The 13 Most Influential Craft Cocktail Bars in the USA

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The Dead Rabbit in New York has one of the most ambitious cocktail menus around.

Many of the drinks on today’s cocktail menus owe a debt to history: specifically, the power-player bars of the last decade or so. From barrel-aged Negronis to mezcal-spiked libations to a simple dram of bourbon chilled by a tremendous hunk of ice, here are 13 craft cocktail bars that helped shape what and how we drink today.

1. Milk & Honey

Born: 2000
Location: New York, New York (but currently dark)
Why It Matters: The upscale New York original once overseen by the late Sasha Petraske moved from the Lower East Side to the Flatiron District, only to lose that space shortly thereafter. But this unmarked bar was the progenitor of Little Branch, Middle Branch and Attaboy, among other famous bars. Milk & Honey is also the birthplace of the new-classic Scotch cocktail The Penicillin.

2. Employees Only

Born: 2004
Location: New York, New York
Why It Matters: As one of the first neo-speakeasies on the block, EO (as it’s often called) became the model for profitable craft cocktail bars—serious, high-octane cocktails and bartending “apprenticeships.” Yet the bar always partied harder than any dive bar down the block, keeping speakeasy-influenced cocktail culture immune to a too-stuffy image. EO is still the late-night de facto industry clubhouse.

3. Pegu Club

Born: 2005
Location: New York, New York
Why It Matters: Although owner and self-described “cocktail mom” Audrey Saunders has decamped from New York to the west coast, this is still the bar where countless well-known bartenders (and barflies) cut their teeth. It’s with good reason Pegu is sometimes called the “Harvard of Mixology.” Pegu, named for a storied, late-19th century British officers’ club in Burma, is also noted for helping re-popularize gin and for bringing forth such cocktails as the Gin-Gin Mule and Earl Grey MarTEAni.

4. Death & Co.

Born: 2006
Location: New York, New York
Why It Matters: If it seems like a cocktail world cliché now, you probably spotted it first at Death & Co. That includes—but is not limited to—unmarked entrances, dim mood lighting, bartenders sporting vests and elaborately groomed facial hair, “ice programs” and pre-Prohibition era cocktails. But when Death & Co. arrived on the scene, these were fresh ideas and your drink experience today is better because of it.

5. Clyde Common

Born: 2007
Location: Portland, Oregon
Why It Matters: Those barrel-aged cocktails and bottled force-carbonated libations now swilled at bars nationwide owe a debt to Clyde’s bar manager, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who has perfected and popularized the techniques. We’re also keeping an eye on the newly-opened “subterranean speakeasy” Pépé Le Moko, where Morgenthaler is revamping the much-maligned Long Island Iced Tea.

6. PDT

Born: 2007
Location: New York, New York
Why It Matters: Although “Please Don’t Tell” now seems like the world’s worst-kept secret, for years this was the buzziest bar around. The secret entrance through a faux phone booth within Crif Dogs, the passwords whispered by those in the know all added to the mystique. But if you remember the years when Jim Meehan and Don Lee manned the bar, serving up the Bacon-Infused Old Fashioned that launched the fat-washing craze, you understand what all the fuss was about.

7. Anvil Bar & Refuge

Born: 2009
Location: Houston, Texas
Why It Matters: The Houston bar doesn’t carry vodka, yet it’s still managed to make Texas care about craft cocktails. Much of that is credited to head honcho Bobby Heugel, an outspoken advocate who has dedicated himself to the protection of traditional tequila and mezcal production techniques in Mexico, as well as newer projects such as the mezcaleria, The Pastry War.

8. The Varnish

Born: 2009
Location: Los Angeles, California
Why It Matters: In addition to helping popularize the devil-may-care “bartender’s choice” into the mixology lexicon, this dimly-lit, stylish Los Angeles speakeasy located within Cole’s French Dip focuses on precise, polished classic cocktails with historical backstory under the guidance of mixologist/proprietor Eric Alperin.

9. Smuggler’s Cove

Born: 2009
Location: San Francisco, California
Why It Matters: This San Francisco tiki bar continues to stoke enthusiasm for tiki and tropical drinks, long after many other once-beloved tiki bars have gone on to the big Kahuna in the sky. Helmed by owner (and rum collector) Martin Cate and manager Justin Oliver, this is one of the best places in the country to sip a Mai Tai.

10. Mayahuel

Born: 2009
Location: New York, New York
Why It Matters: Because without this bar or its proprietor, Phil Ward, the Margarita might still be the sole tequila drink on cocktail menus everywhere. Since opening this East Village outpost, Ward has become the curmudgeonly poster boy for all things agave. He’s one of the reasons you can now find mezcal and wider varieties of tequila on back bars everywhere.

