Spring is in full force and, with it, cocktails that sing of the season. You might order a tropical blue dream in D.C., a Thai-soup-inspired drink in San Francisco, a touch of Tokyo in Vancouver or a sage- and pineapple-tinged aperitif in Oxford, Miss. These are but a few examples of the bold and understated ways bartenders are playing with cocktails now. From Napa to Baltimore, these are 11 standout cocktails across North America.
Can't make it to any of the bars serving these great drinks? Try making the Coin-Operated Boy from this list at home.
Gaining a new chef and bar manager, Dirty Habit recently launched new menus (don’t miss chef Thomas Weibull’s Dungeness crab dumplings), including bar manager Raul Ayala’s cocktails. We’ve tasted a few cocktails around the country inspired off the Thai soup Tom Kha Gai, right down to the coconut milk and lime. Ayala pulls from the flavors of another beloved Thai soup, Tom Yum, in his tart-savory Tom Yum Sour. Starting with a base of Spring 44 gin, he adds layers found in the stock of the soup: tamarind, galangal root, kaffir lime, lemongrass and lime and then, for silky texture, aquafaba (garbanzo bean water).
Intimate, even romantic and an easy walk from many of downtown Charleston, S.C.’s key sites and top restaurants, The Gin Joint is one of the city’s best bars serving well-balanced but boundary-pushing cocktails. It feels as if spring has arrived with the Strawberry Fields. Served in a coupe, the drink is a mix of BarSol pisco, fresh strawberry juice, lemon juice, white peppercorn syrup and silky, frothy texture from buttermilk and egg white. Garnished with fresh cracked white pepper and a sprig of tarragon, the cocktail is both fruity and aromatic, with intriguing tart and savory notes.
Tiki won’t stop, and in D.C.’s charming Archipelago (opened in March 2016), the multi-room space is lined with bamboo and Tiki paraphernalia, serving cheeky bites like Nashville hot chicken steam buns alongside happy-hour steals, like $7 Piña Coladas and $8 Ti Punches. Archipelago’s cocktails are balanced (i.e. not too sweet) Tiki dreams laden with umbrellas or bananas cut into dolphins. The Jungle Room Experience makes its statement in a vivid icy blue (from blue curaçao), garnished with an orchid, showcasing the grassy, cane sugar freshness of cachaça and rhum agricole, given sweet and sour balance from soursop juice, apricot and lemon juices.
Just opened in February, Rusted Mule is already one the most striking new bars to come along this year. The brick-walled 1908 space takes cues from nautical and steampunk worlds with sea-colored flooring, metal, copperworks, unusual chandeliers and a glowing onyx bar that changes colors. With four different namesake Mules (ginger beer cocktails) and Suntory Toki Japanese whisky Highballs on draft, house cocktails go down easy yet still intrigue. Partner and bartender Chris Mansury’s Bicicleta subtly marries Mezcal Unión, Yellow Chartreuse, Merlet crème de pêche (peach) liqueur, lime and orange bitters into one silky drink with a whisper of mezcal smoke, peach and herbal notes.
Given national standards, it has taken a long time for Oklahoma City to get into the culinary renaissance sweeping the country. But a local pioneer has long been A Good Egg Dining Group, opening restaurants with savvy food and drink menus. The Drake is its seafood destination, not easy to come by in the landlocked states but done to perfection here. Drinks are not so much groundbreaking as quality (look for modern classics like a Chartreuse Swizzle). Its simple but lovely Sir Francis Drake cocktail (created by general manager Justin Neely and beverage director Jason Ewald) works because it features funky-elegant Smith & Cross Navy-strength rum as a base, brightened with pomegranate syrup and refreshing hibiscus strong tonic.
2 Birds, 1 Stone has been a Napa Valley destination restaurant since opening in June 2016, thanks to excellent food from rock star chefs Sang Yoon (of Father’s Office and Lukshon in Los Angeles) and Wine Country’s Douglas Keane (formerly of Cyrus). The lofty, 1800s stone-and-steel Freemark Abbey is a dramatic space for a meal—or a drink. Besides a notable program of wines collaborated on for 2 Birds with local winemakers and master sommelier Kevin Reilly, there’s an extensive Japanese whisky selection and cocktails like the Five-Spice Mai Tai, a vibrant mix of Rhum J.M agricole blanc and Zafra 21-year-old rum with a house-made five-spice orgeat and lime. Consider it a tropical touch in the middle of Wine Country.
Opened in summer 2016 just off Oxford’s charming town square, Saint Leo is the ubiquitous Neapolitan pizza place with Italian wood-burning oven that’s a dime-a-dozen in major food cities but a rare exception in these parts. Opened by a local, Emily Blount, who grew up in the Bay Area and lived in NYC, the glowing restaurant’s big-city-quality ethos translates to the cocktails, as well as the food. Drinks are straightforward, amari-based or inspired off classic aperitif cocktails, as with The Count, The Sage, The Temptress, a clear sipper of sage-infused gin, pineapple-infused Cocchi Americano aperitivo and blanc vermouth. It’s elegant, subtle and aromatic, cleaning the palate in between rounds of antipasti and pizza.
From Heisler Hospitality and situated on Randolph Street's Restaurant Row, Bad Hunter is a veggie-forward (but not vegetarian) restaurant—think root-vegetable Bolognese or beet tartare—where drinks are a draw alongside the food. Served in a coupe, the Irish Spiced Sour could play just as happily in fall or winter as it does in the spring. The silky drink features Glendalough Double-Barrel Irish whiskey shaken with a coconut-milk-based banana chestnut puree, lemon juice, honey and Don Ciccio & Figli Nocino (walnut) liqueur, with a frothy top layer of egg whites dusted with cinnamon.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2016, Alembic is a modern-day San Francisco classic, pioneering with its cocktail menu and American whiskey selection and excellent food. Since its space expansion in 2015, David Faro moved from sous chef to executive chef and now he and new head barman Jacob Racusin are imparting fresh life to the space with new menus. Racusin’s Mount Aso cocktail goes savory and dry, showcasing Iwai Japanese whisky with ingredients that flow comfortably from the kitchen: mirin (sweet cooking rice wine), kabocha squash, a range of spices, lemon and smoked carrot dashi/broth—a fine example of synergy between kitchen and bar.
In a historic space in Baltimore’s charming Fells Point area, the new Rye at 1639 Thames Street (as opposed to the original Broadway space) opened in summer 2016 off cobblestone streets, offering live music and elegant-but-drinkable cocktails in a bar with a speakeasy-era look but thankfully no passwords or pretension. From bar manager Perez Klebahn, Coin-Operated Boy is a tall on-the-rocks refresher that surprises. Starting with rye whiskey, absinthe, Tempus Fugit Gran Classico bitter aperitif and lemon, the drink unfolds with salty-sweet intrigue from a house-made caramel.
The Keefer Bar is one of Vancouver’s great bars since opening in 2010, with a Chinatown location and an imaginative drink menu that pulls ingredients and inspiration from the neighborhood’s markets and herbalists, all paired with Peking duck sliders and live music in a narrow, alluring space. The Tokyo Drift cocktail plays soft and lush with Suntory Toki Japanese whisky’s apples and green tea notes highlighted by a nutty amber vermouth, bright kumquat gomme syrup and a wisp of smoke and green cardamom from tobacco bitters.
Mixing your cocktail