What 33 bars, 28 cities,
six breweries, five recipes, two small fires, a wedding, and a funeral tell us about how we drink right now.
For years, tasting the bittersweet, herbal liqueur known as amaro required a pilgrimage to its birthplace in Italy, where it remains a fundamental part of the country’s culinary culture. Now, America has embraced the digestif, thanks to homegrown distilleries and the craft cocktail movement. And while I love amaro-centric bars like Barnacle in Seattle and Amor Y Amargo in New York City, Chicago has emerged as my favorite destination for a bitter bender. The last time I was in town, a bartender presented me with a welcome shot of Jeppson’s Malört an hour after I checked into my hotel. This golden-hued wormwood amaro is so bracingly bitter that it’s known as a rite-of-passage spirit within Chicago’s drinking culture. For a more refined take on the Malört experience, check out Bësk, produced by local distiller Letherbee. The distillery’s Fernet also plays well in cocktails or is perfectly delicious on its own.
I defy you to find a more perfect spot for a stretch of day drinking than the patio at Parson’s Chicken & Fish (1) in Logan Square, whose quick-get-me-another Negroni Slushy is the ideal companion to an order of hush puppies and hot chicken. Still thirsty? One of the country’s finest temples to all things amaro can be found at nearby Billy Sunday (2). Start with a house-made bottled soda, like the Fernet & Cola; then go deep down the rabbit hole and explore their extensive collection of rare bottles. Take a sip of Cynar from the 1940s or try a flight of Fernet across the decades. Next, stop by the Sportsman’s Club (3), located in an old Polish dive bar in Ukrainian Village, to give their amaro machine a spin. This repurposed chilled tap system (like the kind used to serve Jägermeister at college bars) features a daily blend of assorted amari served neat, on the rocks, or topped off with soda.
Finally, try scoring an invitation to The Office (4), a subdued drinking den where you can sample rare bottles of amaro kept in a locked liquor cabinet. And if you’re looking to bring back a local bottle in your checked baggage, visit CH Distillery (5) to try their award-winning CH Amaro and barrel-aged CH Fernet-Dogma. —Brad Thomas Parsons
Move over kids, your reign as milkshake magnates is over.
Oshi Burger, Memphis: Reach for the Kentucky Head Hunter, a bourbon, apple brandy, and vanilla ice cream combo topped with bacon dust. This Japanese-inspired joint also serves sake-based delights, one of which is topped with chocolate Pop Rocks.
Péché, Austin: It’s hailed for its pre-Prohibition cocktails, but don’t skip the libations blended with house-made vanilla ice cream. The Péché shake features cherry liqueur and a splash of absinthe.
Bluebird Microcreamery and Brewery, Seattle: Behold, beer floats with flavors that change seasonally. We’re partial to the habanero pumpkin porter with a scoop of snickerdoodle.
Anchor Brewing brewmaster Mark Carpenter breaks down how the San Francisco brewery charms customers by reinventing its Christmas Ale recipe every year:
“Some years we’ve made big changes, but often we’re just evolving the previous year’s recipe. We vary the spices, and we’ve always kept it a secret. It’s more fun to drink it and think, What am I tasting?
In the past we have made some bad—let’s say, not great—decisions. One year we used frankincense. I didn’t like that one.
Every year I get at least one email saying, ‘This is the worst Christmas Ale you’ve ever made,’ but I also get one that says, ‘This is the best you’ve ever made.’
One other thing: So many years people say, ‘I taste allspice in there.’ We have never used allspice!”
A guy walks into a bar. “What’s good here?” he asks. The bartender points to The Jing, and the guy pulls $27 from his wallet. The bartender mixes 17-year-old Suntory whisky with Byrrh quinquina, then dabs on a few drops of deer antler extract and tops it with freshly grated deer antler.
No joke. Try it for yourself at Parliament in Dallas.
New York City’s Everyman Espresso has reinvented your favorite cocktails and created new ones—without the booze. Recipes shift seasonally to complement the nuances of distinctive coffee beans. The Old Fashioned, for example, accentuates specific espresso notes by using various bitters and citrus garnishes like lemon, grapefruit, and orange. Feeling adventurous? Order the Second Wind, an espresso, simple syrup, and lime combo that’s shaken and then served in a coupe glass.
