style with a tiny bar he opens in 2000 called Milk & Honey. Featuring no sign, eight tightly enforced house rules (No. 1: "no name-dropping, no star fucking"), a puzzling, frustrating reservations policy centered around a constantly changing semi-secret phone number, and God-cussingly delicious, well-composed drinks, Milk & Honey unwittingly kicks off the modern "speakeasy" movement and becomes arguably one of the most influential bars on the planet.
Over the next few years, a handful of DeGroff and/or Petraske proteges (and a few others) open five other ultra-influential NYC cocktail bars, each with its own spin on the movement. Julie Reiner's Flatiron Lounge introduces quality cocktails to the masses; Audrey Saunders' Pegu Club creates intensely vetted classics; Dushan Zaric's Employees Only gives drinkers a free-pouring, more laidback party spot; David Kaplan and Ravi DeRossi's Death and Co. is a bartender-driven cocktail Voltron putting out modern classics; and Jim Meehan's PDT is like a cocktail mad scientist lab, where stuff might actually blow up.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, a similar movement happens along a parallel timeline, centered mainly in the Bay Area. Though people like Julio Bermejo (creator of the fresh Tommy's margarita), Paul Harrington (Townhouse, in Emeryville) and Marco Dionysos (SF's Absinthe) were early adopters, it wasn't until the mid 2000s when a truly distinguished scene started to emerge, primarily led by Thad Vogler (Slanted Door, Beretta, Bar Agricole, in SF), Martin Cate (Alameda's Forbidden Island, then Smuggler's Cove), Duggan McDonnell (Cantina), Dominic Venegas (Range), Scott Beattie (Cyrus, in Healdsburg), and the original all-star bartending crew at Bourbon & Branch, San Francisco's controversial first foray into the NYC-styled speakeasy scene.
By 2010, with both coastal cities acting as creative cocktail cauldrons, the industry exploded. Helped along by the parallel Good Food Revival Movement in the restaurant world, acolytes on both coasts set out to spread the cocktail gospel, positioning their cocktail bars next to the new wood-fired pizza places, ramen shops, and upscale barbecue joints of towns all over the country. Early on, you could often trace the origin of most cocktail bars in new cities back one or two degrees to New York or San Francisco, either in style or, quite literally, in employment (a noted exception is Houston, where Bobby Heugel's influential Anvil helped spark the city's own cocktail renaissance largely on its own).
LA's first neo-speakeasy, The Varnish, was opened by Milk & Honey alum Eric Alperin alongside Petraske. Influential Chicago cocktail bar The Violet Hour came from Milk & Honey (and Pegu Club) alum Toby Maloney, who then helped revitalize the New Orleans scene through Kirk Estopinal at Cure, Louisville via Susie Hoyt of Silver Dollar, and was an opening partner in Nashville's original modern cocktail joint The Patterson House. Death and Co. helped open another early prominent LA bar (Honeycutt) and consulted on Philadelphia's Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. "You can see New York's influence all over the country," affirms Trevor Frye, co-founder of DC bar Dram & Grain and the recently opened Five to One. "The list goes on and on."
Following the NYC cocktail blueprint (and hiring the bartenders who created it to help consult on the project) ensured a certain level of quality and consistency to the cocktail bar pioneers in these other cities. But it also created a template, and as soon as the template was in place, innovation suffered. As classic cocktail bars sprouted up all over the country, many of the original bars, looking for new projects, found themselves gravitating towards niche corners to separate themselves out. For some, this meant bars centered around specific liquors like mezcal, gin, amaro, even Central Mexico's strangely milky pulque. For others, it meant focusing on older, more obscure drinks like punches, cobblers, slings, or shrubs. A proto-tiki resurgence emerged. Mixologists dabbled in molecular gastronomy. Fancy Jello shots were back on the table for some reason. "It was like the cocktail world version of the free love '60s," says Scott Baird, co-owner of SF cocktail bar Trick Dog and a Bay Area cocktail bar veteran. "Everyone was trying everything to stand out."
2012/2013 were halcyon years. With the 24/7 food media fawningly covering bartenders as celebrities, big bar openings (like SF's Trick Dog in 2012 or NYC's Dead Rabbit in 2013) ended up as international news. "Ten years before, you could have a really good bar in a big city and the chances of anyone outside the city knowing about it were basically zero," says Jim McCourt, beverage director at Prohibition in Charleston, SC. But by 2013, the combination of social media, and food journalists frantic to meet #content quotas gave bars instant exposure and made any good bartender willing to return a call a household name.
The next few years "were just a huge boom," says Pamela Wiznitzer, creative director of New York bar, Seamstress, and president of the New York chapter of US Bartenders' Guild. "The growth of programming on the Food Network, the rise of Instagram and Pinterest, Facebook, food blogs, you could just see everything everywhere. And that was great for a while."
She pauses. "And then suddenly it wasn't."