NYC’s Best Bars for Discerning Drinkers
Proper imbibing in New York requires visiting at least one of these drinking dens where bartenders are passionate about making creative cocktails.
It’s hard to remember a time in New York City when a professionally crafted, historically informed cocktail was not a sure bet. But it wasn’t all that long ago, in the early 2000s, when a few bartenders harnessed their creativity captivating New Yorkers with delicious drinks at Schiller’s Liquor Bar (RIP August ’17) and speakeasies like Employees Only, PDT and the Pegu Club—all still treasured. It is at these spots that “mixologists”, as we shudder to call them, put on a dazzling show every night, a la Tom Cruise in Cocktail, of course with much more sophistication and much less Scientology.
If you appreciate variety and care with your cocktail, a comfortable atmosphere, and knowledgeable bartenders—then plan to have your next drink at one of these NYC gems.
A visit to this multi-storied bar, located in a modest brownstone near Wall Street, is a trip back in time to 19th-century New York and its rough and tumble immigrant taverns and elegant bars of Lower Broadway. Two bars in one, the Dead Rabbit is no mere kitschy gimmick; it won the owners Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, formerly of the Merchant Hotel in Belfast, the title of World’s Best Bar in 2015 at Tales of the Cocktail. Downstairs sawdust covers the floor of the traditional Irish saloon, where you’ll stand in close and convivial company with Wall Streeters drinking pints and drams of whiskey from an Irish-heavy selection. Upstairs, the parlor, where you’re seated by a host, is decidedly more refined, quiet and limited to expertly tweaked vintage cocktails, like the Wildcat with two types of Irish whiskey and tropical fruits, that stun with layers of flavor.
The drinks and glassware are serious here, but the hospitality is decidedly warm, as signaled by a welcoming teacup of rich punch. An order of a few small plates of food, such as deviled eggs with salmon or mini peekytoe crab cakes, or something as substantial and traditional as fish and chips or lamb shepherd’s pie, will enable you to order another round of cocktails. It’s a pleasure to flip through the extensive, seasonally changing menu that currently resembles a graphic novel depicting the life of John Morrissey, an Irish immigrant who founded the Dead Rabbits street gang in New York City, for which the bar is named.
Death and Company came onto the scene on the eve of 2007 and established the East Village as the center of the city’s globally influential craft cocktail scene. A decade later, it’s still a must-visit bar, not just for its historic importance but also because of its modern but classic drinks served in the intimate quarters of what feels like a real neighborhood bar.
Even though this is where New York City cut its teeth on bitter and spirit-forward stirred cocktails, like the Oaxacan Old Fashioned wtih reposado tequila and mezcal, and got damn used to them, don’t overlook Death & Co’s whimsical talent for tiki. A Cobra’s Fang arrives in a black skull with a float of flaming overproof rum. Arrive early to score a seat at the curved marble bar lined with petite, curvaceous bottles of bitters and spirits. Once inside it will take your eyes a while to adjust to the low light (and strain to read the menu if you’re over 40) that’s divided by spirit type, but it won’t take long to start up a conversation with the bartender and those seated next to you. For a more cuddly experience, request a side table.
With not a single shaken cocktail on offer, this is not a bar meant for James Bond, unless he can be convinced to have his martini stirred–as it should be. The sole focus at Amor y Amargo, a bitters emporium and bar that started as a pop-up in 2011, is on stirred drinks that appeal to a mature, European palate for bitter tipples. The name, which means “Love and Bitter” in Spanish, underscores this mission. The drink menu is just as tight as the friendly space with only 10 drinks on offer, two of which are on tap and the rest stored in bottles, chilled, properly diluted, and ready to pour. Prepared drinks mean that you get your liquor quickly and that bartender is at the ready to create a bespoke cocktail just for you or talk about their extensive inventory of bitters and bar tools for sale. Bitters are far from one dimensional. They can be expressed as refreshing, as in the Di Pompelmo, with Aperol, tequila, grapefruit bitters and Citron Sauvage, or warm and spicy, as in the popular Sharpie Mustache with Meletti amaro, Bonal, 10-year-old rye, gin, and tiki bitters. It’s standing-room only most of the night, making it feel like you’ve been invited to a party in a distinctively Lower East Side apartment with its pressed tin ceiling.
