By: Kevin Alexander and Liz Childers
Credit: Counter Intuitive/Grace Stufkosky (edited)
In 2015, the bar scene has gone through a progression. There is, and probably always will be, a time and a place for the fancy cocktail bar — with the meticulously chipped and shaved ice, and the page-long backstory, and the bartender dressed like he just came out of a particularly emotional episode of Boardwalk Empire. But what we’ve seen across the country, is that bartenders are realizing that they can make fantastic craft cocktails and have curated smart draft lists, and good, snack-worthy bar food, without all of the hoopla and show. Which means more cocktails using only three or four ingredients (just really well made). And more beer menus that pare things down to a curated list rather than an exhaustive book.
Of course not all of the places Liz and I have selected from across the country to be in our best new bars of 2015 fit these parameters. We’ve got bars that double as delis during the day, and bars with book-style menus of spirits, and bars that function more like restaurants than anything. But all of them continue to push the cocktail conversation forward, and – at this point – that’s all we can ask for. As long as there’s gin.
Nashville finally has the speakeasy-style bar it deserves, to accompany the strongholds of Holland House and Patterson House in the city’s cocktail canon. The entrance is through Savarino’s Cucina, tucked way on the second floor above the restaurant. While you can absolutely get a cocktail that rivals either of those mixed-drink havens or just indulge in the half-priced wine happy hours (and you should definitely do that), the move here is (obviously) amari. There are over 20 varieties of the Italian liqueur available, and since it’s the most in the region, you should probably grab a couch, order a flight, and settle in for a night of tasting. – LC
Credit: Catherine Owens
Ames Street Deli
“Why are you putting a sandwich shop on this list?” Liz asked me, rudely. And yes, fine, during the day it is a coffee shop and an actual deli, though the meats in the sandwiches (oh hey, blackened striped bass) skew fancier than your average corner sandwich shop. But who cares about all of that? Because once the clock strikes 5pm, Ames Street (which is by the Journeyman/backbar guys, by the by) turns into the most fantastically chill cocktail spot in Kendall.
The cocktail menu isn’t so much a menu as it is a matrix, with spirits along the X axis, and feelings (A Wee Bit Sweet; Bitter and Bracing; Weird and Wonderful; etc.) along the Y. Being a gin person, I’m quite taken by the Honey, I Choked the Kids (gin, Cynar, passion fruit, salt, honey) but also kind of obsessed with the mezcal Swamp Dragon featuring guest speakers like basil cordial, sherry, and lime. Point being, if my new favorite cocktail spot in Cambridge happens to also be willing to serve me breakfast and let me hang out all day with my laptop, more power to them, Liz. – KA
Credit: Phillip Pesar
Ball & Chain
My first night in Miami ever ended at Ball & Chain, and, to me, it was the ideal version of any night in the city. The Calle Ocho bar may be newish (it’s sneaking onto our 2015 list with a late-2014 opening), but it is housed in an old live blues spot where everyone from Duke Ellington to Louis Armstrong took the stage.
While its time as a club was halted by a few decades as decidedly less-sexy venues, like a furniture store, Satchmo would not be displeased with the venue’s new appearance: old-school jazz posters cover the walls, a giant bandstand outfits the back room, and, when I was there, a go-go dancer spent quite a bit of time on the bar. Plus, no one objected to the odd amount of time I spent on stage with the band, and the cocktails flowing from Julio Cabrera and Danny Valdez (get the classic infused aged rum, lime juice, and simple syrup Pastelito daiquiri, which the spot does so well) are some of the best tropical ‘tails in the country right now. – LC
Credit: Lane Harlan
One of our favorite bars in Baltimore is named W.C. Harlan, and run by Lane Harlan. A while back, she gave an interview where she’d mentioned she was thinking about opening a mezcaleria as her follow-up, so I wrote a note to myself that says “Harlan - Baltimore - Mezcal - 2015?!?!” That is actually what the note says.
