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Cheers to America's best cocktail bars

In this golden age of cocktails, ordering a drink can be like navigating a minefield.
Image: Green Russell
Green Russell, which opened last year in Denver, embraces the speakeasy vibe (you walk through a small pizza stand to find this basement bar).
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Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Guy walks into a bar. Asks the bartender for a Manhattan with extra bitters. The bartender says, “You want orange bitters, lavender honey bitters, 19th-century Boker’s bitters, Mexican chocolate bitters or plain old Angostura bitters?”

Well, OK, maybe it’s not much of a joke. But it points up two things: we’re in a golden age of cocktails. And to order a drink is to navigate a minefield.

This is both good and bad, of course. The good: bartenders are making some amazing drinks these days. A whole new crop of handcrafted spirits are expanding the palette they paint with, and many craft bartenders are making their own syrups, infusions and bitters, all of which add an unexpected depth and complexity to familiar drinks. To order a Repeal cocktail made with vanilla cardamom bitters at Green Russell in Denver is to step through a door you didn’t know existed.

The bad: some cocktail lounges and their bartenders seem a bit too pleased with themselves. Big mustaches and sleeve garters and 12 ingredients in a drink do not an excellent bar make. And woe to those who unwittingly order a Cosmopolitan here. Can’t we all just get a drink?

Happily, there’s a growing middle ground — places where you sip an excellent cocktail and still get amiable, top-notch service as well. Like at Drink, in Boston, where the staff is trained to listen and then deliver exactly what you want, even if you weren’t sure what that was in the first place.

What makes a great craft cocktail bar? It starts with quality ingredients — good liquor, fresh-squeezed juices, and (often) house-made bitters and infusions. Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco goes through a lot of lemon, lime, and orange juice, all of it squeezed fresh daily. There’s also a depth of knowledge at a good bar — everyone knows how a balanced drink works and the history of such venerable potions as the Negroni and the mai tai.

But best of all, craft bartenders better understand that you’re out to enjoy yourself, not to take an exam on your tastes in drink.

The modern craft cocktail scene surfaced in New York and San Francisco about a decade ago — today, you could easily list a dozen outstanding cocktail bars in those two cities alone. But ripples are moving outward daily, and today most every large city has at least one great cocktail bar.