When you visit over 600 restaurants and bars every single year, some call you obsessed. They aren’t wrong. When it’s your work and your obsession, such relentless pursuit for “the great” is an exhausting  joy. I am blessed to have visited that volume of restaurants and bars around the globe for each of the past 15 years (just surpassing the 10,000 mark!), and it has shown me everything: the way different continents, countries, cities, chefs, bartenders, distillers, winemakers, brewers and all artisans of taste express the same handful of ingredients.

There is no end to the variations and modes of expressions and combining ingredients on a plate… or in a still. It’s the same behind the bar, and the cocktail renaissance of the past couple decades has now reached the far corners of the globe, still in its infancy stage in many a city. I have beloved bars from Mexico to Taiwan, Peru to Austria, Edinburgh to Hong Kong. My “best of the best” lists are in the hundreds.

Narrowing down my “tops” in the world is no easy feat — especially when I live in one of two cities, San Francisco (New York being the other, which I partly grew up just outside of), that launched the cocktail renaissance. It is also one of three cities (NY and New Orleans are the other two) that historically birthed cocktails and bars in the 1800s. In SF alone, there are a few hundred world-class bars and a general higher standard and palate that is decades, not years, in the making. Cities from Denver to Mexico City are flourishing a few years into their cocktail age, while cities from Lisbon to Oklahoma City are just beginning to show what they’re made of behind the cocktail bar.

Whether dive or upscale bar, romantic or quirky, there is a bar to suit every mood, preference or grouping. And craftspeople pushing boundaries as they adhere to historic roots. So how does one choose the “best” in the world? Partly by going with their gut (how a place makes them feel) and by featuring some of the bars with the most mind-blowing spirits selections, cocktails, space or staff.

While I’ve had to leave out so many I love dearly, here is a cross section of some of the world’s best.

Aub Zam Zam, San Francisco, CA

When I think of my ultimate dive bar, it is ever and always Aub Zam Zam, just a couple blocks from my house. Since 1941, its dingy Arabian Nights charm has been a historic stop (and Anthony Bourdain favorite, RIP) for boozy gin martinis and the best jukebox in town. It’s cash only, with laid-back, friendly service. Great local gins abound and the bar’s legendarily cantankerous owner for nearly 50 years, Bruno, is still honored in the spirit of the place — and with a vodka martini, as he used to kick out anyone who would order a vodka “martini” rather than the original gin. While my second favorite old martini bar of the era is Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood/Los Angeles, there is no dive as dear to me as Aub Zam Zam.

Best Intentions, Chicago, IL

Chicago is home to many a cool bar I’ve been covering since they started to experience a cocktail renaissance around 2007. But since 2015, Best Intentions is one of the top Chicago bars I’ll go back to over again, thanks to brothers Calvin and Christopher Marty’s sense of humor, warm Midwest welcome and 1970s wood-paneled, dive bar charm. But this is a dive with Angostura bitters on draft, Coors Banquet coexisting next to craft beers and “good time” cocktails like a Wondermint Malted, combining Death’s Door Wondermint Liqueur, gin, Luxardo Hazelnut liqueur and Spinning J.‘s acid phosphate.

PCH, San Francisco, CA

Wherever Kevin Diedrich — who has long been one of the great bartenders and cocktail masters in the country — runs a bar, I’m there. In all his years in SF, however, Pacific Cocktail Haven (PCH) is the best. A historic, small space with a chill vibe matches Diedrich’s unassuming service. A strong bar team serves his complex but utterly drinkable creations, perfecting drinks like a silky pandan leaf Negroni, a citrus-free Mai Tai or the snap pea, gin, absinthe and sherry goodness of Oh Snap! But Diedrich and team also mix it up playfully with drinks like Thrilla in Manila (bourbon, shiso, calamansi lime, coconut, absinthe, li hing mui aka Chinese salted plum).