And now it is a real place, and it is fantastic. You have almost no choice but to get the Mezcalita with the tres chiles shrub, and follow it up with the “bitter margarita,” the Santa Sangre, which actually has Campari in it. And then order all of the tacos and the queso fundido, so that bitter drink has some fat to cut through. And please, Lane, tell me what you’re doing next. I’ll make another note. – KA
Credit: Kelly Puleio
San Francisco, CA
Once there was a bar in SF and it was called Big, and it was small. Despite its confusing size and the fact that it wasn’t open very long, it became almost cultishly appreciated due to the geniuses behind the bar: Brian Felley and Mo Hodges.
And now they have their own spot within Hotel G, which has stupidly rejected my proposal that their entire staff wear “Nuthin But a G Thang” T-shirts. But enough about a hotel clearly missing out on fantastic cross-promotion – BC is cocktail bar for true cocktail geeks, people impressed by dehydrated or compressed things, obscure bitters, and the like. But even if you don’t care about shrubs or crazy riffs on Zima, you will have no choice but to come back once you realize you’ve never quite had a cocktail like the one you’re being served by Felley and Hodges. – KA
Credit: Kari Young
Bit House Saloon
Portland’s Eastside Industrial district, in the past few years, has blossomed into one of the best drinking neighborhoods in one of America’s best drinking cities, with great cocktail and beer bars popping up seemingly weekly and integrating with the old-school haunts that have long been staples. Bit House Saloon, though, is its current shining star, and it only took a few short months to establish itself as one of the city’s best bars.
Housed in a cavernous historic building, the place feels like walking into a pre-Prohibition saloon, with leather seats, benches that look like church pews, a backyard fire pit, exposed brick, and an enormous wall of whiskey providing the ambience. Bartenders here are on point, able to mix up classics and twists on them, including a Moscow mule served up like a julep, making it the best boozy snow-cone around. In a city that blurs the line between bar and restaurant, the joint also delivers on the latter front, with a solid burger and popcorn-crusted Rocky Mountain oysters being the highlights (those are more appealing after a few drinks). It’s a bartender’s bar through and through. But what really sets Bit House apart is the fact that it manages to be so without marginalizing the non-barkeep crowd. – Andy Kryza, senior editor
Credit: Grace Stufkosky
I need to be honest with you up front. I have no idea what they’re doing with the bar right now. When I was there, I was told that the bar would change concepts a few times a year, but at the time I was there, it was a New Orleans juke joint. I’ll admit something else: in past visits to Phoenix/Scottsdale, I’d found the cocktail scene lacking and did not expect to be impressed. In fact, I was very ready to be extremely judgmental when I heard that it fit the speakeasy mold, aka the hot idea of 2010.
But then something happened. The place felt alive, was cooly decorated, and had extremely knowledgable bartenders who nailed their Sazeracs and Vieux Carres. As I’ve said before – I don’t care what a bar is doing, as long as it commits. And Counter Intuitive damn well has. Here’s hoping their next iteration is a Bermudian rum joint. – KA
Credit: Lindsay McClave/Thrillist
NuLu is a pretty funny name for a neighborhood/thing to say aloud. Though that likely did not play a part when two partners in the vaunted Louisville cocktail joint Rye opened Galaxie a few blocks away.
