In case you weren’t aware, we here at Thrillist love two things above all: drinking and ranking things, the latter of which is usually done after the former. To figure out the best cities for drinking in 2015, we imbibed all over this great nation and weighed many factors, from closing times and historical impact to happy hours, breweries, and contributions to drinking culture. Here, for our money, are the 11 best cities for drinking. We’ll look forward to your arguments for other cities in the comments. After another round, of course.
11. Asheville, NC
Granted, Asheville is an outlier on this list. Think of it as the feisty young teenager who really wants the job of the good ol’ boys. And it just might get there: with a population of just 83k, the Western North Carolina city is tiny, but has 18 breweries in city limits (the number moves towards 40 when you look at the surrounding region). This gives Asheville the highest number of breweries per capita. Highland Brewing Company was the first, opening in ’94, and likely is the most famous, but the others, like Asheville Brewing Co., Thirsty Monk, and Wicked Weed, are also major players. Sierra Nevada chose Asheville for its East Coast operations last year, and New Belgium’s following suit with an outpost set to open this year. Plus there’s amazing microbreweries, like the tiny, one-barrel Burial Beer, which focuses on experimental one-offs and interesting rotations, like the Skillet Donut Stout, which they promise will be “consistently inconsistent” as they look for the perfect recipe. The city earned itself the title of Beer City USA for four years in a row, before Examiner shut down the poll, meaning it either tied or beat beer giants Portland, OR and Grand Rapids, MI.
And while great breweries don't necessarily equate to a great drinking experience, the 100+ locally brewed beers you can find at the city’s bars are, in fact, a very strong reason to come drink in Asheville. But also, when you can have yourself a brewery tasting-room crawl with ease, that’s a winner in our book.
Major players: Thirsty Monk Brewpub, Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co., Burial Beer
10. Austin, TX
For years, drinking in Austin was synonymous with 6th Street. Similar to NOLA's Bourbon or Memphis' Beale, the seven-block bar zone between IH-35 and Congress Ave is usually closed to pedestrians on weekends, and, at 2am, it becomes the Walking Dead of domestic beer-bellied UT zombies hungry for cheap pizza. But over the past five years, Austin's adult beverage game has truly grown up. The craft brewery scene exploded and has a GABF trophy case to prove it and a perfect showroom in the form of the all-TX tap'd Craft Pride.
Tito's is no longer the only distiller in town, Deep Eddy and Treaty Oak both hit heavy with unique spirits like an aged gin, and within driving distance Balcones and Garrison Bros are making some of the best whiskey in the world. These days you're more likely to see a craft cocktail floating atop an artisan iceberg than a you-call-it. Speakeasy-style haunts like Midnight Cowboy are changing the game with tableside service and serious punch bowls, while buttoned-up traditionalists like Peche sling perfected classics. But true to Texas roots, nearly anywhere you go you'll always be able to chase that fancy cocktail with a Lone Star.
Major players: Midnight Cowboy, Peche, Craft Pride, Banger's, Jester King Brewery, Treaty Oak Distilling, Austin Beerworks, East Side Showroom, Draught House Pub
9. Cleveland, OH
One of the most fascinating revival stories in the post-recession Rust Belt, Cleveland’s bringing some serious thunder to the national drink scene. So much so, in fact, that it’d be surprising if the city was absent from the top of most “best beer city” lists in five years or less. The Ohio City neighborhood alone is expanding with such fermented fury that it could trounce many cities, with the Great Lakes brewery occupying a whole block, and spots like Nano Brew and Market Garden filling out a small stretch of city populated with breweries, speakeasies, and even high-end cocktails courtesy of joints like Crop. More inventive breweries are popping up, too, like Indigo Imp, cooking up small batches with an open-fermentation system, and the newish Bottlehouse busting out small-batch beers and mead.
The Velvet Tango Room makes some of the best high-end cocktail in the country, but if it’s a dive you’re looking for, there’s one on every corner (we’re partial to Duck Island, Sachsenheim, and the Rowley). On any given night in Cleveland, you’re able to saunter into any drinking experience you want, whether it’s a packed club of hipsters or just a row of grizzled old men sipping tallboys. That these things coexist is nothing special. That they thrive together -- and off of each other-- makes Cleveland not just a great drinking city, but a destination city for true boozers looking to dive in.
Major players: Bar Cento, Happy Dog, Greenhouse Tavern, Tremont Tap House, Great Lakes Brewing, Market Garden
8. Washington, DC
People often criticize DC because of its ephemeral qualities. Because a lot of people in their early to mid 20s from a lot of other places usually only stay in Cap City for a couple of years. But what they may not realize is that culture essentially recreates college all over again. Packs of young people thrown into an area together for a finite amount of time? Sound familiar? Maybe this helps to explain why DC has one of the best happy hour scenes in the country, with everything from pitchers of margaritas for Cap Hill interns at Tortilla Coast to $6 craft cocktails and buffalo mozzarella pizzas at Ghibellina to a damn bourbon happy hour at The Pig in Logan Circle.
