Bars are great places. And we don’t just say that because we’re in the spirits business. We say it because bars perform a wide range of important functions in our society. They’re places where people meet new friends, socialize with old friends, exchange views, and generally feel connected to the world. Bars are also places where cocktail enthusiasts can get a taste of new flavors, learn about new ingredients, and expand their palates as much or as little as they care to.
As alcoholic beverage producers, we love bars because they are the most effective and exciting places to showcase new spirits. The established wisdom used to be that bars and bartenders don’t actually introduce many folks to new things; most people—it was said—come into a bar knowing what they want to drink and they order it. More often than not, it’s “the usual.” But things are changing. The latest trend in hip and serious cocktail establishments is having no menu at all—no set of predetermined mixes and, thus, no set of predetermined ideas about what to drink. Instead, patrons sit at the bar and have a conversation with the bartender, exchanging ideas about the kinds of flavors each customer likes—which spices, which herbal notes, and which mixers are appealing—and the bartender builds a cocktail from there. In this way, the bartender, with all his or her expert knowledge of ingredients, is driving a customized taste experience for each and every person at the bar. As far as we’re concerned, this is a great development in bar culture. It means that customers don’t have to know the name of a new spirit in order to get a chance to experience it.
Because bars are so integral to what we do, we wanted to take an opportunity to celebrate their important role and to highlight (and salute) what are considered to be some of the best bars in America.
Every year, the website worlds50bestbars.com compiles its lists of standouts from around the globe. They do an international collection, as well as various national collections, including a list of the 50 Best Bars in North America. Here are a few of the highlights from our corner of the world:
Best Bar in North America: Attaboy, New York City
Nestled in an unmarked space on Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Attaboy is sort of a secret destination you have to know about ahead of time. [This “speakeasy” trend has exploded in recent years; no exterior signage, scant information on a website, no cocktail menus, etc.]
For Attaboy, the speakeasy vibe is especially apt since they focus on Prohibition-era cocktails. Creations include modern classics such as Ross’ Penicillin (scotch, lemon juice, ginger-honey syrup) and Paper Plane (bourbon, Italian orange bitters, amaro, lemon juice) as well as a riff on a Manhattan called the Greenpoint (rye, green herbal liqueur, vermouth). We’re particularly intrigued by the Stay Up Late (gin, cognac, lemon juice, simple syrup, club soda). What would happen if you used Batch 22 instead of the gin? Not to worry. We’re gonna find out.
A quick survey of the 50 bars included on the Best List also provides a glimpse of which cities are on the frontlines of cocktail innovation. It may not shock you to learn that New York seems to be home to many of the best bars in the country—11 of the top 50 on the list are in New York and three of those won top honors in a special category. Overstory, located on Pine St. in Manhattan, won the Hospitality Award for 2022. Mace, also a Manhattan watering hole on West 8th Street, won the award for Best Cocktail Menu, with “genre-defining” cocktails that push the boundaries of ingredients and preparations.
So, what does the signature cocktail on North America’s best cocktail menu include? Well, the Mace is made up of Italian orange liqueur, aquavit, beet juice, orange acid, young Thai coconut cordial, and mace mist. And the Cinnamon? This drink is comprised of aquavit, Pedro Ximenez sherry, carrot cordial, cinnamon pecan orgeat, and egg yolk. Two aquavit cocktails front and center on the Mace list! These guys obviously know what they’re doing.
Mace’s non-aquavit cocktails sound just as amazing. The Frankincense pairs savory flavors with sweet, featuring brown butter-and cep-infused bourbon, with walnut liqueur and frankincense smoke. Wasabi + Cilantro utilizes an impressive collection of offbeat ingredients: wasabi-infused and soy-washed rum, strawberry, vanilla lactic syrup, lime, angelica root, bacon-washed rum, pineapple, coconut, plantain, lime, and cilantro (coriander). Other cocktails go even further out there: The Thyme employs a goat-cheese-washed rye whiskey in its recipe, and Ants mixes ghee-infused blanco tequila with pink guava, carbonation, and ants salt. All these ideas, needless to say, are going straight to the Batch 22 test kitchen.
On the 50bestbars site, New York City had three bars in the Top 10 (#1,4, 8) but a few other cities made notable showings. Numbers 2, 3, and 7 are all in Mexico City (they claimed 6 spots in all) and Toronto snagged 4 spots. Thunderbolt, in Los Angeles, made the list at #9, and several other Cali bars from Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco were included in the top 50.
Esquire, which also does an annual wrap-up of best bars, agrees that New York is still America’s epicenter of great cocktails. On their Top 25 list, there are 5 New York locations, including Overstory, which also won the hospitality award from 50bestbars. The LA Times, in collaboration with TheDailyMeal, does the most exhaustive bar ranking list—they compile what they say are the 150 Best Bars in America. Their list includes notable spots in Missoula Montana, Newark New Jersey, Genoa Nevada, Lawrence Kansas, and Lovell Maine, to name just a few. In the L.A. Times’ top 25, New York claims 6 spots, but their #1 is The Office in Chicago. [The Office focuses on classically presented cocktails in a stunning décor from the 1920s.] You can check out the whole list: https://www.thedailymeal.com/150-best-bars-america-ranking
For us at Downtime Cocktails, these standout bars serve as a great inspiration. They motivate us to explore the creative boundaries of cocktail innovation and spur us on with their growing popularity. We look forward to visiting a number of these places in the coming year and encourage you to do the same.