Redbird, Los Angeles, CA

My favorite bar in all of sprawling Los Angeles is Redbird, a restaurant with an open-air bar and dining room that is downright magic on mild L.A. nights. It should be on more top bar lists, thanks to Tobin Shea, who I believe crafts the best drinks in all of L.A. I’ve long said a long list of cocktail ingredients only shines in the hands of a master, and Shea is that. So when you see a complex list of ingredients, trust he’ll weave it into something nuanced, elegant and unlike what most bartenders are doing. Shea also employs unusual international spirits in his drinks, like rare akvavit, schnapps and kummel, alongside Armenian arak and brandies in keeping with the population of the neighborhood. His 2018 menu of 31 cocktails tributing distillation and farm-to-table produce was one of the most well-executed menu concepts I’ve seen anywhere in the world.

Copper & Oak, New York, NY

A colleague of mine in the spirits-judging world, Flavien Desoblin, opened Brandy Library in 2004, the bar that first schooled me on Cognac and Calvados as a young woman, years before I made it to Cognac, France. But my favorite bar of Flavien’s, and one of my tops in NYC, is Copper & Oak, a closet-sized, Lower East Side gem that recalls Tokyo even more than New York. This bar is for the spirits aficionado. There are no cocktails, seats are cramped, service is knowledgeable and downright geeky — just as we like it. Here I can sip small pours of discontinued Japanese whiskey or Scotch, unusual rums and other obscure spirits. This is a place to meet like-minded souls while digging deep into extinct bottles and rarities.

WC Harlan, Baltimore, MD

While Baltimore is far from a leading city in food and drink trends (though it’s packed with its gems), WC Harlan is among the best bars I’ve been to in the world. The neighboring Oaxacan/mezcal respite Clavel is also owned by Lane Harlan (see our interview with her in the Winter 2016-17 Distiller). WC Harlan, her original bar, is part Italian amari museum, part moody 1920s drawing room. The bar is housed in a Remington row house, dusty, dim and glowing by candlelight. Drinking at WC feels like time travel down to the antique glassware and occasional live gypsy jazz. Vintage bottles of fernet and other amaro can actually be ordered to drink, while cocktails like The Little Mozart (absinthe, Pierre Ferrand dry curaçao, egg white, orange flower water and house-made pistachio orgeat) are gorgeously on point.

The Up & Up, New York, NY

Of the hundreds of restaurants and bars I’ve been to in my old stomping grounds of NYC, a few stay with me as best in the world, including Bar Goto and Mace, which all opened in a similar time frame as The Up & Up. This Greenwich Village respite might just be my favorite. Vintage William Morris wallpaper, friendly service and a playful tunes (often ’80s pop) invite lingering over conversation in a banquette or alcove. Sealing the deal, Matt Piacentini and Chaim Dauermann craft cocktail beauties and manage a team that does the same. Whether a drink like Bring June Flowers (vodka, Suze, jasmine tea, cucumber, lemon) or Stone Crush (aquavit, white vermouth, Zucca Amaro, cucumber, Stiegl Goldbräu beer), their cocktails are always interesting and balanced.

Hodges Bend, Tulsa, OK

Though I was born in Oklahoma City (we moved away when I was 1), I’ll admit, Tulsa has my favorite Oklahoma bar, Hodges Bend — and one of the best in the middle of the US. It made such an impression years back that a regular partnered in opening a second Hodges in Minneapolis. Owners Noah Bush and Chip Gaberino also run Tulsa tiki bar Saturn Room, while Gaberino’s coffee background led to Topeca Coffee Roasters, their house coffee and a central focus of the bar and its killer coffee cocktails. Heartwarming food and a deep record collection is given a backdrop of tan leather banquettes and a dramatic espresso machine, complete with that warm Okie service.

Midnight Rambler, Dallas, TX

No, I am not a Dallas fan, but the city is home to one of the best bars in Texas: Midnight Rambler, a rare molecular cocktail haven in the central US that doesn’t put on airs. A hidden “lab” houses expensive equipment like sous vide and centrifuge machines. Owners and New York bar vets Chad Solomon and Christy Pope brought over a decade of cocktail expertise to Dallas in a space that also appeals to music fanatics like myself with an artful LP shelf and vintage electric piano in a glitzy-yet-chill basement bar. In the lab, they might infuse vermouth with Texas cedarwood or play with herbs and woods in drinks like Pinetop Perker (genever, aquavit, pine, lemon, egg white, alpine wood essence), but the finished result is almost always drinkable and fun.