11. The Aviary

Born: 2011
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Why It Matters: Located within chef Grant Achatz’s Chicago restaurant Next, this forward-thinking bar celebrates his mad-scientist molecular experiments, and brought the words “molecular mixology” to drinkers’ vocabularies. It’s the first bar with an ice chef on staff to create 20-plus different styles of ice, and continues to challenge perceptions by serving cocktails in futuristic vessels: most notably, the bespoke “porthole” carafe that showcases the ingredients infusing the drink within.

12. The Broken Shaker

Born: 2012 (as a pop-up)
Location: Miami, Florida
Why It Matters: If you’re drinking something crazy—Cocoa Puff–infused whiskey, or gin funkified with a blue cheese reduction—tip your hat to this Miami-based bar, formerly a pop-up but now permanently located within the Freehand Miami Hostel. Whimsical and super-seasonal, these are risk-taking drinks full of color, kitsch and verve, served in what has to be one of the coolest backyard patios in the country.

13. The Dead Rabbit

Born: 2013
Location: New York, New York
Why It Matters: In addition to revitalizing Irish whiskey, this Manhattan saloon in the Financial District may have one of the most ambitious cocktail menus around. It’s not just that it’s expansive, but the extra-long list of reimagined classics, such as punch served in tea cups, and reputation for attention to detail keeps other mixologists eyeing this atypical Irish pub. It also ensures the bar keeps racking up awards, too.

More stories about the craft of today’s cocktail movers and shakers right this way.

Kara Newman is a New York-based spirits and cocktail writer, and author of Cocktails for a Crowd (Chronicle Books).

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Discussion (12)

  • jessica.donaldson.63a44c posted 2 years ago

    Seconding... basically everyone that this list is so heavily NYC centric it's ridiculous. I get it, NYC has a great bar scene. But SEVEN bars out of NYC and only one entry from SF, Chicago, or L.A.? Nothing from Boston, New Orleans, Seattle, or Atlanta? Just to name a few? Okay, so what we're really talking is a few New Yorkers writing about their own city with a big name from out of town thrown in every so often to appease the rest of the country. I question just how much the writer actually knows about the bar scene outside of her own city.

  • fernando.g.frade posted 2 years ago

    Here in the US people don"t need to be told where to drink, where to eat, where to travel, where, where, where...
    It is about time we decide what is good or bad for us.


  • Barchef posted 2 years ago

    Love the Flatiron!! We was there a few years back! Please check out my bar on FB the name is The Arendell Room! We love the art of the cocktail! Thanks

  • seanwcrawford posted 2 years ago

    No Bourbon and Branch in SF?

  • Steve Asis posted 3 years ago

    Step out and broaden your horizons....
    Try 320 MAIN in Seal Beach, CA...

  • carl.hannah.96 posted 3 years ago

    C. Hannah, I like your opinions.

  • hmcnally posted 3 years ago

    Journalism 101: who, what, when, _where_, why, how.

  • C.Hannah posted 3 years ago

    mgth you're right about a biased list and New York centric. I, of course, love all the bars mentioned and know bartenders and/or owners of each bar in the above...but you're right about Boston not being included. I've known Brother Cleave for years but have only met him personally this year and he was involved and teaching in Boston his passion before every single bar in the above. Drink and Eastern Standard(Hawthorne) go above Numbers one and two, making this list a proper 15 instead of 13.
    Working 11 years at my bar and watching what has happened the past 9 years in our country I often see lists. Sure, I love being included in lists (French 75 Bar), it makes me feel like my effort is worth it and inspires me to keep going...but there are so many good bars now and have been for a decade so it's kind of ridiculous to keep listing and such. Tangent: if you follow English Premiere Soccer/Football you'll hear fans vent on the "media darlings" from London who get all the exposure because they're in London and said clubs get talked about just because they're there even if they're crap. Well, same should be said for New York bars...New York is the media darling and, well, such bars are always going to make the list. I'm not saying they shouldn't be on the list...I'm just suggesting the topic should have been the "13 bars in each city that have changed the way you drink in each city" For instance, New Orleans: Sazerac Bar, French 75 Bar, Swizzle Stick, Cure, Bellocq, Cane and Table, Sylvain, Bar Tonique, 12 Mile Limit, Tujagues (Paul Gustings), Kingfish(McMillian), 3 Muses(Kim Patton Bragg), Delachaise. And that's just 13 and so even "this" screws over a couple bars, like say, SoBu, Franklin, Bootys, 21st Amendment, Carousel Bar, Napoleon House, etc.
    Anyway, just agreeing...but what can be done?

  • mgth666 posted 3 years ago

    Almost as biased as Drink Intl's list. Their list was pretty much London hotel bars and New York places. This list is pretty much New York centric (like all such lists: "Smuggler's aside, let's pretend SF never happened. Nope, no Alembic, no Comstock, no Absinthe, no Trick Dog, no Tommy's, no Bar Agricole, etc."). Also, at this point I'm surprised not to see Boston get even one mention on any list (Drink, Eastern Standard, Hawthorn, Back Bar, Brick and Mortar,...).

  • tudza.bdf7 posted 3 years ago

    So each of these bars is where exactly?

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