New York City has pioneered cocktails in the history of the world, it is true. But it has also led the cocktail renaissance of the last 15 to 20 years since Dale Degroff brought attention in the late 1980s back to properly made (e.g., fresh citrus, balance, etc.) cocktails at the legendary Rainbow Room.
As the renaissance began to trickle through the cocktail “dark ages” of fruit juices and saccharine-flavored spirits, a hidden East Village gem, Angel’s Share, tucked upstairs through a nondescript Japanese restaurant, quietly opened in the 1990s. Angel’s Share inspired the great Milk and Honey, which Sasha Petraske (who tragically left us too soon in 2015 at age 42) opened without fanfare on New Year’s Eve in 1999. Milk and Honey officially ignited the speakeasy craze—and a return to mellow spaces to enjoy high-quality spirits and well-crafted cocktails from expert bartenders.
As New York and San Francisco were the early adopters of this trend—igniting many cocktail trends that worked their way around the country and world—they were also the first cities to tire of it. And to continue to reinvent themselves. Mustachioed, vest-sporting bartenders in pre-Prohibition themed spaces, often hidden through secret doors and phone booths, eventually led to casual cocktail dens where the exquisite drinks found in upscale “speakeasies” were standard… and served sans pretension. Whether elevated boozy slushies (for this, try Manhattan industry bar favorite, Mother’s Ruin) or reviving despised fruity, sweet drinks of the 70s and 80s, New York bars run the gamut from playful to serious.
Pioneers like Audrey Saunders opened Pegu Club in 2005, and Julie Reiner launched Flatiron Lounge in 2003, followed by Clover Club in Brooklyn in 2008. Creating iconic cocktails and launching the careers of dozens of bartender greats behind them, these bars spawned trendsetters like PDT (Please Don’t Tell), hidden through a phone booth in a hot dog shop, opened by Jim Meehan in 2007. PDT just celebrated its 10th anniversary as Meehan released his long-awaited Meehan’s Bartender Manual this October from Ten Speed Press. Also hitting its 10th anniversary in 2017, Death & Co., opened by Ravi DeRossi and David Kaplan in 2007, was another game-changing bar that, like PDT, resulted in a book and many copycat bars.
As is true everywhere these days, “craft,” or small-batch distilling, is thriving across New York State, from the weekender-friendly stretches of the Hudson Valley and Long Island to Brooklyn (which we’ll get into in a future issue of Distiller). Cost and space make the small island of Manhattan unfriendly to distilleries but there is no shortage across the state, supplying NYC bars with state-produced spirits. There are bigger name distillers like Tuthilltown, Hillrock and Coppersea, while those like Finger Lakes Distilling and Albany Distilling Co. are beloved in their communities and beyond. It can be tough (and cost-prohibitive) for Manhattan bars to feature small-batch spirits in their cocktails but there are many bars that pour local spirits and educate their customers beyond big brands.
Digging down into the most notable Manhattan bars can be an overwhelming task. You will typically hear that you shouldn’t miss PDT, Death & Co, Atta Boy, Angel’s Share, Employees Only, Flatiron Lounge, Little Branch, Pegu Club, Mayahuel (quite late to the game by California standards, opening in 2009, but the first agave spirits bar of its kind of NYC) and the Dead Rabbit.
Among these are greats and pioneers, to be sure. But you’ll hear about all those in countless New York articles and best-of lists. Out-of-the-way, less-hyped bars can often be where New York shines. In Manhattan, sometimes the most lauded bars are cursed with attitude and snobbery, or worse, in the case of the rudest doorman and most awful service I’ve encountered at any bar in the world at Dear Irving. On the opposite end of the spectrum, humble neighborhood spots, like American whiskey bar The Hamilton on the Upper West Side near Harlem, prove that there are still bars in Manhattan where you can chat with locals, make new friends and be welcomed with a smile.
Over 20 years of visiting and researching NY bars—starting with my youthful days living in NJ, then visiting my family outside the city—here are 10 bars you might not hear about as often as the aforementioned list, but these are among the Big Apple’s best.
