When classic cocktails came roaring back, we were psyched, not to mention buzzed on flips and fizzes and old-fashioneds. These days, top chefs are taking cocktails to new heights, putting serious talent behind the bar and raiding the kitchen for stuff to juice and muddle. The results? As complex and surprising as any dish on the menu
When I moved to New York almost ten years ago, a restaurant bar's primary function was to anesthetize guests waiting for a table. As a newbie Manhattan bartender, I spent all my time slinging Cosmos and appletinis thanks to a certain HBO series, and I quickly learned that a shimmering cone of vodka—shaken, not stirred—was the surefire path to a good tip. There was one bottle of bitters behind my bar, and I dashed most of it onto lemons to cure customers of the hiccups (yes, it works). Meanwhile, a handful of retro Prohibition-style lounges were quietly kicking off the classic-cocktail revolution. The craft of the drink was coming back to life behind unmarked doors in dimly lit neo-speakeasies. By the early aughts, the gap between the drinks at top bars and top restaurants was drastic.
But once chefs woke up from sourcing local microgreens and making edamame ice cream, they caught up quickly. They had the ingredients, the techniques, and the futuristic hardware to do what a basic bar couldn't: push the cocktail beyond the classics. Today cocktails are being aged in barrels, deconstructed in kitchens that double as science labs, and perfected in Michelin-starred restaurants. This year the Oscars of the restaurant business, the James Beard Foundation Awards, will (finally) name the first-ever Outstanding Bar Program in America. But who's got the patience to wait? So > GQ has pulled together the four movements driving the new wave of cocktails, and the bars leading the charge. There's never been a better time to have a drink before dinner.
—Jim Meehan, owner and head bartender, PDT, New York
The barrel and the cocktail met and married in winter 2009 at Clyde Common. Presiding was bar manager Jeffrey Morgenthaler, as he filled three-gallon oak casks with Negroni mix. Since then, he's aged a slew of cocktails, classic and original. "The shortest we've aged is probably four weeks," says Morgenthaler. "The longest was five months, for a Chrysanthemum." The results are always worth the wait. Drinking a barrel-aged version of your favorite cocktail is like talking to its worldly older brother; he has a few more rings around the trunk and tells a better story. Take your average Old Pal—basically a rye Manhattan spiked with Campari. Mixed fresh, it's bittersweet, mildly spicy, and warming. Aged, it moves into after-dinner territory, the whiskey receding, the Campari softened. Barrel-aging programs have popped up both Stateside and abroad—New Zealand, Scotland, China. Hopefully they'll accept this as an apology for America's last cocktail export, the Red Bull and vodka.—Robert Simonsin
Saxon + Parole
New York, NY
Bar manager Naren Young has mastered the aged drink—check his Prince Edward Cocktail (Compass Box "Great King Street" blended whiskey, Lillet Blanc, Drambuie, and lemon bitters), aged only a month, the wood lightly singeing the drink around the edges. Now he's after ingredients, too, barreling up his own leather bitters
for the house Manhattan.—R.S.
The Patterson House
It's the best bar in town, which is saying something in Nashville, the South's dark-horse cocktail capital. The house Negroni sleeps in oak casks from a distillery down the street; after one month the gin, Campari, sweet vermouth, and orange bitters have perfected their four-part harmony. In a one-two punch, Nashville's next-best drinks are upstairs at The Catbird Seat, a tiny, ever-changing chef's table. We had the fizzy sherry aperitif and razor-thin scallop chips—the tastiest bar snack since Chex Mix.—Jessica Glavin
Los Gatos, CA
GQ Chef of the Year David Kinch was sick of sending early arrivals elsewhere for a cocktail. The fourteen-seat lounge showed up this spring in a major renovation of Manresa, his Silicon Valley temple to the local and seasonal, where most of what you eat comes from Love Apple Farms in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. Kinch favored classic recipes for the cocktail program, but then sommelier Jeff Bareilles got a noseful of Love Apple's Bolivian coriander, which is not a euphemism for cocaine. "I thought, I can make a cocktail with this," he says. Manresa treats the cocktail as an amuse-bouche, with drinks that are light and fresh. Like the menu, they're inspired by hyssop, pungent Black Prince tomatoes, dates&whatever the farm provides. The Shizuka is built around the mild, mintlike herb shiso, with a sturdy scaffolding of Hendrick's Gin, Fentimans Tonic, and Green Chartreuse V.E.P. It leaves the head clear for decision-making, like whether to move into the dining room or spend your night at the bar.—James O'Brien
Old Town Alexandria seems an unlikely place for a speakeasy-style bar with avant-farmy flair. Bartender-owner Todd Thrasher uses ingredients from his mini-empire of Alexandria restaurants to create a cocktail menu that reads like a farmers'-market shopping list. Home-brewed bottles line the bar: cherry bitters, pecan water, fermented apple cider. The Smoker's Delight is a bourbon drink infused with your choice of native tobacco.—Kevin Sintumuang
You'll need a food dictionary to understand the drinks list at this bar in a converted tire store. Tepache? (A fermented Mexican drink made with pineapples and cinnamon—it's homemade.) Get the full haute-farm effect with the Maharaja Buck, made with cardamom-infused gin, housemade tamarind jam, and a spicy home-brewed ginger beer.—K.S.
