No trip to New York would be complete without a cocktail, served up in an extraordinary setting — after all, the origins of our current golden age of mixology trace back to the Big Apple. Here, we chat with a few experts who know their Old Fashioneds from their Manhattans, and who are happy to share their tips on the best cocktail bars in New York.
“Here’s to alcohol, the rose-colored glasses of life.” So wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, mythic New Yorker and legendary drinker, in The Beautiful and Damned. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald drank their way through this fair city with prodigious abandon — as did the vast majority of their literary contemporaries (and a fair many since) — because in a concrete jungle of these proportions, rose-coloured glasses are the lens through which unforgettable nights are found.
Today, nearly a century after the Jazz Age, “tying one on” remains an art. Classic drink destinations such as the Bar Room at 21 Club and Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle are sophisticated slices of days gone by. The barkeeps at these polished institutions will fulfil any boozy wish your heart desires, although such environments beg for the classics — think Martinis, Old Fashioneds, Gin-Gin Mules, and the like.
Once you’ve checked in with New York’s drinking history, explore its more modern cocktail culture. In the past 20 years, a selection of speakeasy-styled cocktail bars — featuring discreet entryways, Prohibition cocktail recipes, and all the antique décor to go with — helped usher in a new golden age in tippling. While some of these bars have since closed (including the late Sasha Petraske’s Milk & Honey, arguably the most influential cocktail bar in New York in the last 50 years), a number are still serving drinks with flair. Must-visits include cosy drinking den Death + Company, the 1920s-themed Raines Law Room, Milk & Honey sibling Attaboy, and PDT (short for Please Don’t Tell), which is accessible only through a telephone booth inside a neighbouring hot dog restaurant.
But not all of New York’s coolest bars are speakeasy-themed. Once you’ve done your Prohibition crawl, continue the sampling at a number of other landmark drinking dens that are known for their ambition and innovation. The Dead Rabbit in the Financial District, named the World’s Best Bar at Tales of the Cocktail, has more than fairly earned the title; its new, Cuban-accented sibling, BlackTail, is another must. Pouring Ribbons combines creative house serves with warm hospitality. And The NoMad Bar is among the city’s top hotel bars, its gorgeous good looks only matched by its perfectly balanced drinks.
According to Jared Brown and Anistasia Miller — noted cocktail historians and directors of spirits publishing and consultancy company, Mixellany Limited — the place where you drink says a lot about who you are. “You’ve found yourself a living room outside of your home,” says Miller. “If it’s the Pegu Club, you have a great living room that’s beautifully appointed, with great snacks and a very elevated cocktail menu. If you’re at The Dead Rabbit, your living room possesses the dichotomy of an ‘Irish bar mentality’ alongside some truly fabulous cocktails.” No matter where you choose, he says, a city with choices as numerous as New York’s offers you the chance for reinvention — even if just for one evening.
If you’re looking to make a good impression no matter where you go, Miller and Brown are full of suggestions. “If you want a single drink that will never fail to get the bartender to take you seriously, have a Negroni,” suggests Brown. “They’ll look at you and say, ‘You’re for real.'”
If you’re feeling more adventurous, do as Miller does: “Smile at the bartender and ask, ‘Is there anything you’re working on that isn’t on the menu yet?’ The bartender will love you instantly, and for the rest of the night.”
Image credits: Dead Rabbit - Rag and Bone © Andrew Kist, Jim Meehan © Jim Meehan, The NoMad Bar © Francesco Tonelli