True Laurel, San Francisco, CA

When chef David Barzelay and bar director Nicolas Torres of two-Michelin-starred Lazy Bear opened a stylishly cool yet casual bar at the end of 2017, the result immediately was one of the most exciting bars in the country. As at Lazy Bear, Torres’ drinks are forward-thinking yet delicious (think a tall cocktail of rancio wine, fermented tonic and a rim of black sudachi and smoked salt) alongside Barzelay’s killer bites (hen of the woods mushrooms tempura-fried in Kölsch beer with a sour cream and alliums dip or a stellar aged beef patty melt).

Asia is a bar wonderland, high on sharp, Old World service and experimental drinks. While I have many favorites in Hong Kong, Taipei, Kyoto and Southeast Asia — and still have not been to Singapore, renowned for its cocktail bars — when it comes to transporting bars, none quite competes with the best in Japan, which is in a world all by itself. If you can find the best bars hidden up in some high-rise in that endless metropolis of Tokyo (and Kyoto also holds a few exceptional bars), be prepared to be transported to another era with the rarest of spirits, most exquisite glassware, service and shaking technique.

Bar BenFiddich, Tokyo, Japan

Visiting not long after it opened in 2013, I found Bar BenFiddich as transporting as the best Tokyo bars can be, unlike anything else in the world. As is typical with a Tokyo bar, you first have to find it, hidden way up in a high-rise off an elevator. Once you get there, Hiroyasu Kayama and team serve you ethereal drinks, house infusions (like a root beer steeped with botanicals lining the bar) and other dreamy concoctions in a space that feels part colonial-era tavern, part apothecary. An only-in-Japan experience.

Gen, Tokyo, Japan

Pull up to a hand-hewn wood bar for an intimate cocktail tasting menu from the master, Gen Yamamoto himself (plan ahead with reservations). In keeping with typical Tokyo, it’s tiny with only eight seats, a sacred experience for the cocktail lover. Gen switches out a mere few hand-selected spirits from gin to whiskey regularly, depending on his cocktail menu. With a flight of exquisite mini-cocktails, he utilizes changing Japanese produce at its peak, matched with each spirit. Think chestnuts and sencha green tea mixed with all-koji sake or sweet potato puree, chocolate shavings, chilled milk and a sweet potato shochu.

Bar Shot Zoetrope, Tokyo, Japan

A bar where you can listen to film soundtracks from an extensive, several-thousand disc collection surrounded by sci-fi and fantasy movie memorabilia and rare whiskeys from around the globe? It could only be in Tokyo, where obsession is de rigueur and niche collections are commonplace. Owner Atsushi Horigami was a former video game designer and his personality shows through this gem of a bar, although sadly I hear those Ichiro Malt Card whiskeys 1980s bottlings I used to order by the pour are gone. But Zoetrope remains one of the most unusual and special bars I’ve been to around the world — and one of the few places in Japan where extensive Scotch and Japanese whiskey selections are also partnered by U.S. whiskeys.

Nu Bar, Bologna, Italy

Nu Bar is the craziest tiki bar you’ll ever visit. Not because of its kitschy goodness with velvet Elvis and parrot paraphernalia, but because this is an honest-to-God tiki bar — with delightful cocktails and vintage tiki mugs — hidden in the heart (and medieval walls) of ancient Bologna. It’s the last thing you expect to find in a city over 1,000 years old, especially accompanied by nachos and poke bowls. Opened in December 2000 by Davide Cavallari, Elena Esposito, Maurizio Gerosa and the irrepressible Daniele Dalla Pola, this is one of the most fun bars in the world.

Mint Gun Club, London, England/UK

The Standard UK called Mint Gun Club “an antidote to London dreariness” in David Ellis’s review not long after it opened in 2017. It certainly is an unusual bright spot and the best bar of my recent return to London, easily one of the best of dozens I’ve visited in London since 1999. MGC is better than many of the more lauded London bars, despite having to trek out to Stoke Newington (a growing hipster ’hood locals dub “Stokey”). It’s not just the soothing blues, palm fronds, glowing lamps and bossa nova cheer that transport, it’s friendly staff who seem happy to be there and beautiful cocktails, as well as an extensive tea and bites menu in the afternoons. Mini-cocktails allow you to try more, while their variations on classic aperitifs (like a Bamboo cocktail) equally delight. Don’t miss the gimlet section with the house Gun Club Gimlet (gin, kaffir lime cordial, coconut, kummel).