The tiki cocktail revival is going strong (for more on that, see the letter “T”), so it’s high time you stocked your home bar accordingly. Falernum, the sweet syrup indispensable in tiki drinks, only takes a few minutes to make. The Brooklynite in San Antonio let us peek at its house recipe:
Gin and Tonic
Dave Arnold, owner of New York City’s Booker and Dax and the James Beard Award–winning author of Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail, offers tips on optimizing a timeless classic. His secret? Chemistry.
Tonic water is denser than gin, so the order of operations is critical, Dave says. Ingredients must mix thoroughly without any bubble-liberating activities like stirring. Got it? Let’s begin.
- Store your gin in the freezer (Dave recommends Tanqueray; we like Dripping Springs) along with glassware, and chill a bottle of fresh tonic water in ice water. Quarter a lime.
- Use a jigger to add 1¾ ounces of gin to a frosty glass. Tilt the glass 45 degrees and slowly add 3¼ ounces of tonic. As you pour, gradually raise the glass to vertical.
- Add freezer-cold ice (not tempered), but don’t chunk it like a Neanderthal—gently slide it in using a barspoon.
- Ease a lime quarter into the glass, leaving the bubbles undisturbed.
- Final step: bottoms up.
A decade ago, this Portland, Oregon–based pizzeria decided to create soda pairings to complement their pies. They refurbished a 1960s bottling machine and got to work, using fresh produce like organic Hawaiian ginger, California lemons, and Oregon-grown marionberries. An army of devoted fans soon followed. Last summer, Hotlips joined with three Pacific Northwest breweries to produce limited-edition radlers, a trendy soda-beer hybrid. Expect more collaborations in the coming year.
Test this recipe from one of Houston’s best. Bobby Heugel, owner of The Pastry War, Anvil Bar & Refuge, Julep, and other H-Town joints, offers his spin on a winter bourbon and a warm toddy to savor it with. (Don’t have five days? Try Deep Eddy Cranberry Vodka for another spin on infused spirits.)
Jack and Coke
We asked the brilliant minds behind Dallas’ Bolsa to reboot this old-school standby and give it a fresh twist. Try it at home and tell us how it turned out by tweeting @SouthwestTheMag.
- Fill large silicone ice-cube trays ⅔ full with Coca-Cola; freeze. Add a frozen cube to an Old Fashioned glass.
- Pour 1½ or 2 ounces of your favorite whiskey (Jack Daniel’s or Bolsa’s pick, Woodford Reserve) over the cube.
- Add 1 ounce Coke to a cocktail shaker along with 1 teaspoon of methyl cellulose, used by chefs and bartenders to make foams (available online). Vigorously stir, and then add another splash of soda. Once the foam stabilizes, scoop it over the drink.
This Belgian-style brew is finally garnering some much-deserved attention in the U.S. Made by fermenting tart cherries with lambic varietals of beer, it’s worthy of a sojourn. Hop the ferry to Nantucket Island in Massachusetts for a taste of Cisco Brewers’ Monomoy Kriek. Or pull up a barstool at Cascade Brewing Barrel House in Portland, Oregon, for its offering, aged in oak wine barrels. Once you’re converted, make room in your suitcase for one of Cascade’s aged krieks—a 750-milliliter 2008 bottle goes for $60.
It wasn’t so long ago that Mexico City was merely an after-thought in high-end cocktail circles. The food, sure—world-class. The drinks? Not so much. The libations finally caught up to their culinary counterparts when Licoreria Limantour opened in 2011. In only four years it’s become a globally renowned destination, landing at No. 20 on the World’s 50 Best Bars list. The menu—inspired by the bar’s adage, “the new old days”—is divided into seasonals, classics, and limantour, their best-selling contemporary drinks.
Melrose Umbrella Co.
The umbrella, a little-known symbol for the post-Prohibition era (proclaiming the many wet days to come), figures prominently into the design of this handsome Los Angeles bar on Melrose Avenue. Alongside exposed Douglas fir beams, rich leather booths, and a 1920s wooden apothecary cabinet—nearly every piece of decor is rooted in history—13 actual umbrellas hang on the wall to symbolize the 13 dry years of Prohibition. Here, you won’t be tempted to wax nostalgic about those bygone days. Whereas most bars have just one Old Fashioned—how quaint!—Melrose Umbrella Co. features six. We’re partial to the White Old Fashioned, with mezcal, crème de cacao, and yellow Chartreuse. For purists there’s a version with bourbon as well.
Nye’s Polonaise Room
We had 19 minutes until Margaret walked down the aisle, which meant we had time for a beer. But if we craned our necks out the front door of Nye’s we could see the church steeple just up the hill, peering over Minneapolis—meaning we actually had time for two.