The spot serves as a casual-drink sibling to Rye, the place you go multiple times in a week. A place where you’re just as at home getting a beer and a shot as a cocktail. But here’s the other grander, important-er thing: it’s really damn good. The cocktail list is small, as there are just five, but those few are perfect in their just-fancy-enough combinations. Repeatedly order the Repeater (mezcal, Ancho Reyes, grapefruit, lime) and you’ll realize that Garage Bar now has casual cocktail competition in NuLu. Newwwww-Louuuuuuu. Man, that does not get old. – KA
Credit: Andrew Zimmer/Thrillist
Good Night Sonny
New York, NY
Plenty of new bars that people get hyped about, and put on lists like this, are BIG, EXCITING, UNIQUE, POSSIBLY SUBTERRANEAN places that don’t even really deserve caps for the last three of those words. But sometimes, a drinker needs fewer passwords and handcrafted ladders to reach the 4.5ft top shelf, and just needs a bar-bar. And maybe that’s a bar with a fried fish sandwich you wouldn’t ever expect to be quite so perfect. Or a bar with legitimately unique $12 cocktails as good as any in a city that’s horrifyingly OK with the $17 versions. Or a bar that commandeered a long-misused corner location on the crucial East Village boozer’s thoroughfare of St. Mark’s, and made it right again. But in the end, just a bar. That’s this place. Say hi to Pete. Seriously, say hi, he loves that!! – Ben Robinson, editorial director
Credit: Anthony Tahlier
There are a few things that feel at odds when you first encounter GreenRiver. There’s the fact that you make your way to this 18th-floor, forward-thinking cocktail destination via a… hospital building? There’s the name that echoes a Chicago tradition associated more closely with swilling unnaturally green domestic light beer than meticulous mixology. But once you get ahold of the menu (from the same folks who brought you NYC’s celebrated Dead Rabbit) and realize that your perch in said hospital building affords you a prime view of Downtown Chicago, things start to click. You could spend quite a while thumbing through the lengthy drink menu, deep with nods to local history and ingredients that don’t necessarily sound like your typical cocktail go-tos: black trumpet mushrooms? Beets? Mascarpone cheese? You could also spend a while waiting to find out if the chance you took on a cheese-infused cocktail was worth it. The good news is, the answer is generally a resounding "yes.” – Matt Lynch, deputy editor
Credit: Kirsten Gilliam Photography
Johnny’s Gold Brick
If you know the cocktail game in Houston, you know Leslie Ross, the bar director for Treadsack. She is basically a bar doctor/surgeon, as in she comes in, diagnoses the issue, cracks the place open, and, by the time she’s finished, that place is on its feet and feels good, and no longer has chronic cocktail problems.
So when we found out she was creating the list for Chris Cusack, Brad Moore, and Ryan Rouse’s JGB, we felt very good as well. Her list of classic cocktails is painted on the wall, and they are cheap, as far as cocktails go ($8). But each has that certain Ross pedigree, as per her version of a boilermaker, which involves Lone Star and Mellow Corn whiskey, but then takes a turn with Luxardo and poached orange peels. So go ahead and get one, or the classic frozen margarita paying homage to El Machete, throw on “Hello Trouble” from Buck Owens, and politely ask if the doctor is in. – KA
Credit: Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29
New Orleans, LA
This will be the third year in a row that a New Orleans bar has hit our “best new bars” list and, while that’s perfectly normal for such a fantastically boozy city, what’s odd is that it’s been a Tiki bar every single year. As a city that so stubbornly never let go of classic cocktails (a fantastic quality), well, maybe it makes sense that it’d be so ready to embrace the Tiki resurgence since there was no hurtle to reclaiming the craft cocktail.