If you care not for paying less money and just want quality, the cocktails at 2 Birds 1 Stone can compete with any cocktails in the country, Jack Rose will give you whiskey you never knew existed, and the fellas behind Bluejacket and Churchkey can find you the beers you’re looking for, without using (the) Force. DC may always have an influx of new blood, but, hey, everyone there knows having a delicious drink is the quickest way to break the ice.
Major players: 2 Birds 1 Stone, Columbia Room, Jack Rose Dining Saloon, Off the Record, Churchkey, Bluejacket
7. Milwaukee, WI
“A beer in every hand, and a sausage in every other” is not Milwaukee’s motto, but it really should be. Sure, when many people think of Milwaukee beer they think of Miller and the Beast, but that doesn’t mean the city hasn’t been making waves in the microbrewing scene thanks to the likes of Spreacher, Lakefront, Sweet Mullets, and Milwaukee Brewing Co. Understandably for such a blue-collar town, dive bars are the stuff of legend, to the point that anybody who hasn’t closed down Wolski’s at least once is probably a local not worth trusting. Dive bars alone would place Milwaukee on this list.
But beyond the dimly lit pool halls and crunched up tallboys is a drinking scene that’s emerging from the shadows as one of the most diverse and welcome scenes for drinkers of every ilk. Bryant’s, for one, ranks among the country’s best old-school cocktail joints. Burnhearts -- one of our favorite beer bars in the whole of this great nation -- distills the snobbiness often associated with beer nerdery with shuffleboard and friendly bartenders. And if the winter cold gets you down, you can always warm up with tropical cocktails at the Foundation Tiki bar. If you throw a rock in Milwaukee, you’re hitting a great bar. And that rock is probably either going to land in a great beer, a bowl of beer cheese soup, or on top of one of the best brats you’ll eat this side of Berlin. Alice Cooper, apparently, was onto something when Wayne Campbell bowed before him.
Major players: Wolski’s, Burnhearts, Foundation Bar, Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee Brewing, County Clare, Landmark 1850 Inn, Sugar Maple, Camp Bar
6. Philadelphia, PA
We kind of wanted to just put a clip from Always Sunny in here and move on, but apparently that’s not “journalism” or “legal.” So we should likely point out that Philly gets the nod for three main things. One is the BYOB culture. Over 200 restaurants in Philly offer up the ability to bring your own bottles of wine and beer and Boone’s Farm. How many other cities have official websites set up with interactive maps telling you all of these restaurants? Another is the history. At one point in the 1800s and early 1900s, there were nearly 200 breweries in and around Philly making beer. For this reason, the Girard Avenue Bridge area by the Schuylkill River became Brewerytown, which is an awesome name, and should automatically qualify you for drinking-city status. And everyone knows about City Tavern, which was essentially where our country was built, over beers.
But obviously, a city’s drinking history doesn’t mean much unless it translates out to modern day, and Philly still manages to shine there, both on the actual production end (Philadelphia Distilling, the first craft distillery in Penn since Prohibition, plus loads of breweries like Victory and Dock Street), and, in terms of places to go, with serious cocktail winners like Franklin Mortgage and Investment, Hop Sing Laundromat, and Southwark, alongside geeky beer spots like Monk’s Cafe, Khyber Pass, and Kraftwork. And, of course, with respect to the Always Sunny crew, the city is rife with quality dives. Spend any time in Oscar’s, and you’ll see what we mean.
Major players: Franklin Mortgage and Investment, Monk’s Cafe, Southwark, Khyber Pass, Dock Street Brewing Co.
5. Chicago, IL
Chicago likes drinking. A lot. "Oh, so does my city," you foolishly say. You are the kind of person who visits friends in Chicago and has to tap out halfway through the first night because you underestimated what you were in for. But the Chicago drinking scene doesn't rely solely on quantity (though rest assured, there is plenty); the quality can hold its own with anyone.
The cocktail scene is continually pushing the booze-soaked envelope, from the enduring artistry of the Violet Hour to the gin-based creations of Scofflaw and the elevated Tiki work of Paul McGee (formerly of Three Dots and a Dash, now Lost Lake). Revolution, Half Acre, Pipeworks, and the 15 other breweries that opened during the writing of this sentence headline an increasingly impressive brewing community (not to mention an army of outstanding craft beer bars too numerous to list) that became even moreso when Lagunitas opened a facility here complete with an airplane hangar-sized taproom. Chicago's also refreshingly deep with honest, unrefined dive bars harkening back to the days when there was a neighborhood tavern on every corner. Basically, whatever your preferred style of imbibing, you'll find it executed to perfection, and you'll find a large community of friendly people eager to join you.
