Activated charcoal, matcha, pickle brine—this month, bartenders are reaching deep into their toolboxes to make drinks that are interesting, delicious and unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. Whether in Asheville, N,C., or Saratoga Springs, N.Y., these are the 11 cocktails worth drinking at bars now.
Can't get out to any of the bars serving these great September drinks? Try making the Glendalough Sling from this list at home.
Chef Mourad Lahlou’s Michelin-starred Mourad continues to be a draw for its refined Californian-Moroccan cuisine. New bar manager Joshua-Peter (J.P.) Smith highlights spirits not often featured in cocktails. Drambuie gets the nod in the Risk, Rebellion, Passion & Mystery. (The name refers to the motto of Scotland’s Bonnie Prince Charlie, a.k.a. The Young Pretender, for whom Drambuie—a secret recipe of scotch, honey, herbs and spices—was made in the 1700s.) Its minty, bold profile is brightened with lime juice and egg white, whose frothy layer doubles as a canvas for a four-diamond design made with mint oil, black walnut whiskey bitters and Old Fashioned bitters.
Great Asian food isn’t easy to come by in Louisville, Ky. Thankfully, chef Alvin Lin turns out heartwarming Chinese and Asian fusion dishes in a laid-back space with a sunny front patio. Bar manager Nick Netherton’s thoughtful cocktails pair nicely with soup dumplings and duck noodle soup. The Temptress is a not-too-sweet after-dinner cocktail combining local Copper & Kings’ brandy with prosecco, darkened with activated charcoal and crème de cassis and accented with Bittermens Boston Bittahs and an anise whisper from sambuca.
Soon to expand into a larger space, Kachka is Portland’s hipster take on Russian and Eastern European cuisine. When you’re filling up on classic vareniki (dumplings) and golubtsi (pork-filled cabbage rolls), house-infused vodka shots make complete sense. But cocktails also partner well with the food. The Castle in a Cloud is a tall refresher of kvass (a fermented rye or black bread beverage), Becherovka liqueur, krambambulya liqueur (a traditional blend of red wine and other spirits), lemon, demerara sugar, Angostura bitters and egg white. Don’t worry if you can’t pronounce all these words. The lively, spiced drink goes down cool and easy.
On a sunny corner in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, Quiote offers modern Mexican food that’s heartwarmingly good, thanks to owner/chef Dan Salls’ dishes, like its popular avocado salad laced with apples, Brussels sprouts and toasted quinoa. Upstairs in the restaurant, diners down celery mezcal shrubs on draft, while in the hidden bar downstairs, you’ll find the silky play of the Guelaguetza cocktail. Its balanced (and unexpected) combination of mezcal and calvados is brightened with lime and a rosy touch of hibiscus and pink peppercorn, all silky with egg white.
From the PlumpJack Group team of Jacques Bezuidenhout and Ken Luciano (behind the excellent Forgery and Wildhawk bars), former clubby MatrixFillmore recently underwent a complete revamp as The Matrix. The new bar calls on the rich musical history of the space, which originally opened in 1965 by Jefferson Airplane's Marty Balin and hosted such acts as Bob Marley, The Velvet Underground and The Doors. The space is lined with vintage concert posters while bar manager Christian Clark’s drinks play off musical and poetic references. The prettiest cocktail might just be the Purple Sage Rider, a cucumber- and ginger-forward play off a Pimm’s Cup featuring St. George Terroir gin with a house blend that includes Lillet apéritif wine, Carpano Antica Formula vermouth and fernet balanced by lemon, sage, mint and soda and given a rosy hue from cassis (blackcurrant liqueur).
In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the town of Newberg is home to Ruddick/Wood, a hip, small town tavern pursuing the typical local, seasonal, new-American fare long common in city restaurants. While diners fill up on house pastrami or duck oat hush puppies, co-owner Kyle Latimer turns out drinks like That One Afternoon Drink, with its smooth blend of Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino, Cappelletti Americano rosso aperitivo and local Interrobang Sweet Vermouth No. 47, highlighted by lime and lemon juices and strawberry elderflower jam. The gentian backbone and organic botanicals of the Interrobang vermouth bring structure, while the garden-fresh drink goes down smooth and easy.
Gorō Ramen is Oklahoma City’s best ramen shop and izakaya, serving top-notch small plates and heaping ramen bowls inspired by owners Jeff Chanchaleune and Rachel Cope’s travels to Japan. Cope’s cocktails play well with the food, as is the case with the Pai Mei (bonus: gotta love those OKC prices of $8 for a cocktail). This mix of gin, saké, lemon, honey syrup and lavender bitters gets its vivid green from neighboring Urban Teahouse’s matcha tea, adding a vegetal verdancy to the crushable rocks drink.
In an understated but refined tavern space in the town of Saratoga Springs, Salt & Char’s kitchen is run by chef Braden Reardon with a modern steakhouse and local ingredients focus. Former bar manager Courtney Hill (now the director of spirits and mixology for Adelphi Hospitality Group, which runs Salt & Char) also focuses on local ingredients in house drinks. Her Ruffian Cocktail subtly balances smoky mezcal with a bright, acidic strawberry rhubarb shrub showcasing the best of this waning summer’s fruit. The drink is rounded out by lime juice, Cappelletti aperitivo and a dash of Bittermens Burlesque bitters.
Since late last year, August 1 Five has been turning out killer modern Indian dishes and Indian-influenced cocktails like the Royal Bombay Yacht Club. With a recently launched brunch, chef Manish Tyagi plays with chicken and waffles and savory-sweet bison keema pastry puffs amid the space’s sleek greys and teal blues. Managing partner Brian Howard has done it again with its new cocktails, including a dreamy Champagne Love Potion, shimmery with gold dust and silky with a lemon oil cordial, Green Chartreuse and manzanilla sherry. The Queen of the Night is its dark, deceptive counterpart. Black with activated charcoal, the drink is actually daytime friendly, made with citrusy Grand Marnier liqueur, Meyer lemon and orange zest, lush coconut milk and egg white, dusted with bee pollen and gold flakes.
Hidden behind Journeyman restaurant in the town of Somerville, backbar’s alley location keeps it intimate, serving quality drinks without pretension alongside bar food like parsnip poutine or churros. Owner Sam Treadway, a pioneering barman in the broader Boston area, plays with Irish whiskey producer Glendalough Distillery’s Wild Botanical gin in this riff on a Singapore Sling, appropriately dubbed the Glendalough Sling. The gin’s citrus-forward but herbaceous spirit shines with fresh pineapple and lime juice, given a vegetal kick from a dash of dandelion and burdock bitters, as well as an aromatic cucumber slice and basil leaf garnish.
Asheville’s charming Nightbell serves up small plates with cocktails in an inviting space hidden behind what looks like an antique shop storefront. In the Pantry with the Bottle is a cocktail tributing a classic Gibson with its savory Martini spirit. Rather than the traditional onion, bar manager Phoebe Esmon plays with seasonal ingredients, pairing gin and vermouth blanc with a house-made bread-and-butter pickle brine and pickle garnish.
Mixing your cocktail