What is, in fact, interesting is that Beachbum Berry, the man credited with instigating this new wave of cocktails, never opened his own bar until planting roots in New Orleans at the end of 2014. The resulting French Quarter spot marries solid spins on Thai food (get the dumplings and the miso cream cheese and wonton-wrapped shrimp) with Tiki drinks good enough to convert even the most stoically landlubbing New Yorker. Start relaxing with the Suffering Bastard’s gin, brandy, ginger beer, and bitters, move on to the Missionary’s Downfall, which is loaded with rum, peach brandy, mint, and pineapple, and just try to tell me you hate the islands after that. – LC
Credit: Bobby K. Russell
Proving that everyone should probably immediately go to their mom’s closet and salvage all late-‘70s clothing to hoard until the right moment, Little Trouble manages to nail the very odd, very thin line between ‘80s and futuristic to be, somehow, impossibly cool. That achievement becomes less surprising once you know that the ATL bar comes form the team behind now-defunct Paper Planes, formerly one of our favorite bars, and Victory Sandwich Bar, and the drinks, like the incredibly well-balanced Found Art with rye, mezcal, mole bitter, and yuca, are just as impressive as at Paper Planes. This time, though, you get a more electrifying setting, whose bold neon lights and structured seating bring Atlanta’s drinking scene forward just a bit – without losing the bit of comfort and accessibility we love from cocktail bars in the town. – LC
Credit: Lianne Rozzelle
Most people come to Dusty Grable and Jesse Cruz’s Honolulu spot for the food, and the food (upscale-comfort moves like mushroom bread pudding and pork shank) shan’t be undersold. It is extremely good. But this is not a story of food, friends, and the cocktails at Livestock are the real show. As with the menu, they change by the season, and the current winter offerings are creative, delicious, and just so happen to be named after CHARACTERS OR LINES FROM THE MOVIE HOME ALONE.
We’re partial to the “Say Goodnight, Kevin” with Ko Hana rum agricole, pear, pomegranate, and ginger beer, but the “Keep the Change” involves gin, hazelnut, and peppermint, and we’re not arguing with that either. – KA
Credit: Herminio Torres/Seamstress
New York, NY
How often can you go into a bar and purchase a great cocktail and a quality leather bag? This year, the people behind The Gilroy teamed up with former Dead Rabbit bartender Pamela Wiznitzer and Ducks Eatery chef Will Horowitz to open Seamstress, which embraces the clothing-making theme without being tacky, and manages to bring Serena van der Woodsen-level sexiness back to the Upper East Side. Speakeasy-ish without actually being a speakeasy, this cocktail den is decked out with red banquettes, sewing machines, and a fully functional on-site leather goods shop (go ahead and get yourself a bag!). The menu features an impressive list of 50 classic American cocktails, plus a number of excellent originals, like the Wiz Fizz with gin, Cynar, egg white, and root beer. It also has one of the best new burgers in NYC, made with smoked mutton, which you’ve probably never had but need to immediately. – Lucy Meilus, New York editor
Credit: Stay Gold
The Outsiders is a book by S.E. Hinton from 1967 that turned into a movie by Francis Ford Coppola from 1983 that featured every famous person from the 1980s, plus Emilio Estevez. In said book, Johnny tells Ponyboy to “stay gold” as he’s dying, meaning to try and keep his youthful innocence as long as possible, because he is different from most of the stupid hoodlums who inhabit their world.
And now that you’ve read my book report, let’s talk about the bar. Stay Gold is from Nathan Hill and Will Tanner, who are known Austin bar-scene people who both got a start at the legendary Hole in the Wall. And their experience in the scene shines through. Stay Gold basically has something for every person attempting to keep Austin moderately weird: it has divey elements, cocktail-bar elements, an awesome jukebox, well-curated live tunes, an extremely fantastic patio, a solid beer list, delicious food from Toaster (um, FRITO PIE BURRITOS!), and a seasonal cocktail list that skews just fancy enough that you know the place knows what it’s doing, but not so fancy that you won’t get a drink for 10 minutes. Plus, by the time you have a few of the Beauty School Dropouts (mezcal, Campari, grapefruit bitters, and lime), you, friend, won’t be staying close to gold. – KA
Credit: Wakefield Bar
Wakefield’s team of owners (there are six) makes this seem like some sort of Captain Planet-style situation, as each brings a unique power and when those powers combine… A BAR OPENS.