Major players: Hopleaf, The Map Room, Scofflaw, The Violet Hour, 3 Three Dots and a Dash, Billy Sunday, Barrelhouse Flat, Delilah's
4. Portland, OR
When you live in a city with 70+ breweries -- from OG craft brew revolutionaries Widmer Bros. to spanking-new nonprofit Ex Novo -- dozens of distilleries and a neighboring wine region, drinking becomes a part of everyday life. In Portland, everything pairs with booze. The city has more movie theaters with bars than ones without. The famous clusters of food carts often have beer and cocktail stations. Places like Ground Kontrol -- with two floors of vintage arcades -- are like Chuck E. Cheese’s for grown-ups. Hell, you can even score beer and wine in the science museum. Portland takes its drinking spots very seriously, from world-class beer bars like Horse Brass and Baileys to cocktail spots such as Clyde Common, Rum Club, Imperial, and Hale Pele, which constantly innovate, whether through tapped ‘tails or barrel-aged Negronis and Tiki drinks that would make Don the Beachcomber reassess his impact.
Portland also benefits greatly from saturation: people in Stumptown have so many options, bars are forced to stay competitive in order to keep patrons happy. That might mean a $5 Vieux Carre at happy hour, or a great burger served up for $5 (with tots!) during late night. It’s a city that's history is so steeped in beer that, way back in the day, an industrialist installed a bunch of water fountains (the Benson Bubblers) all around the city just to help people sober up. Which is to say, even the city’s historical markers are soaked in a history of booze.
Major players: Clyde Common, Breakside Brewery, Hale Pele, Rookery Bar, Multnomah Whiskey Library, Cascade Barrel House, Rum Club
3. New York, NY
You might be sick of New York by now: it's basically great at everything, and is totally jaded to that fact. In the same way that no can argue that the Knicks should offer free booze to fans to help them drown out this season, you can't deny that New York is an amazing city to drink in. Let’s start with the cocktail scene: Sasha Petraske’s Milk & Honey practically gave birth to America’s current cocktail binge-fest and the formula of precise preparations of classic cocktails and creative, intriguing house concoctions has turned an entire new generation onto mixed drinks.
The craft beer scene is just as eager, with fantastic beer bars (Jimmy’s No. 43, Alewife, Blind Tiger, d.b.a). Plus, the boroughs have been sprouting breweries rapidly, with OG Brooklyn joined by droves in the last few years, like SingleCut, Bronx, Evil Twin, Rockaway, Threes, and Finback. With 4am closing times and the obvious benefits of high walkability and a feisty surplus of Uber and taxi drivers, there are few other cities with so much amazing booze to offer that it actually seems to be encouraging you to sample it all.
Major players: PDT, The Nomad Bar, Tørst, Blind Tiger, Brooklyn Brewery
2. San Francisco, CA
First of all, despite the hills, the city is small, and mostly walkable (once you kind of get over the hills). Second, the drinking history here is extensive, both in terms of old (inventing the Irish coffee at Buena Vista, sharing claim with NY to the martini) and new (introducing fernet to the rest of the US, Tommy’s concocting the perfect margarita, Bourbon & Branch helping usher in a craft cocktail revolution, etc.). Third, the craft beer scene in and around the city is fantastic, with both the beer bars themselves (Monk’s Kettle, Mikkeller, Toronado, Suppenküche) and brewers within city limits (Almanac, Speakeasy, Anchor, Southern Pacific, Pacific Brewing Labs). Oh man, and we haven’t even gotten into wines?
Major players: Trick Dog, Monk’s Kettle, Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, Bourbon & Branch, Suppenküche, Mikkeller
1. New Orleans, LA
The city did not ACTUALLY invent the cocktail, but it’s a fun story to believe, especially for a city that did birth the Grasshopper, the Sazerac, the Ramos Gin Fizz, the brandy milk punch, and the fiery cafe brulot, among other booze-laden concoctions. And you can get those drinks and any classic ‘tail you want at bars (Arnaud’s French 75, Sazerac Bar, Carousel Bar) that were serving them before other cities decided it was trendy again. There are plenty of newer cocktail bars, too, that stand large on the national level (Cure, SoBou, Cane & Table). But ask an outsider to name a hyped “it” spot in NOLA, and you might not get an answer. This is where New Orleans is a bit of an oddity in its drinking culture: it lacks the fanboy fervor or speakeasy-induced wait times that come with the opening of new spots in cities like SF or NYC, and that’s because amazing cocktails and a huge audience to appreciate them never disappeared here. World-class cocktails are just what New Orleanians know to expect.
The city’s not ignorant of its beer, either: for decades, the field was sparse, but Heiner Brau, Chafunkta, Courtyard, 40 Arpent, Old Rail Brewing, Covington Brewhouse, and NOLA have all joined Abita in the last few years to boost the area's craft beer strength. And Avenue Pub will always be one of our favorite craft beer bars.
Basically, New Orleans has a drinking culture that fosters and demands amazing booze, and it all comes without the price tags or crowds of bigger cities. Add in no last call and no open-container laws, and there's a winning formula for amazing drinking.
Major players: Cure, Cane & Table, Bellocq, Avenue Pub, Kingfish, d.b.a., French 75
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Liz Childers is the associate editor of Food/Drink and likes drinking in every city. New Orleans might be her favorite, but she's an unbiased professional. Follow her to Southern booze: @lizchilders1.