These days, you can barely step into a bar without tripping over a decent cocktail. The best of the bunch know their classics, have the talent to concoct original recipes and can opine for hours on the merits of their house-made bitters program. There are now dozens of such bars dotting the country. So to narrow your search, we’ve compiled a shortlist of our favorites. Ten bars where the drinks are serious, the spirits selection is envious and someone, somewhere, is sporting a mustache straight out of the 1880s. Because, as everyone knows, a good cocktail bar is one-third facial hair.
The Dead Rabbit, NYC: There’s a reason this Financial District bar has won nearly every major award in every major category. That reason: It’s a really good bar. With a taproom downstairs and a craft cocktail parlor upstairs, the Dead Rabbit focuses on communal punches and 19th-century drinks from celebrated barkeeps like Jerry Thomas, as well as some of the most creative and intricate original recipes in town.
Smuggler's Cove, San Francisco: The king of modern American tiki dens, Smuggler’s Cove has been slinging innovative umbrella drinks since 2009. Led by rum aficionado Martin Cate, this tribute to all things tropical is like visiting a multi-floored pirate ship. Packed with hundreds of rums, nautical knickknacks and tiki artifacts, it serves up classic libations (think Zombies and Painkillers), plus innovative drinks concocted by the team of talented bartenders.
The Aviary, Chicago: Quite possibly serving the most beautiful cocktails in the country, this reservations-only cocktail lab comes from Grant Achatz, he of Alinea fame. Here, drinks are not always what they seem. Up is down, left is right, and drinks are sometimes served inside ice balls or plastic, smoke-filled bags. Of course, it’s all just gimmicks unless the cocktails taste good. And we assure you, they do.
Anvil Bar & Refuge, Houston: This minimalist space in the Montrose neighborhood attracts a steady crowd of regulars and visitors alike, who swing by to sample Anvil’s rotating menu of original creations. If nothing interests you (which is unlikely), each bartender is equipped with an encyclopedic knowledge of classic cocktails. In fact, the menu sports a list of 100 classic drinks you can order, so there’s always something new to try.
Drink, Boston: There’s no shortage of good drinking spots in Boston. But in 2008, Drink became the most ambitious bar in town. Once you descend those stairs into the underground space, there’s no menu. So you could just request a classic. But instead, share your likes and dislikes with the knowledgeable bartenders, who are adept at making you the right drink for the occasion.
Pouring Ribbons, NYC: Walk up the steps into this unassuming East Village bar, and you might think you’ve wandered into the wrong place. Because the casual ambiance feels more Miller Lite and chicken tenders than high-end cocktails. But that ambiance belies what’s really going on here. Try the house-made cocktails—each plotted on a scale of refreshing to spirited, comforting to adventurous—and you’ll keep yourself happy and occupied.
Williams & Graham, Denver: Part neighborhood bar, part speakeasy, this diminutive drinks spot has been leading Denver’s bar scene since opening in 2011. And last year, it was named Best American Cocktail Bar at the Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards, so that’s significant. With just seven tables and some bar seats, space is at a premium, but the drinks here (they come from expert barman Sean Kenyon) are worth the wait.
Harvard & Stone, Los Angeles: A retro, industrial bar with rowdy crowds and live music doesn’t seem like the kind of place where you’d want to order a cocktail. But don’t let appearances fool you. Because the drinks here are legitimately delicious, and you can embark on an even deeper cocktail journey by slipping into R&D, the small bar-within-a-bar, where extra-creative drinks are served by a rotating cast of bartenders.
Columbia Room, DC: Derek Brown is the king of DC cocktailing. So when he closed Columbia Room at the end of 2014, the public wept. But when he reopened a new and improved (and bigger) version earlier this year, much rejoicing occurred. The current iteration features an outdoor punch garden, a spirits library with vintage hooch and a reservations-only tasting room. And the drinks: they’re still some of the best you’ll find in a city full of good drinks.
Polite Provisions, San Diego: The sign out front promises prescription drugs and tonics. And that’s not too far from the truth. Because at Polite Provisions, drinks are medicine. The sizable menu’s broken into categories like cool and refreshing, blast from the past, spirit forward and communal drinks, so you’ve got plenty to choose from. And if you’re not the waiting type, they’ve got many cocktails on tap. It's difficult to go wrong here.