The bartender looked at us. “Wedding or funeral?” he asked.
Tim, Mike, and I, dressed in our best suits, responded in unison: “Wedding.”
The bartender grabbed three glasses off the decades-old back bar, its edges rounded and faded by thousands upon thousands of passes. He pulled us pints of Grain Belt, a beer that does the trick when you have to drink two in 19 minutes but not much more.
Sean and Sal joined us with 11 minutes to go—enough time for one pint. The five of us toasted to John and Margaret and scooted the 285 feet up the hill. During the homily, the priest told the guests about the groom’s valiant but unsuccessful fight against an encroaching apartment tower that would soon eclipse the church, Our Lady of Lourdes. That same tower will force the teardown of Nye’s early next year, after 65 years of pints and polka.
So, wedding or funeral? Turns out it was both. —B.P.
Housed in a repurposed pump station whose character is anything but dark and mechanic, this St. Louis wine bar offers one of the best lists of varietals in the Midwest, plus a drink that most other bars neglect: anise-flavored liqueurs. Before seeking a recommendation from the sommelier, ask for a sip of Lebanese arak. And if hunger strikes, fill up with an eggplant caponata or Turkish lahmacun from the Mediterranean-flecked menu.
“It doesn’t really do anything for the flavor,” Jordan Krema says. “But it’s cool and makes you feel like you’re around a campfire.” I’m sitting in Press & Pony in Boise, Idaho, which itself sits in the back of a french fry restaurant, and Jordan is about to blowtorch a pinecone. (Appropriately, a pine tree tattoo fills his entire left forearm.) The pinecone flickers and crackles on the bar, and after it smolders he slides it next to my drink, a mezcal, gin, and apricot concoction known as the Local Foraged. Jordan actually sold the pinecone short: The mezcal’s natural smokiness mingles with the smoldering scent, creating a one-two punch that enhances the flavor and shoots me back in time to gooey marshmallows and starry nights spent in a sleeping bag. —B.P.
Fun to say, even more fun to drink, this fortified wine has a spellbinding history. A literal tonic, it was created in the early 19th century as a way to make quinine—and its malaria-fighting properties—more palatable, and it’s now making a comeback thanks to its bitter yet mildly sweet flavor profile. Its most famous brand is probably Lillet Blanc, used in James Bond’s gin-and-vodka Vesper cocktail from the 1953 novel Casino Royale, but bartenders nowadays tend to reach for Tempus Fugit’s Kina L’Aéro d’Or. Not a vodka fan? Skip the Vesper and order the Enlightener, a gin, Kina, and chartreuse delight at Gather in Berkeley, California.
Red Key Tavern
The moment you step into Indianapolis’ Red Key Tavern, you are on the right path—an actual footpath worn into the light brown tile by the steps of countless patrons that have come and gone since 1933. It runs from the door, past the push-button jukebox stocked with 45s of Sinatra, Crosby, and the Andrews Sisters, and along the shag-lined bar where, for almost six decades, owner Russell Settle served vodka tonics or Pabsts in the same short highball glasses and enforced the rules of his house. No cursing. No standing at the bar. No putting your feet up or leaning back in your chair. Hats and coats were to be hung on the rack further up the path, near its terminus at the men’s room in the back. Violators were sent packing back down the trace to the front door. There were no appeals.
Russell’s own road ended in 2010, at the age of 92. But the trail he blazed is still plain. The World War II pilot’s dusty model bombers still hang from water-stained ceiling tiles; the hand-painted murals of pastoral scenes are still obscured by eons of burger grease and smoke. The old man still looks on from a framed photo hanging on the back wall, while his son, Jim, tends bar and tries to uphold order. Today, there’s a sense that the rules have eased—when the football game is on the new flatscreen above the cooler, you can linger by the bar and even get away with blurting out a well-placed expletive. But it’s best not to stray too far from the path. That way, at last call, when you’ve emptied your highball and paid your handwritten tab—cash only—it’ll be easy to find your way home. —Tony Rehagen
Trek not to Yamagata, Japan, but to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and you’ll discover Natali Nakaji Jackson crafting spirits the old-fashioned way. You’ll find her hand-washing, soaking, and steaming 600 pounds of rice over five days, and then fermenting it with water, yeast, and koji, a rice mold, for another two months.
Natali is the head brewer for Ben’s Tune Up in Asheville, North Carolina, a (deep breath) beer garden, restaurant, market, butchery, and sake brewery. It’s one of only a dozen or so sake microbreweries in the U.S. They churn out standard varieties like the milky, unfiltered nigori and the house brew, nama genshu, but also experiment with fruitier distillations such as pineapple jalapeño and lemon ginger.
“We’re doing a lot of experimenting and creating flavor combinations not seen in the past,” Natali says.
All that, and you don’t even have to head to Japan.
In 1926, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt left his small Texas town and took to the seas. He traveled across the Caribbean and the South Pacific and washed up on the California coast, where in 1933 he distilled the tastes and mystique of his travels into an alias, Don the Beachcomber, and a bar of the same name. Tiki was born.
Forty years later, it disappeared after a market invasion of sugary premixes, but today the tiki revival is in full swing thanks to funky new bars like Three Dots and a Dash, in Chicago, and Adrift, in Denver. At San Antonio’s The Brooklynite, owner Jeret Peña’s Tiki Tuesday nights embrace the philosophy of Don the Beachcomber. “With cocktail bars, there tends to be more pretense,” he says. “This is meant to be much more fun.”
Scrambling for a gift for the cocktail enthusiast in your life? Here are a few tips from Kayoko Akabori and Yoko Kumano, the owners of Oakland’s hip Umami Mart. Find the items online or swing in for a sake tasting.
Umami Mart Diamond Cut Seamless Mixing Glass $62
Features hand-cut etchings and a beaker-like spout.
Studio Arhoj Sip Cup $22
These hand-cast porcelain cups are jewel-like: unique in color, opacity, and drippiness.
24K Gold-Plated Cobbler Shaker $129
Essential for the shaking technique invented by legendary Tokyo bartender Kazuo Uyeda.
The craft cocktail movement has also been a boon for innovative “mocktails.” Here are some of our favorite spots to abstain and indulge all at once.
Central Provisions, Portland, Maine: All plays on regular cocktails, this small-plates restaurant’s “Temperance” drinks set the bar. The Pain (free) Killer features orange and pineapple juices, coconut cream, bitters, and nutmeg.
King + Duke, Atlanta: At this literary-themed restaurant, indulge in a Truer Than True, whose main ingredient, Bonny Doon Verjus de Cigare, is made from grenache blanc and mourvèdre grapes.
Zest Kitchen & Bar, Salt Lake City: Savor the strawberry lavender lemonade, made with muddled strawberries and agave and topped with lemon-lime soda.
If you’re familiar with Waterbury, Vermont, it’s probably because the small (read: 5,000 people) town is home to the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory. However, beer nerds know it as a mecca for many of the nation’s finest brews. Due to its limited distribution, The Alchemist Brewery’s Heady Topper double IPA is one of the country’s most sought-after bottles. (Lucky Peach magazine once claimed that the U.S. Postal Service is its largest distributor thanks to black-market sales.) Discover plenty of other award-winning rarities at local watering holes like Prohibition Pig and Blackback Pub.
OK, fine, we cheated. But you’ll forgive us for introducing your palate to this lightly carbonated dry white wine that hails from the Spanish Basque country. If you can wait ’til summer, txakoli is a perfect sipper on a scorching day. Try Piperade in San Francisco or Txokos in Orlando—both Basque restaurants—for a tipple or three.
Suspend your skepticism for a beat: If you’re willing to brave egg whites plopped into a Ramos gin fizz or a pisco sour, it’s well worth a swig. At Pouring Ribbons in New York City, bartenders whip up A Night in the Wigwam, mixing earl grey–smoked yogurt with pisco, orange cordial, gin, and lemon curd.
The search for Seattle’s Zig Zag Cafe is a treasure hunt of sorts. After your requisite stop at Pike Place Market, head down the stairs of the Pike Street Hillclimb toward Elliott Bay, the route used by generations of farmers to carry their produce to market. Traverse a skywalk, descend another set of stairs, and there on the right is a cubbyhole tucked into the hillside. The journey is half the fun, but you’ll probably want a drink too.
Zig Zag is to thank for reintroducing the world to the Last Word, an early-20th-century libation lost to the sands of the cocktail desert. In 2003 bartender Murray Stenson dug up the recipe in a 1951 cocktail book called Bottoms Up, and soon the glowing gin-chartreuse drink exploded. You can probably find it at your local pub, but there’s something poetic about enjoying the treasure at the source.