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New York City has long been a cocktail town, with classic hotel bars, dives, Irish pubs, and new-school drinks emporiums leading the scene at various times in the city’s history of imbibing. Classy, old school establishments like Bemelmans or King Cole Bar remain expensive but matchless spots to enjoy a Martini or Manhattan. PDT and Employees Only have led the charge towards innovative cocktail culture over the past decade. And though they are disappearing, dives like Jimmy’s Corner and Lucy’s stand strong as neighborhood bastions where one can enjoy the archetypal duo of a shot and a beer in a judgment-free zone.
But New York City is constantly in flux, and the bar scene changes accordingly. People are always looking for a comfortable spot to enjoy a drink, and the new wave of cocktail bars seems to be focused less on stuffy pretention and more on inventive drinks served in an unintimidating atmosphere (with some exceptions, of course). It’s difficult to settle upon a comprehensive overview of the best cocktail bars in New York City at any one time, let alone selecting a list of the very best. But the following list provides a snapshot of some of the most notable places to grab a drink in the Big Apple right now, including both newly opened bars and longstanding lounges.
The Polynesian, located in the Pod Times Square Hotel, both pays homage to and updates the tiki bar tradition with an expansive cocktail list served indoors and out (weather permitting). Meticulous attention is paid to the details of the drinks (and there are many details and many drinks), with a focus on high-quality rum, tequila, mezcal, and other spirits as the base ingredients. Large format punches are available for groups, but the solo concoctions are where the bartenders’ creativity really shines. Try out a tiki-fied version of the Last Word called Captain’s Last Breath, a classic Mai Tai, or Elvis is Dead, a drink made with bourbon, rum, peanut butter syrup, and banana.
Death & Co.
Death & Co. is a New York cocktail institution, having occupied a space in the East Village for over a decade. The bar recently opened a new outpost in Denver, but the NYC spot is where you want to go for atmosphere and an inspired collection of drinks. The menu changes from time to time, but the summer of 2019 found bartenders mixing up creations with ingredients most of us would never think of combining—Banquo’s Ghost (blended scotch, mezcal, coconut water), Space Cowboy (bourbon, aquavit, Greek yogurt), and the Lamplighter (single malt, carrot eau de vie, dry curacao.) The menu is divided into sections like “bright and confident” and “boozy and honest,” so dive in and pick a page based on how you are feeling on that particular evening.
The Blushing Bar
Valerie is another recently opened establishment that is helping to elevate the quality of food and drink in the Time Square-adjacent area more associated with subpar tourist traps. Just upstairs from the main restaurant area is The Blushing Bar, a quieter and more intimate setting in which to enjoy some elevated drinks. There is a page dedicated to “Gin and Tonic Your Way,” with more than two dozen gins to choose from, served with your choice of mixer so you can make your own drink just how you like it. There are also classic cocktails and signature creations to choose from, such as Kerouac’s Tales, a drink that combines mezcal with bonded apple brandy. And if you’d like some food to go with your cocktail(s), the ample menu should satisfy any appetite.
Caffe Dante opened in Greenwich Village in 1915, and over the years became a neighborhood institution. In 2015, the owners sold it to an Australian family who revamped nearly everything, while still paying tribute to the original. The food at Dante is delicious, but it’s the cocktails that are the star of the show. In a nod to the café’s Italian history, there is an entire page devoted to Negronis, with versions ranging from draught to chocolate to one sprayed with a mist of smoky scotch. As you dig further into the menu, tempting options catch your eye like a bottled Whiskey Buck (Jameson, Drambuie, ginger) or an All Day Bloody Mary with high-quality garnishes. Be sure to check out the Martini Hour page as well, offering eight different variations on this classic drink, all of which are executed perfectly.
If you are looking for a beautiful view of Central Park to go with your cocktail, head on up to The Aviary located high above Columbus Circle in the Mandarin Oriental, an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property. The drinks here are works of art, with as much attention paid to presentation as to ingredients. Newer additions to the frequently changing menu include Searching For the Emerald Sea, a cold infusion cocktail made with gin, nori, peach, and tea. This drink is meant to be enjoyed slowly, as the color changes from clear to soft pink over the course of half an hour. Another new addition is the Cos Mow Ing, a riff on a Cosmo layered with liquid nitrogen and served in a glass that allows you to blow bubbles to mix the layers together. This is cocktail performance art that does not sacrifice flavor for fanfare.
Dear Irving on Hudson
This offshoot of the original Dear Irving opened in Midtown’s Aliz Hotel less than a year ago. Dear Irving on Hudson has sweeping views of the city’s skyline, the perfect backdrop to enjoy classic drinks made with a singular focus like a Boulevardier or a Gibson. There’s also a section of the menu called Ode to the Empire State that is devoted to spirits made in New York, where you’ll find an Old Fashioned made with Hudson Baby Bourbon, the Vice Versa using Dorothy Parker gin, and the Panorama Daiquiri made with Owney’s Rum. If you’re feeling lucky, try out the 007 Mission, a James Bond-themed order that leaves the style and ingredients of your drink to your bartender’s fancy.
Staying true to its East Village location, Mister Paradise offers cocktails that are fun and unpretentious, and often named with a wink and a smile. Here, you can try the Party Lobster, a pink cocktail made with tequila, mezcal, and watermelon, or the slightly more serious and caffeine-infused Café Disco, which combines rye whiskey, coffee, and buckwheat. If you are looking for something simpler but still tasty, try one of the highballs made with scotch, gin, or Suze. And if you’re feeling like knocking one back, go for a shot that incorporates ingredients you’ve probably never combined before, such as the Schramm Slammer made with mezcal, bacon, and date.
Pouring Ribbons rates its cocktail on two scales that anyone looking for a stiff but inventive drink can understand: refreshing to spirituous, and comforting to adventurous. Looking for something both boozy and bold? This summer’s menu included the Little Shop of Horrors, made with two types of gin, Jägermeister, and rose water. If you prefer something with a little less bite to start your evening off, go for Let The Right One In, made with aquavit, rum, and lingonberry. The menu is about to change for the fall season, but expect equally playful names and recipes at this upstairs East Village bar all winter long.
The team behind Greenwich Village’s Existing Conditions made their name at well-regarded establishments like Booker and Dax and PDT. Their latest venture shows their pedigree, faithfully delivering the goods night after night. The menu is divided up by method (shaken, stirred rock, stirred up, etc.), with standouts like the spicy Edessa (rye, urfa biber-infused sherry, Benedictine) and the breakfast-flavored Waffle Turkey 101 (waffle-infused bourbon, maple syrup). There are also three bottled cocktails available from a vending machine—a Manhattan, Martini, and Cinema Highball made with butter and popcorn-infused rum and Coke. And be sure to order something from the carbonated section of the menu featuring drinks that go far beyond a classic spritz or gin and tonic.