The NoMad didn’t just bring sexy back to the enticing space of hotel bars. It also restored fine cocktails and elevated the accompanying food. This is no surprise as it was created by the team from Eleven Madison Park. The dark sculpted wood, plush fabric, and subdued lights convey an undeniable elegance in the various rooms of the bar. Professionalism and perfectionism reign supreme when it comes to the cocktails, executed with seductively restrained flair by bartenders in distressed leather aprons with natty trim and buckles. The cozy bar embraces unusual flavor profiles, like herbaceous aquavit and smokey scotch in the North Sea Oil, managing to achieve astonishing harmony in the drinks, and it offers an impressive range of rare spirits that also get mixed into cocktails, such as the $60 Jack Rose with 1965 Michele Giard Calvados. The food is no afterthought, from sustaining and affordable flatbread to the gems of simple red radishes and butter, like strawberries in white chocolate. If you get there on the early side, or even can sneak out midday, grab a couch over in the library bar surrounded by backlit, beautifully bound books.
It’s no easy feat to distinguish yourself in the craft cocktail world, but that’s what bartending pros Zach Sharaga, Greg Boehm and Nick Nico de Soto have accomplished. Their concept is a world-to-glass philosophy, with a menu of a dozen cocktails that profile an usual spice or herb, such as the eponymous mace, saffron, coriander, and chia seed. The flavors are the botanical souvenirs of the trio’s global travels, and they inform the light food selection, as well. The long zinc bar has a good number of stools and few alcove tables appropriately showcase large jars of spices. The modern feel of the space goes completely by the wayside during the winter holidays when the bar transforms into Miracle on 9th Street with over-the-top holiday decorations and fun (a quality missing from many cocktail bars!) drinks served in festive vessels. Located a block east of Thompkins Square Park on Avenue C, Mace is a special place worth walking an extra few blocks for.
Midtown Manhattan harbors the elegant grandeur of old New York, found in stately hotels and exclusive clubs. There’s the 100-year-old King Cole Bar, birthplace of the Bloody Mary, in the tony St. Regis, and the new and quaintly hidden Lantern’s Keep in the Iroquois, which is anything but a secret these days. (If you’ve never been, call ahead to reserve). A bit more accessible is the Monkey Bar. Opened in the days after Prohibition, the Monkey Bar has recently recaptured its glory days of the Jazz Age, and its front bar room with checkered table cloths and red leather banquettes feels like a literary watering hole of yore. Cocktails have been revamped too. Julie Reiner, a New York City cocktail pioneer and the woman behind The Flatiron Lounge and The Clover Club, has made sure the drinks keep up with the times even while the setting harkens the past. The names are as playful as namesake monkey murals: Brass Monkey with rum and banana liqueur and the Monkey Gland with gin, pomegranate molasses and absinthe. The kitchen embraces more of a contemporary sensibility, and its modern American cuisine is served chiefly in the elegant and spacious dining room but is also available in the bar room, along with lighter bites, like fried oysters and sliders. Don’t think there’s nowhere to get a good cocktail in Midtown.
Suffering from cocktail fatigue? There’s no shame in that. New York City’s top bartenders themselves gravitate toward mass-market beers and shots after a long shift of mixing complicated drinks. Sometimes the straight stuff is what you need, and the Flatiron Room is where to find it. The knowledgeable staff can guide you through the extensive offerings of over 1,000 different whiskies from around the world, with a focus on Scotland. The grand room with plush sofas and wooden cabinets lined with bottles of whiskey behind closed glass doors is like a relaxed night club, with ceremony but none of the pomp. Space is limited to seating room only, so the room is never at a frenzied pitch and you can concentrate on your spirit selection (even a cocktail) and food or listen to the live music. This is quite the city block for whiskey. Just a few buildings to the east is Maysville whose whiskey collection is even more specific—American.
Other Notable Spots:
Slowly Shirley: A subterranean West Village bar with a menu book chock full of drinks. Make reservations or deal with a doorman and two-hour waits.
The Up & Up: With smashing wallpaper and ice to match every drink, this gem is still a bit under-the-radar being a few steps down off the gritty sidewalk of Macdougal Street.
Pouring Ribbons: This spacious second-story bar would easily be missed from the street. The menu has recently taken on creative and tasty themes like Route 66.