Mace, East Village/Alphabet City
Far east in the East Village (Alphabet City, to be precise), Mace is one of Manhattan’s greatest bars. Much like the culinary, ingredient-driven renaissance pioneered by the likes of Scott Beattie in Sonoma, CA, over a decade ago, Mace features a changing menu of 12 cocktails named after—and built around—a key ingredient, like spearmint or shiso, chipotle or kimchi pepper. A dimly-lit, sleek but welcoming setting makes it one of the city’s true gems.
What to Drink: Standouts line the menu, whether Sorrel, featuring aquavit, cardamom-infused white rum, sorrel lasso, lime juice, cane syrup and a touch of absinthe; or Chipotle, a combination of peanut butter fat-washed Cognac, smoked pineapple chipotle syrup, lemon juice, strawberry jam and peanuts—a playfully elegant play on peanut butter and jelly.
The Up & Up, Greenwich Village
Cozy and intimate, The Up & Up is a respite for cocktail lovers in the spirit of “the Village” of days past. Follow the lighted arrow pointing downstairs from MacDougal Street into a space that housed the Gaslight Cafe, a Beat Generation and musical hangout. From vintage William Morris wallpaper to its dreamy alcoves, this is the kind of neighborhood bar one wishes was in every Manhattan ‘hood. What to Drink: Owner/GM Matt Piacentini and head bartender Chaim Dauermann both craft intriguing, layered cocktails featuring a range of spirits from gin to rum. On the changing menu, drinks like Amongst The Grottoes showcase gin and Pimm’s No. 1 with jalapeño, honey and lime, given beautiful funk and oxidized notes from a splash of Rancio Sec wine.
Bar Goto, Lower East Side
A Pegu Club alum, Kenta Goto brings home the spirit of Japan with New York attitude. Think lighter-than-air fizzes like you’d drink in Tokyo but set to 1980s hair metal music. Or ridiculously good miso black sesame chicken wings and a menu of different okonomiyaki dishes paired with the Umami Mary, a miso-washed Bloody Mary.
What to Drink: Rotating cocktails include thoughtful crowd-pleasers like a Matcha Sesame Punch featuring vodka with matcha and sencha teas, toasty with toasted sesame, creamy with light cream. The Yuzu-Calpico Fizz transports straight to Japan, served in a Collins glass. It’s a mix of gin, lemon, yuzu preserves and Calpico (a tangy milk soda from Japan), garnished with a fluffy marshmallow.
Amor Y Amargo, East Village
Tiny, beloved industry favorite, Amor y Amargo, is one of those “musts” on spirits, cocktail and bitters fanatics’ lists, thanks to beverage director Sother Teague. It’s the kind of place where you can find rare and vintage amari, bitter liqueurs of all kinds and plenty of bitters. The cocktails are likewise gorgeous and bitter-centric and you just might run into industry friends from around the globe who also made a beeline for this closet-sized gem.
What to Drink: The cocktail menu changes but the 8 Amaro Sazerac is a mainstay. A house blend of no less than eight amari, it’s a bracing beauty. Look for fernet fun in easy-drinking cocktails like Buck Wild, a tart, cherry soda-esque drink of fernet, quina, dry vermouth and cherry-saffron bitters.
Dante, Greenwich Village
For over 100 years (since 1915), this MacDougal Street café has felt like a slice of Italy in the Village, down to sidewalk seating, black-and-white checkered floor and espresso machine. Reopened a couple years ago by Australian restaurateur Linden Pride, with fellow Aussie and longtime NYC bar great Naren Young running the bar, it recalls Italy down to its Negroni-influenced aperitifs and low-proof sippers.
What to Drink: Here you’ll find a Sherry Cobbler, Bellini, Whiskey Sour, Old Pal, Gin & Tonic, Chamomile Sazerac and other classics with Young’s thoughtful twists. But this is also the place for Negroni Frappés, Lavender or Chocolate Negronis (don’t worry: these aren’t too sweet and use quality spirits) or low-proof joys like Vermouth Service, a light mix of dry vermouth, frozen grapes and Perrier.