But in reality, this mix just happens to have created a fantastic Belltown drinking hole. Alexis Taladay (formerly of The Shelter) wrote the list of simple craft cocktails (we’re somewhat obsessed with the Afternoon Picnic featuring Buffalo Trace, fig and fennel syrup, and cava) and it’s got both Odin Asgard IPA and Manny’s on tap, so your night is sorted no matter which way you go. Oh, also: get the chicken tikka wings if they’re available. You’ll feel like you’re eating at the best Indian sports bar in the world, even if that isn’t really a thing. – KA
The Wallingford Dram
I’ve been going to Kittery, Maine since I was a wee child, but this was less a function of food/drink and more to watch my mother purchase outfits at a heavily discounted price from the Dressbarn. It is an outlet town, and most people from New England have gone to Kittery at least once, usually with a grandparent in tow, to purchase things from the Ann Taylor Factory Store or Sperry or Reebok.
But Michael Pazdon (who spent time mixing drinks in NorCal), Misty Kinser, and the owners of Anju Noodle Bar don’t care about these old tales of cheap clothing. They care about cocktails, and their spot on the Seacoast is the showpiece in a slew of spots that’ve turned Kittery from a clothing-hoarding hotspot into something, dare we say, hip?
Aside from the impressive, and many times original, cocktails it’s offering, it also has a list of highballs, boilermakers, and backs (my grandfather would advocate the Maine Tender with Moxie and fernet), as well as a choose-your-own-adventure mule cocktail and one of the finest Mai Tais you can find on the East Coast. – KA
Credit: Katie Boink Photography
Los Angeles, CA
Omakase cocktail bars aren’t exactly new. Milk & Honey, Sasha Petraske’s NYC bar that many credit with launching the current cocktail movement, operated under the “bartender’s choice” methodology, and so many of America’s best bars opened in the years since have followed suit. But, just when that could seem like a routine move in the industry, Walker Inn has managed to make it feel fresh (and better).
It’s a speakeasy (of course), entered through a door in the back of Koreatown’s The Normandie Club. Reservations at the bar will run you $45 for two drinks over two hours. What will you be drinking? Well, the menu changes every four to six weeks and plays with a different theme that ties the whole thing together. Right now, the timely Holiday Scoundrels is on order with drinks like the Jack Frost, a tequila, pear, and lime ‘tail. The true insistence on omakase means you won’t be making choices off this menu – they’ll be made for you. And that’s the real achievement here: that even the biggest of control freaks or booze-wary drinkers will feel comfortable giving up the reins is a sign of how strong a program the Walker Inn has developed. – LC
Credit: The Whisky Parlor
The Whisky Parlor
“No ceiling” is something that optimistic sales teams often say during boom-year meetings when discussing potential revenues, but in the case of this new Detroit bar, it also is literally how you’d describe the area above the bar running down the middle of this unique and delightful space.
If you couldn’t tell by the name, it is first and foremost a whiskey bar, and the list of nearly 100 bottles should sate anyone who just wants to drink brown stuff. But the non-whiskey cocktails are something to behold as well, especially the Boom Boom Washington, which combines my personal favorite spirit-maker St. George’s green chile with Gran Gala, pineapple, simple syrup, and lime. It tastes like the best variation of a spicy margarita you’ve ever had. No ceiling, indeed. – KA
Credit: Wicked Bloom
Wicked Bloom DC
Sometimes a bar arrives and answers an extremely specific need. In the case of Wicked Bloom, it was the need to have a convenient place to sit down and enjoy some fine beverages alongside the beloved BBQ from DCity Smokehouse – which is maybe why the folks behind said BBQ thought it might make sense to open a more sitting-conducive drinkery while waiting for their larger location to open in 2016. Of course, they didn’t just take the food for granted – that’s where the mac & cheese waffle topped with smoked meats, cheese sauce, and sour cream called the Smokehouse Bomb came in. Of course, it takes some seriously impressive beverages to stand up to such a creation, which is why they tapped a guy from local oyster ‘n cocktail go-to Eat the Rich to preside over a constantly turned-over cocktail selection that hits the perfect sweet (but not TOO sweet) spot between classic and contemporary. – Matt Lynch, deputy editor
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