No trip to New York is complete without a life-changing cocktail, served up in an extraordinary setting. Here, we chat with a few experts who know their Old Fashioneds from their Manhattans, and direct you toward a few of the best cocktail bars in New York.
From classic to cutting edge
"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 Scott's 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.
These days – nearly a century after the Jazz Age – "tying one on" remains an art. Classic drink destinations such as the Bar Room at '21 Club,' Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle hotel, the Campbell Apartment above Grand Central, and the Plaza's Oak Bar serve as sophisticated slices of days gone by. The barkeeps at these polished institutions will fulfill any boozy wish your heart desires, although such environments beg for the classics – martinis, highballs, gin-gin mules, Pisco sours, and the like.
Meanwhile, ambitious and inventive mixologists have become the celebrities du jour at downtown hot spots such as PDT (Please Don't Tell), Employees Only, Death and Company, and Mulberry Project. Each of these hallowed halls are dedicated to the meticulous preparation and hushed celebration of cocktails, and the one-upmanship among the bartenders is a sight to behold.
According to Jared Brown and Anastasia 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 a great 'Irish bar mentality' alongside some truly fabulous cocktails."
Brown (who happens to be the master distiller of Sipsmith Gin) notes that a city with choices as numerous as New York offers you the chance for reinvention – even if just for one evening. "You owe it to yourself, every once in a while, to define yourself as someone who sits by him- or herself at the Bar at the Four Seasons Restaurant," he says. "Greg Connolly will mix you the perfect martini, and you'll feel so good knowing you can be so civilized once in a while."
Jeremy Strawn, one of New York's most enthusiastically followed mixologists, is the owner of the Black Hound Lounge. Strawn, a partner at the Mulberry Project and the Greenwich Project, learned his exquisite cocktail execution behind the bars at Milk & Honey and Death & Co., and brought those skills to this new Financial District hotspot, minus any pretension. "I don't want customers to get alienated," Strawn says. "It can be uncomfortable when you don't recognize ingredients on a drink menu. Here, we put new twists on classic drinks, focus on proper preparation and ideal measurement, and use quality ingredients. It keeps the vibe pretty laid-back."
Among the Black Hound's lively, literary-dubbed offerings are the Glass Armonica (Hayman's gin or Tito's vodka, lemon, house-made jam), the Concord Hymn (Tanqueray gin, lemon syrup, Lilet Blanc, and rose water), and a Manhattan aged for 100 days in a heavy-charred oak barrel. Of course, if you simply want a scotch on the rocks, your cubes will be the proper size and your brand will be available.
If you're looking to ingratiate yourself to Strawn or any other keeper of the cocktails, 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."
Where to Find Your Next Great Drink:
Header photo: The Beautiful Fool, inspired by The Great Gatsby at 21 Club © Bar at '21'
Where do you go for great cocktails in New York? Share your favourite bar tips below.
Written by Andrew Stone
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About the author: AndrewStoneAndrew Stone
A Brooklyn-based writer and editor, Andrew Stone covers architecture and design for Interior Design magazine and is the former editor-in-chief of Los Angeles Confidential. A busy bee within the worlds of culture, style, and dining, he has interviewed celebrities and hot shots aplenty for various publications. Stone nurtures his two-decade love affair with his city as the resident Manhattan reporter for Hg2.com. Stone is the author of both Hg2 New York and Hg2 Los Angeles. What makes him a hedonist? "The desire to have firsthand knowledge of life's great offerings."