Blacktail, Battery Park
While The Dead Rabbit continues to draw crowds and accolades, Dead Rabbit owners Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon fill a special niche with Blacktail, opened in 2016 on Pier A with the Statue of Liberty in the distance. It’s a bar that in design and spirit hearkens to Havana’s glory days down to Cuban photos, potted palms and occasional live jazz in its open, wood- and brass-lined space. But despite the Cuban slant, this is not merely about rum. Head bartender Jesse Vida and beverage director Jillian Vose showcase all manner of spirits in a cocktail menu of over 40 drinks created with McGarry. What to Drink: In keeping with their collector’s item menus at Dead Rabbit, Blacktail’s hardbound, striking menu/book is divided into themes and chapters like punches, highballs and sours, accompanied by Cuban bites with Spanish and Mexican influences. Look for creamy-vegetal sippers like a Celery Sour (gin, pineapple, celery, vanilla, lemon, cucumber, Greek yogurt) or unusual, bracing drinks like the clear Button Hook (blanche Armagnac, rhum agricole, gentiane, velvet falernum, apricot, cacao, white mint and absinthe).
Pouring Ribbons, East Village
Opened in 2012 from NY bar greats of Alchemy Consulting, Joaquín Simó, Will Cart and Jason Cott, Pouring Ribbons initially made waves with its vintage Chartreuse selection going back decades and its helpful graph menu rating each cocktail on a scale of “refreshing” to “spirituous,” “comforting” to “adventurous.” But over the years, it has gotten better than ever, evolving its more “sceney” early years into a low-key bar where industry greats and visitors engage over top-notch drinks in a spacious upstairs bar.
What to Drink: On the revolving menu, fun themes of the past have included a Route 66-themed and an artist/painter-themed cocktail menu named after greats from Salvador Dali to Frida Kahlo. On the latter menu, Ai Weiwei is a cocktail of Sichuan peppercorn-infused gin, lemon, Thai basil, mezcal and rose that veers refreshing and adventurous on the cocktail graph.
Saxon + Parole, NoHo
Saxon + Parole first opened with an award-winning drink menu from Naren Young (now of Dante) and Linden Pride. Since moving to NY in 2008, Tokyo barman Masa Urushido has been ensuring S+P remains a quality bar. He has continued to carry the torch for what has long been one of Manhattan’s most consistent, delightful places for seasonal cocktails and friendly service—with great food from chef Brad Farmerie, like Wagyu carpaccio or saffron pappardelle pasta.
What to Drink: Iconic house drinks like the Celery Gimlet or Fennel Swizzle are garden-fresh and more complex and layered than they sound—but go down easy. There’s a thoughtful selection of nonalcoholic drinks for the nondrinker and elegant twists on classics like a Jasmine Sazerac featuring Cognac and rye whiskey, Café du Monde chicory coffee, espresso cordial, absinthe, Peychaud’s bitters.
Raines Law Room, Flatiron
With a second location open since 2014 in The William, a boutique Midtown East hotel, the original Raines Law Room opened in 2009 before the speakeasy craze had grown tired in New York—and still does it better than most. Its intimate, multiroom spaces (the original with a charming garden in the back) are truly romantic and offer inspired cocktails served in transporting spaces. Just pull your individual wall buzzer at your couch/table/chair when you’re ready to order.
What to Drink: The rotating menus are certainly heavy on classics (like a NY-style Sazerac of rye and Cognac) but also feature plenty of house creations, like a straightforward Seaward Cooler of gin, Salers Gentiane, celery, lime and seltzer. Menu sections include drinks with a “Bitter Edge,” tiki-influenced “Island Time” concoctions, “Stirred and Strong” or “With a Hint of Spice.”
Brandy Library, TriBeCa
Not so much a cocktail destination but more a brown spirits library (true to its name), strewn with couches and bottle-lined shelves, Brandy Library opened in 2004, offering an extensive library of all things brandy—Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados as well as grappa, pisco, eaux de vie, American and Spanish brandy. But their whiskey selection, from Scotch to American whiskeys, Japanese to Canadian, also runs on for pages. Consider it brown spirits heaven. What to Drink: Skip the cocktails for the neat pours, including an education in brandy or whiskey but also from their solid rum and agave spirits offerings. Choose from an array of tasting flights like Hola Jalisco (tequila), American Pride (U.S. rye and bourbon whiskeys) or Craft Distilled (U.S. small-batch spirits). They also offer helpful Spirit School Seminars for those wanting to dig even deeper.