It takes a particular kind of thirst to travel around the country in search of the best cocktail bars, but Kevin Sintumuang from GQ has done just that for GQ's October issue. In doing so, he's amassed an impressive list of bars fabled within the cocktail nerd community, those of us who drool over hand-chiseled ice, fresh-squeezed juices, and homemade bitters. Violet Hour, Angel's Share, and Rickhouse are but a few collected in this thorough and distinguished list. For full disclosure, and because I'd like to brag just a little, my bar, the Columbia Room, made #18 in between a pair of great California saloons, Elixir (#17) and Cole's (#19).
I'm lucky to have visited the lion's share of the bars on the list and seven of the top 10. I hope to close the gap soon, but I'm afraid my work is cut out for me. I can say without a doubt that the trend of cocktail bars is not abating. This then begs the question: What is a cocktail bar versus a bar in which you drink cocktails? Must a cocktail bar have precious ice, or serve 10 variations on a Manhattan? Most of the bars on the list are new or new-ish, with a young, hip style (most, not all).
I'm a nostalgic kind of person and love to hear the stories of cocktail bars, such as the bar Nelsen's Bitters Club in Wisconsin, which sells the most bitters of any bar in the world.
These bars, of course, are exactly what GQ should be writing about, but I've often said—even if I'm part of it—that I want what comes after the cocktail revolution. I look forward to walking into some random bar and being blown away by the ingenuity of the bartender, the care and precision of the craft—and all of this without a hot shot consultant or reservation system. Not that I'm opposed in theory to either consulting or reservations, as I do both. I just happen to appreciate the range of drinking experience and want more than a concentration of similar bars. Besides, what if you can't get a reservation?
My wife, Chantal Tseng, tends bar at the Tabard Inn, D.C.'s oldest continuously operated inn, which I think serves as the model of this sort of bar. They have been serving hot buttered rum and Pimm's Cups and having Mezcal dinners since long before the cause was joined by the mixology elite. Another bar that I adore is Tujagues in New Orleans, where Paul Gustings makes an incredible drink and history oozes from the walls, or Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles (#11 on the GQ list), one of the last bastions of true Tiki culture. And then there's the original P.J. Clarke's in New York, a bartender's bar. All of these are bars where cocktails are important, but keeping up with the cocktail scene is not necessarily a priority.
I'm a nostalgic kind of person and love to hear the stories of cocktail bars, lower case "c," such as the bar Nelsen's Bitters Club in Wisconsin, which sells the most bitters of any bar in the world, or the Mayflower in Washington, D.C., where Sam Lek has a list of over 100 martinis. (Yes, the purist in me sighs at 101 "Martinis," but as bartenders we do owe a debt of gratitude to these forerunners.)
So I ask, what cocktails bars that aren't cocktail bars per se are at the top of your list? Anything in Topeka, Kansas, or Vail, Colorado? Please feel free to write them in the comments. As a thirsty enthusiast, I'd love to know.