You're kind of baffled. You ordered the In the Rocks, but what showed up was a giant egg of ice with an amber liquid inside (Eagle Rare ten-year-old bourbon, bitters, sugar, and water that's injected by syringe). Then you pull back the slingshot attached to the glass's rim and let go. The ice egg implodes, leaving a pitch-perfect old-fashioned. At Aviary, boozy brother of Alinea—the fun house of culinary alchemy founded by Grant Achatz—you can't just order a drink. That'd be too easy. Achatz and head bartender Craig Schoettler have painstakingly assembled every cocktail to maximize
the theater of it all. The Ginger arrives as a solid, garnished with ingredients like micro shiso and finger-lime cells. Pour in a sidecar of Karlsson's vodka, stir with a stick of lemongrass ice, and sip on the spicy-sweet refreshment. Think of it as drinks and a show.—R.S.
Bar Centro at The Bazaar
Los Angeles, CA
The LN2 Caipirinha, made tableside using liquid nitrogen, is subtly sweet and frozen into gelato form—the best drink you'll ever eat with a spoon. And the Salt Air Margarita is topped with a salty foam, so that each time you sip, you get the perfect amount of salinity. It's The Bazaar at its best—no gratuitous use of molecular gastronomy, just a genuine improvement in drinking.—K.S.
New York, NY
The tater tot on WD-50's famous "eggs Benedict" was actually deep-fried hollandaise, so of course the Grandaddy's Ghost whiskey cocktail looks like vodka on the rocks. It's a mix of clear, unaged rye and clarified Angostura bitters that have been "redistilled" in a machine called a Centrifan, losing all the bitter notes but retaining all the spice.—Stan Parish
Eleven Madison Park
New York, NY
The Dukes Martini isn't shaken or stirred—it's just a straight pour of near frozen Plymouth gin or Potocki rye vodka that arrives on a bar cart. The vintage glass is rinsed with Dolin dry vermouth—or not, your call. The garnish is a twist, or a housemade cocktail onion, or a silver skewer of olives, and the end result is worth $17 because it is the platonic ideal of a martini. Maybe you've heard about the food: three Michelin stars, a James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant. Less well-known: Head bartender Leo Robitschek is making the best mixed drinks in a city that already reinvented cocktails once this decade. The Sippy-Cup earned its name when someone suggested that a nearby screaming baby could use some in his bottle, but there's nothing G-rated about the cocktail. It's a mix of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Amaro Averna, ginger, lime, and Angostura bitters, the kind of drink you imagine Silvio Berlusconi sipping before a long night of "bunga bunga."—S.P.
Cyrus was one of the first white-tablecloth joints to elevate cocktails to the level of their Michelin two-star food. Take the simple gin and tonic, invented circa 1825 by British soldiers cutting the bitterness of antimalarial quinine with gin and soda water. Its 2012 descendant: Cyrus's signature G&T, with Plymouth gin and a tonic brewed in-house using South American cinchona bark, juniper berries, allspice, cardamom, and a mix of agave nectar and citrus juices. The lesson? Everything can be perfected.—Sophie Brickman
New York, NY
Daniel Boulud is as good at spotting trends as he is at cooking grouse: His namesake flagship restaurant has had a cocktail bar since it moved
to Park Avenue in 1998, and six years ago the best chef-slash-restaurateur alive installed ace mixologist Xavier Hérit to make it world-class. Don't be surprised to see folks sitting on barstools ordering the tasting menu while sipping New Fashioneds (rye, peach bitters, Peychaud's, Punt e Mes, and maple syrup) instead of white Bordeaux.—S.P.
An almond syrup with an orange- or rose-flower accent; a mai tai necessity
A simple syrup with the sweetness kicked up by Guyana sugar
Marasca cherries and their crushed almond-flavored pits flavor this liqueur
An herbal liqueur made in four styles (green, yellow, and expensive versions of both) by French Alpine monks
A bittersweet artichoke-flavored Italian liqueur
that tastes better than it sounds
Supposedly only three people know the recipe for this honey-sweetened Norman liqueur
A fortified wine spiked with quinine, plus dried herbs and spices
Punt e Mes
A bitter dark-brown Italian vermouth
An eighty-proof Italian liqueur with seventy herbs, including mint and fennel
An old-school name for a sugary vinegar-and-fruit syrup
Crème de Cassis
A sweet, low-proof Burgundy-based black-currant liqueur
This slightly sweet, slightly citrusy liqueur, made from elderflowers, launched in 2007
- Wine and Cocktails