Lebensstern, Berlin, Germany

While many are drawn to Lebensstern for its appearance in Quentin Tarantino‘s “Inglourious Basterds,” the historic mansion draws the rest of us for its magically transporting space and one of the best spirits selections anywhere on the globe. Ring the front door doorbell (next to Cafe Einstein downstairs) to head upstairs for live jazz and oak-paneled rooms lined with comfy couches and chairs. Here, glowing cabinets are lined with hundreds of rarities in whiskey, rum and gin, showcased in spirits flights and cocktails alike. The bar feels like stepping into Berlin’s 1930s pre-war heyday.

Lidkoeb and Balderdash, Copenhagen, Denmark

Intimate, relaxed Balderdash is my favorite Copenhagen bar for a communal vibe with great cocktails and rare spirits in a basement that opens during colder, darker Scandinavian months. It’s run by owner Geoffrey Canilao, a San Francisco native who stocks the likes of small-batch Bay Area spirits and rarely seen Japanese gins in that basement. He’s also the type to pop a bottle of Champagne to share with everyone in the bar when, for example, on my recent visit, a couple announced they were on their honeymoon. Lidkoeb is my other Copenhagen favorite, hidden at the end of a parking lot with a sunny bar serving beautiful cocktails and boozy shakes downstairs. On the top floor of the historic building is a killer whiskey bar that is a cozy, dim wonderland of collectors’ whiskeys (the oldest pours will cost you) — from Scotch to American whiskey — and lovely whiskey cocktails.

Linje Tio/Tjoget, Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm boasts a couple surprising bars for very rare whiskeys you can taste at a very reasonable price (I’m talking Ichiro Card Series kind of rare at Akkurat, which also pours rare beers like Cantillon on draft). But when it comes to the bar I’d like to linger in for hours — one with superb cocktails and food — it’s Linje Tio, which locals often refer to as Tjoget, the restaurant, wine bar and barber shop mini-complex it’s housed in. Andreas Bergman and team ensure engaging service and impeccable seasonal cocktails, like their savory-bright Beets by Tjoget (beetroot-infused vodka, lemon, coconut syrup, fresh ginger juice, nutmeg).

Fragrances & The Curtain Club at Ritz-Carlton Berlin, Berlin, Germany

You wouldn’t expect the Ritz-Carlton Berlin to house two of Europe’s best bars, but thanks to bar manager Arnd Heissen, it does. The yin side is Fragrances, a museum-like exhibit of perfumes paired with spirits bottles and ingredients to match the perfume aromas, served in a refined space. The yang is the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, The Curtain Club, which at first glance is all comfy leather chairs and woods like an old-school gentlemen’s club. But this is no typical lobby bar. Wait until the singer at the grand piano starts singing Neil Diamond or someone orders a classic Blue Blazer cocktail and the lights go down as a bartender choreographs the flaming 1800s drink set to music. A brilliant spirits selection and thoughtful cocktails seal the deal in a bar that shows off the historic class and one-of-a-kind Berliner quirk.

Every Cloud, London, England/UK

Another fine example of what I love when you trek further out in London, Every Cloud is more reasonably priced for far better cocktails than their £18 and upwards counterparts in more touristy or central London neighborhoods. Silver Lining: Every Cloud is a tiny little twin. A wine bar and small-plates restaurant is its next-door cocktail neighbor. The tiny, enticing space benefits from welcoming bartenders who know what they’re doing. The signature house Champagne Daiquiri (featuring no Champagne but rum, acid, fruit syrup) is a lush and lovely showstopper.

Tales & Spirits, Amsterdam, Netherlands

A grown-up, Old World-style bar and restaurant practicing New World creativity, Tales & Spirits is a blessed pot-free (part of the house rules) respite in Amsterdam where it really is about what is on the plate or in the glass, with food as important as the drinks. The romantic space recalls a Parisian Belle Époque cafe under dripping chandeliers (there is also a dream of a secret mid-century living room upstairs for friends and family only). Look for changing drinks like No Siesta… No Fiesta!, a lush mix of rum, banana-almond milk, Amandine, lemon, salt, saffron honey and Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters.