With all due respect to everywhere else on the planet, New York is the cocktail capital of the world. After all, how can you argue when confronted with the sheer breadth and impeccable quality of the city’s drinks scene? Time Out New York is honoring just that with our second annual Bar Awards, a recognition of the booze world’s finest. To come up with a list of award categories and worthy candidates to fill them, we assembled a murderers’ row of industry pros, from big-name drink slingers to trendsetting bar owners, who convened at Time Out HQ on March 22 to discuss everything from the death of the dive bar to the indispensability of a good barback. After rules were established—panelists could not nominate their own venues nor later vote in a category in which their bar was nominated—drinks were drank and votes were cast, and our panelists zeroed in on the best bars in NYC—the spectacular seven spots making our bar scene so fucking stupendous right now. (It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it.)
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Meet the city's best bars
You could pick any year since 2011—when owners Joshua Boissy and Krystof Zizka brought their instant-classic brand of French Quarter charm and absinthe cocktails to Williamsburg—and Maison Premiere arguably would have deserved the title. But 2015 was a particularly standout one for the impeccably styled, sumptuously romantic Bedford Avenue boîte: It received its second consecutive James Beard Award nomination for Outstanding Bar Program and even took home the big prize.
And outstanding it is, having bumped up its inaugural eight cocktails to a rigorous, seasonally changing list of 28 over the years, not to mention having the city’s largest absinthe archive ($13 to $18 per glass, served traditionally with a sugar cube and chilled water) and turning bartending upstarts like Beverage Director William Elliott into bold-faced barroom names. The trademark horseshoe bar—anchoring a dreamily appointed stage set with multitier oyster towers, tableside martini service and a bronzed Napoleon statue perched atop the green-marble absinthe drip—has not only been a veritable breeding ground for talent (Nitecap’s Natasha David, the Dead Rabbit’s Jillian Vose), but it’s also become the platonic ideal of what a Brooklyn drinks joint should be: a place where off-duty bar-industry types clink gorgeous sherry cobblers next to regulars downing Ram Island slurpers, where the folks behind the stick are as thoughtful and dapper as the drinks they’re serving.
Mission Chinese Food
Back in ye olden days of 2012, a two-hour wait for a table at Danny Bowien’s shaggy Szechuan superstar was spent in a line spilling out onto Orchard Street and fueled by Dixie cups of free Narragansett beer pumped from a sweaty keg next to crates of dry chili peppers at the storefront’s entrance. If you did manage to score a seat at the cramped back bar for a predinner drink, you were met with cocktails poured in plastic cups and named after Twin Peaks characters, from first-time bartender Arley Marks.
Waiting for a table at the reboot of MCF—which moved from its original Lower East Side location to a double-the-size space deeper into the fringes of Chinatown in late 2014—is a more civilized affair, thanks in large part to Sam Anderson’s whip-smart, altogether more elegant new cocktail program at a front bar upstairs and a more spirited Mylar-walled subterranean service bar where you can happily imbibe until you get the golden text that your table in the dining room is ready. Anderson takes a page out of executive chef Angela Dimayuga’s playbook—one marked by a fluidity of concept and flavors—turning out brainy, bewildering potables ($13) like the General Tso’s Old Fashioned imbued with cracker-jack nuttiness; a color-changing “mood ring” cocktail, built with electric-blue butterfly pea flower tea and served on an LED-light coaster; and his best-seller Phil Khallins, a stunning soup bowl of gin, ginger, coconut milk and Makrut lime with a bobbing hot-pepper garnish that plays on Thailand’s tom kha kai. When it comes to Mission Chinese, come for the food—but stay for the cocktails.
What’s one surefire way of testing a bartender’s skills? Open a bar without a menu. The staff’s-choice model was famously championed by Milk & Honey, Sasha Petraske’s earth-shaking Lower East Side neospeakeasy (simply because Petraske didn’t know how to operate a laser printer, legend holds). Its direct descendant, Attaboy, which opened in the original M&H space by that long-standing icon’s bartenders Sam Ross and Michael McIlroy in the spring of 2013, inherited the paper-free hallmark.
Pull up a stool to the steel-and-wood bar, soft-lit with exposed bulbs and flickering candlelight, and reveal your deepest desires—of the drink sort, that is. Free-form requests ($16) for something fruity, floral, fizzy or all of the above are read as closely as a palm reader thumbing over a heart line, with staff seemingly navigating both the physical (body language) and the psychological (mood, temperament) to cater to each customer’s whims. It’s a level of study and scrutiny—the intimate room smartly caps at 35 people—made all the more impressive by the fact that usually only two workhorse barmen (rotating drink slingers include Dan Greenbaum and Brandon Bramhall) are tending at a time, zesting citrus and hacking ice in the midst of all that off-the-cuff cocktail construction. Atta boys.
Shark Eye at Mother of Pearl
Tiki drinks are notoriously splashy: colorful, camera-ready spectacles of paper umbrellas, pineapple wedges and flaming floaters. But even in a sea of worthy, wowing contenders—our runner-up cocktails are cheekily served out of a cha-chunker can of Regatta ginger beer, a glass Chemex coffee beaker and a whole freakin’ coconut, respectively—no one drink charmed ’grammers (or our panel) this year quite like Jane Danger’s tikified sour ($18) at postmodern Polynesian drinkery Mother of Pearl.
Befitting the kitsch-cool backdrop of totem-pole barstools, floral-upholstered booths and Hawaiian-shirted waitstaff, Danger serves her Shark Eye inside a novelty ceramic cup shaped like a teeth-baring shark’s head, with enough gory Peychaud’s bitters “blood” flowing out of its jaws to leave Steven Spielberg himself tickled, er, red. And fittingly, the drink has serious bite: Danger plays on a classic 1950s Demerara Dry Float with passion fruit and maraschino but updates the sweet recipe via curaçao, bourbon, a few island-spiced dashes of Bittermens ‘Elemakule Tiki bitters and lemon juice, subbed in for the more commonly used lime. Slurping this campy cocktail—finished with fistfuls of pebbled ice, a red-and-white striped straw and a decorative palm leaf—is the only time you’ll feel quite comfortable being within arm’s reach of a shark’s head.
Our city is packed—or maybe plagued—with rock-god bartenders, those cocksure grandstanders who serve every drink with a garnish of bravado, who treat every tumbler like it’s an extension of their own, well…you know. Kenta Goto is not that kind of bartender. That’s not to diminish his formidable abilities, fine-tuned over seven years under the discerning eye of cocktail giant Audrey Saunders at her pioneering lounge Pegu Club, a distinguished stint that earned Goto the title of American Bartender of the Year at Tales of the Cocktail’s 2011 Spirited Awards.
Instead of barefaced bluster, the slight, soft-spoken Tokyo transplant operates with sneak-attack swagger. An understated quality is steeped throughout his solo project Bar Goto—a coolly elegant cocktail izakaya of clean lines, century-old kimonos and five varieties of okonomiyaki (savory Japanese pancakes), including grilled-cheese ($12) and “herbivore” versions ($12)—which debuted on the ground floor of a Lower East Side tenement last July. His Sazerac ($15), a reimagining of the New Orleans prototype with plummy Slivovitz brandy and oaky bourbon stepping in for traditional rye, is quietly subversive; his gin fizz ($15) is fortified with yuzu preserves and, of all things, Calpico, Japan’s milky gas-station soft drink. Goto fights the stigma of fusion cocktails with flowers; his Sakura Martini ($15), a delicate swirl of sake, gin, a blush of maraschino and one sole cherry blossom, is devastatingly beautiful proof. But before things get too precious or, worse, pompous, Goto’s out from behind the bar, running a sizzling cast-iron pan of savory okonomiyaki to hungry tables and checking in on service at others. Rock god he may not be, but from grace to goods, the dude’s a star.
Amor y Amargo
It’s right there in the name: love and bitterness. The driving force behind Ravi DeRossi’s dozen-seat East Village tasting room is actually a love of bitter, of those brawny, botanical, can’t-quite-put-our-finger-on-it dashes and drops that can take a cocktail from solid to superb. (DeRossi knows his way around a single-subject bar—he’s also behind the rum-charged Cienfuegos, the tequila-focused Mayahuel and Gin Palace, which he converted into the tiki-torched Mother of Pearl.) Originally conceived in 2011 as a pop-up in partnership with small-batch bitters producers Bittermens, the still-thriving Amor y Amargo pushed the side-act flavorings deservedly into the spotlight, warping and challenging New York’s hardwired taste buds to accept the bitter side of sweet.
Spreading that gospel since Amor’s opening is Beverage Director Sother Teague, a former research chef turned bar master who can serve a bitters-laced quaff ($15 each) with an accompanying history lesson on the stuff, plus an enthusiastic tour of the more than 300 bitters bottles that the line shelves along the damask-papered walls or an impromptu vocabulary quiz. (FYI: Potable bitters, such as Campari or that off-duty bartender darling fernet—of which Amor has a dozen varieties— are drinkable straight; tincture bitters like Angostura and Peychaud’s are too concentrated to swill on their own.) And you won’t find cocktail-style shaking at the tiled bar; drinks are religiously stirred to keep the air out, allowing all those beautiful bitters to go down smoothly.
When the down-and-outs bounce back from catastrophe, they’re said to “rise from the ashes,” phoenix-style. The popular Brooklyn cocktail haunt Donna took that idiom literally. A mere year and a half after opening near the South Williamsburg waterfront, Leif Young Huckman’s breezy, rum-splashed drinkery was hit with a freak electrical fire in November 2013, causing significant damage to its vaulted ceilings and forcing the team to rebuild from the ground up.
Rebuild it did. Eight months later, Donna 2.0 reopened with those gorgeous, Spanish-mission–style ceilings restored and an expanded drinks program from Beverage Director Jeremy Oertel (Dram, Mayahuel) in place at the curved, marble-topped bar. Inside its whitewashed walls, folks can now sip frozen, virgin and even on-tap cocktails ($11) like a grapefruit-soda–spritzed paloma or a coffee-infused Campari-and–Cappelletti Americano; the draft system was specially augmented to also run uncarbonated cocktails, pushing nitrogen through the lines instead of carbon dioxide.
And whereas the original bar boasted a mere pop-up window from Brooklyn Taco, the second incarnation is fleshed out with a full menu of Latin-light bar food from Mission Cantina alum Eduardo Sandoval, with items that include pan-seared basa tacos with fermented cabbage ($9) and queso zapped with chipotle-tomatillo salsa ($9). A draft cocktail in hand, a few fresh tacos on the bar and some old soul on the speakers—it’s like the Donna we used to know and love, only better.
Runners-up: Black Crescent, Dante, Holiday Cocktail Lounge
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This neighborhood bar in the East Village offers Southern fare and ample drinks to its patrons. Come for brunch to score unlimited mimosas or Bloody Mary’s for just $12 with any entree. Mama’s Bar partners with Root & Bone for the food menu, which includes crispy chicken biscuits with root chips and tabasco pepper jelly ($12), a waffle benedict with pork belly bacon and lemon hollandaise sauce ($15) and a farmer’s omelette with mushrooms and bell peppers. Even the late-night crowd can try some of the Southern bar bites, like deviled eggs ($7), crispy chicken wings with spicy honey ($9), pimento cheese biscuits ($8) or short rib biscuits with tomato jam and pickles ($10). In addition to full bar service, Mama’s Bar also serves signature cocktails like Dick’s Cucumber Cooler with cucumber-infused gin, lime, bitters and tonic, the Hot Mama with jalapeno tequila, cilantro-flavored vodka, Malibu rum and pineapple juice and a Manhattan Iced Tea with rye, lavender bitters, lemon juice and chamomile (each $10).
Venue says: “We've got frozen drinks! Come and try our Froze, and many other flavors!”